Wednesday, April 30, 2008

IFFB 2008: The Linguists

I love documentaries like The Linguists, and really think that the IFFB should program more of them. One of my first experiences with this festival was a crushing disappointment - I thought that The Future of Food was going to be an exciting look at cool science only to get a screed about how Monsanto has abused the hell out of U.S. patent law. I don't regret learning that, although the presentation rubbed me the wrong way - not just within the movie, but how during the introduction the host said the Cambridge liberals should love it. What, I thought, of the Cambridge biotech professionals? Where's the love for them?

(Yeah, I'm likely never letting that experience go. Sorry, IFFB folks.)

I was lucky to get to two this of these science-oriented documentaries this year, and I tend to think the local festivals could do well programming more of them. There are a ton of biotech and other professionals and academics in science fields in the area who might go for them, along with a goodly number of nerds like me who eat this stuff up. It's probably a tough field to mine, of course - the line between a documentary that gives an interesting overview of a field without using some sort of political issue as a jumping-off point and something that cineastes might dismiss as a mere "educational/technical film" is probably blurry.

Not that there's anything wrong with education films - I suspect a good one is just not considered as worthy an accomplishment as an issue-oriented or personality-centered documentary, much as a good romantic comedy or melodrama isn't as respected as a character-driven drama.

The Linguists

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The situation laid out at the start of The Linguists sounds familiar from tales of the Amazon rain forest being despoiled; the difference is that instead of unknown animal species being lost, it is ways to communicate. There are approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world, but that number is shrinking steadily; it's estimated one is lost roughly every two weeks. This sort of attrition may be less of a direct threat to human survival than the loss of biodiversity, but it still diminishes us.

Among those trying to preserve humanity's linguistic diversity are David Harrison and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute. They travel the world recording and documenting dying languages, sharing their findings with the local speakers and archiving it for posterity. During the film, we see them seek out Chulym speakers in Siberia, Sora speakers in India, Kallawaya speakers in Bolivia, and others. We see how they do their jobs and learn both why linguistic diversity is a good thing and what the threats to it are.

It's fascinating material, and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting it. The locales where these dying languages can be found tend to be remote, so it's often an adventure getting there and then not necessarily safe once they do arrive. The film's three directors manage to show just enough of the interview process to give us the excitement of newly-acquired knowledge without making it tedious for the large chunk of the audience that is not passionate about comparative linguistics. There's humor tinged with tragedy in how David and Greg handle the fact that most of the speakers of endangered languages are elderly and often nearly deaf, and certain situations are just perfect story set-ups: Kallawaya is a somewhat secret language mostly used by local shamans that many linguists claimed didn't exist as a fully functional language; their driver in Siberia reveals himself to be fluent in Chulym after a frustrating day of dealing with deaf old ladies.

David and Greg are also enjoyable screen presences; though they did not generally work as a team before the movie, they have a quick rapport and bounce ideas off each other well. They are quick to acknowledge the other's strengths, razzing each other and the interns as the opportunity arises. What's more, they always come across as genuinely excited about their work without ever giving off the vibe of being stuffy or out-of-touch academics - heck, when one comments that he can't understand how a linguist could devote his career to the study of French syntax when there are languages going extinct, we get the impression that they don't have much tolerance for the type, either.

The Linguists is short; its seventy minutes will ultimately wind up a good fit for an hour-and-a-half slot on some cable channel. The folks who stumble upon it there are in for a treat; it does an unusually good job of making a seemingly minor and theoretical discipline more urgent and exciting than you'd expect.

Also on EFC.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

IFFB 2008: Vexille

It's bad enough that Vexille isn't really a good movie - the worst part isn't just that if I'd given it a miss, I wouldn't have found myself walking back home at 1am (I could have sworn the T ran a little later. Still, it's not so bad if you break it down to "Davis Square isn't far from Porter Square, Porter Square isn't far from Harvard Square, Harvard Square isn't far from home"). Throughout the movie, I couldn't help but rearrange the night that had led up to it and what I could have been seeing for a better festival experience. I think my plan was to shove Jetsam to Sunday night - this would have bumped The Tracy Fragments, but Chlotrudis Society membership does not actually require one to care about Canadian independent films starring Ellen Page, and I didn't get to see that anyway - and then either go for Phoebe in Wonderland or Intimidad before Big Man Japan in Somerville (dropping Sex Positive), or sticking around the Brattle after Sex Positive for Dreams with Sharp Teeth and Flashpoint.

Ah well. Time to get to the closing night film.


* * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2008 Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

Vexille has taught me not to complain about Hollywood productions that spend "too much" on visual effects or expensive animation. As much as Vexille might have still been a mediocre action movie if an American-sized budget had been thrown at it, that's better than the uneven-looking feature it winds up being.

The title character is part of SWORD, an elite unit in the American military that makes use of mechanical exoskeletons and robot troops to hunt down violators of international law. That mainly means Japan, which withdrew from world affairs ten years ago after the United Nations outlawed android research, going so far as to build a perimiter around the nation that not only prevents ships and aircraft from getting near, but scrambles aerial and satellite surveillance. Upon discovering that Japan's Daiwa Industries has produced an android that can pass as human (and may be using them to infiltrate the U.S.), Vexille and her unit are dispatched to infiltrate Tokyo. Things are worse there than they could possibly have imagined, and she must join forces with Maria, a resistance fighter, to take down Daiwa once and for all.

Vexille bills itself as coming from the makers of Appleseed, which is a comparison it really shouldn't be inviting. Appleseed had the look of a cohesive future world whose manga-styled characters, machines, and environments all appeared to belong. That's not really the case here; the robots look overlaid on the background rather than a part of it, while the human characters suffer from the same problem and seem to be less detailed and lit differently on top of that. They often don't move very well, especially compared to American performance-capture features like Beowulf or other animated works.

Director Fumihiko Sori does handle the action fairly well. There are a few big action sequences, and they're fast-moving enough with enough things flying through the air that the different elements not always seeming to occupy the same space becomes less of a factor. There's the occasional bit that feels like a video game, but it's a video game that looks like fun. I won't deny that the mechanical monsters that play a large role in the movie's second half are some of the more egregious examples of effects that don't quite fit with the rest of the film's world, but they are nifty enough on their own that I'm glad I saw them.

The story is serviceable enough - you've got your basic axis of evil (androids enforcer and corporate mastermind), a basically good military force, and scrappy resistance types. There's hints that both Vexille and Maria have a thing for Vexille's commanding officer Leon, although it never becomes too overwrought. The writers do a good job of throwing out technical and future-historical details that sound legitimate without making the audience feel the need for more information than the movie can give.

That lack of complexity might be Vexille's downfall, though. As much as they're willing to deal out epic levels of destruction, Sori and co-writer Haruka Handa don't display the same curiosity at our posthuman future as Mausume Shirow (who gave us the original Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed manga), Mamoru Oshii (who made the GITS movies), and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira and the screenplay to Metropolis). It is perhaps unfair to use those films as measuring sticks, but Vexille is covering the same basic territory, but in a generic, lightweight manner, and the late attempt to give the film some thematic heft doesn't do enough.

It's the sort of movie that makes me wonder why Vexille merits being a title character; she's not terribly interesting in and of herself other than the basic hypercompetence we expect from sci-fi leads. None of the characters are helped by their rather inexpressive CGI models. The original Japanese soundtrack may mitigate that somewhat, but unfortunately there's apparently only one subtitled print in the U.S. and it was at another festival, leaving Boston with an unmemorable dub (also not memorable for being terrible).

An independent film festival is an odd place to develop a new appreciation for American mega-blockbusters, but there you have it - as often as working with fewer resources sometimes spurs creativity, that's not always the case.

Also on EFC.

Monday, April 28, 2008

IFFB 2008: Sex Positive

I have to admit, I'd never heard the term "sex positive" before seeing this film. I kind of like it, both for what it and the corresponding "sex negative" mean, but because it's a useful reminder that all groups attempt to use language to cast their opponents in a negative light, and persecuted/minority groups are no exception.

Anyway, this was my first film of the night - I saw it before Jetsam, but it's usually harder to write a review of a documentary with just pen, paper, and program. In this case, not so much - I was actually able to write this up without further reference. Ah, well - one lives and learns.

Sex Positive

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In another recent documentary about a man preaching the gospel of safe sex (Darling!), there's a line about how condoms are a matter of simple hygiene. It seems like a simple and obvious thing to say now, but there's an argument to be made that this line of thought may not have taken root in America's gay community if not for a former S&M hustler by the name of Richard Berkowitz.

Berkowitz will tell you this; he's a chatterbox when the camera is rolling and we soon learn his life story: Growing up in upstate New York, he thought his dalliances with other males was something he would grow out of, but college saw him out of the closet and writing editorials protesting hate speech by Rutgers' fraternities. After school, he wound up in Manhattan, living the life of indulgence that characterized the late nineteen-seventies, falling into S&M by accident and then finding it profitable. As the early eighties came, people started dying in large numbers. Berkkowitz was diagnosed with AIDS, and wound up working with virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and musician Michael Callen to educate the community on the disease and how risk could be mitigated. The message was not popular, to say the least.

Director Daryl Wein does a good job of painting a picture of the late-seventies/early-eighties New York City gay scene. It comes across as a singular moment in time, when this culture of promiscuity was able to be accepted as normal, between prior years' conservatism and the fear that the disease later created. We hear how the scene created ideal conditions for an epidemic as well as the panic and grief that follows in such an epidemic's wake. There's a well-crafted sense of chaos, especially when what seems like common sense advice in retrospect is ignored and discredited by people who don't want to compromise their own lives to save them.

Wein lets Richard and his friends tell the story first-person; the film consists almost entirely of interview footage where the picture occasionally breaks away from the person talking to show photographs from the period. Indeed, even the archival footage tends to be interview footage of a sort - Richard and others appearing on talk shows of the time to discuss and debate their views. as Richard is a charming, engaging speaker, but we see just enough of other people (including his elderly mother, who still seems a little puzzled by her son's homosexuality) that the movie doesn't wind up feeling like an autobiography.

In fact, Richard Berkowitz is so likable that the audience may not realize what a slanted version of the story its been fed until Wein crams all the footage that portrays Richard as something other than a saint into the end of the movie. Early on, for instance, Berkowitz mentions that he wound up spending some time in Miami during the eighties, presenting it as the gay establishment driving him out of town; it's later portrayed as something akin to a year-long bender, and part of the reason why Sonnabend and Callen got fed up with him. Both he and the film occasionally fall into the trap of thinking the New York City is the entire world, with Berkowitz's efforts more important to that place than being as universal as is occasionally implied. There's also the tricky matter that much of Berkowitz's and Sonnabend's evangelizing centered not just on the need for safe sex, but that AIDS was a multifactor syndrome rather than having a primary cause in the HIV virus. Sometimes the movie seems like it wants to try and fight that battle again rather than point out that the same preventive measures are called for in either case. Also, it sometimes seems like the movie would more logically be about Berkowitz, Sonnabend, and Callen as a group, and focusing primarily on Berkowitz is playing to his ego.

This may just be an issue of editing and inexperience; Wein is young and working on a feature about a friend of a friend. It makes the filmmaking seem clumsy and presenting all the shades of gray in one chunk does more to discredit what came before than it should. Maybe if Wein had made more of an effort to present Berkowitz as a complex figure throughout, rather than the guy who was right despite his colorful background, the whole film would have been more satisfying.

Also on EFC.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

IFFB 2008: Jetsam

Not much time to post before running out the door again - just time to note that Jetsam is playing again at 10pm tonight, and is pretty decent. It's certainly worth a look for fans of The Descent (and, really, who isn't?), since it features two of the lead actresses in rather different roles, which is part of the fun.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Jetsam certainly opens with a nifty hook - a man and a woman have apparently washed up on the seashore. She checks to see that she still has a USB drive and then looks for him, but he is not happy to see her, to say the least. They both break for a stone church in the distance. What is going on here?

We soon get some clues - the film flashes back to the woman, calling herself Rachel (Alex Reid), returning to her new boyfriend's apartment after her morning run. Jack (Cal Macaninch) is working on something top-secret - so much so that he handcuffs his laptop to his wrist for the commute - and he really should be more careful, because Rachel is going through his stuff as soon as he's out of sight. She's working with her real boyfriend Kemp (Jamie Draven), the man from the beach. Unbeknownst to Kemp, Jack, and Rachel, Jack's employers have hired their own security detail, including hard-nosed chief Bevan (Adam Shaw) and a woman assigned to keep a particularly close eye on Rachel (Shauna Macdonald).

A great deal of this film is about sleight-of-hand and misdirection; filmmaker Simon Welsford gives us plenty of details about the tradecraft and the methods used to infiltrate and monitor the other sides. The information on the flash drive winds up being a MacGuffin in the classic Hitchcockian sense, in that its most important property is the lengths people will go to acquire it. Indeed, it's never quite clear just who the two sides are in this battle; the thieves don't seem to be nearly as ruthless as the people secretly protect Jack. Jack himself seems nice enough, but is the sort of absent-minded nerd who could very easily be working on something terrible and be so fascinated by the challenge of it that the moral implications don't register.

With the rightness and wrongness of the characters' goals so unknown, the movie lets us focus squarely on how the game affects the characters. The men are pretty straightforward: Cal Macaninch's Jack isn't quite odd enough to draw attention, but is so aware of his own intelligence that he can come off as a bit patronizing (even as he is naive in other things). Adam Shaw is icy as Bevan, the character most likely to draw a gun to solve a problem and with no qualms about either monitoring the situation without telling Jack that his girlfriend is a spy or pushing Grace to the point of breaking. Jamie Draven does a nice job of having Kemp break down over the course of the movie, increasingly paranoid that Rachel may be shifting alliances.

Alex Reid is the star of the show, though, and she's great here. She has to go from tough and resourceful to feeling over her head to being shattered when things start going to hell, and for the most part she has to do it while her character is immersing herself in her own role. It's a role that could be tough to get a handle on - she could very easily come across as just a blank - but Reid always makes it intriguing, and sympathetic even when she's doing questionable things. Shauna Macdonald doesn't show up until later, but makes a great impression in her limited time.

The film was made quickly for extremely little money, and it does show; unlike other productions at the festival shot and projected on HD video, this one does look more like television than a movie, with the exteriors looking a bit washed out and the camera work sometimes looking somewhat shaky. The structure of the story is ambitious, and Welsford doesn't always set the right pace; toward the end, when we should be caught up in the action and everything being explained, I was occasionally noticing that we hadn't been back to the beach for a while.

That just mean that Welsford has more of a future as a writer than a director; his story is well-built, at the very least. Or that he just may need a bigger budget to work with. Jetsam doesn't quite meet its potential, but it certainly shows a great deal.

Also on EFC.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

IFFB 2008: Blood Car

I just made it to the Coolidge in time for the short before Blood Car to start. It was kind of slim pickings Thursday night, so even though it's not a great horror movie. There was a Q&A after which ran for a while, which wound up pushing things well past midnight, a good dry run for the weekend I guess.

Long day - I took a day off work to see the Red Sox' day game. It's the first loss I've been to this year, which was a bummer, but Masterson looked pretty good. Poor umpiring, too. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Blood Car

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

Blood Car has an idea that has loads of potential, introduces it in witty fashion, and an ending that is just gleefully over the top. It's also got a half hour or forty-five minutes (out of seventy-five) between those two bookends that bring into question whether or not the group of friends that made the movie are up to the job, despite it having all the blood, boobies, and black comedy you expect from a movie with this title.

It is the future, we're told, two or three weeks down the line. The price of gas has risen to over $30/gallon, so the car has more or less been abandoned; teenagers looking to get laid in a car's back seat are stuck going to automobile graveyards. Proudly vegan kindergarten teacher Archie Andrews (Mike Brune) is working on an engine that would run on wheat grass - which he purchases from cute organic produce merchant Lorraine (Anna Chlumsky), who totally has a crush on him. He can't make it work until he cuts himself on a broken bottle and finds that human blood gets the motor working. Once he's got Atlanta's only working automobile, it's not Lorraine he takes out, but Denise (Katie Rowlett), who runs the meat stand across the way. Now that he's getting laid, though, he needs fresh sources of fuel to keep it coming. Meanwhile, the government is very interested in this new development.

There are some fun bits to Blood Car, from the goofy stuff found on the blackboards in Archie's class to the nasty picture Lorraine doodles waiting for Archie to arrive. That's a recurring theme of the stuff that works - when you're making movies with your buddies for a zero-dollar budget, you can be as crude and mean as you want and nobody will say, no, you can't have Archie crying over his attempts to shoot cute squirrels and dogs with a BB gun (and, since it's a BB gun, it takes a few agonizing shots to get the job done. The end is a riot of "that's just wrong!" that doesn't all work, but what does is just wrong.

The trouble is that between the opening and the finale, the movie just sort of shows up. It teases us with a montage of Archie salvaging and constructing what amounts to a giant body-pureeing blender in the trunk of his car, but that means most of the goriness happens out of sight, with just screaming after Archie throws people in the trunk and spurts of blood when it's not sealed airtight. It's nice fake blood, but it does sort of feel like we're not seeing the good stuff. Even the advertised gratuitous nudity is just girls opening their shirts for the guy with a car, not especially super-clever. The plot with the government agents watching Archie only makes the smallest bit of sense.

Then, of course, there's Brune and Rowlett not really being the great actors, and it stops being fun after a while. They're supposed to be playing broad types, of course, but they really don't bring much more personality than "I'm a vegan with flimsy scruples!" and "I'm a bitch!" Those one notes aren't enough to sustain the movie through the middle, especially since they aren't that much fun to watch together. Anna Chlumsky is a lot more fun as Lorraine, but she only shows up in a few brief scenes. The government guys are difficult to tell apart.

It's a pity, really. Good idea, some fun moments, but a middle act that needs more of almost everything.

IFFB 2008: Mister Lonely

Harmony Korine is a name I have generally avoided in the past. He's got the stink of Dogme 95 on him, after all, and everything I've read about his works has suggested that he's one of those artistes who think that realism, especially where young people are concerned, is obtained with misery and perversity. Despite the frequently whimsical nature of this film, I haven't really shaken that impression; there is still the impression of a writer who thinks nastiness is a positive in and of itself, rather than something that can be learned from.

So why this? I do like Samantha Morton and Werner Herzog. Herzog may just be one of the greatest deadpan comedians ever, if only because he is just crazy enough that he may be completely serious. Those two certainly didn't disappoint.

Korine was, I'm told, there for a Q&A after the show, but I missed it because I was bolting for the T to catch Death Car at the Coolidge. I actually left before the credits finished rolling, and feel vaguely ashamed for that, especially when the wait for the red line was long enough that I could likely have stayed another minute or two.

Hopefully my press pass won't be revoked for that.

Mister Lonely

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Mister Lonely invites the audience to ponder many philosophical questions. What is the purpose of a miracle? Is it a blessing or a curse to find oneself among people who share your passions completely? Can you choose your own identity, or must it be stumbled upon? And, of course, which is funnier/freakier - a Scottish castle populated entirely by celebrity impersonators, or Werner Herzog dropping nuns out of an airplane without parachutes?

These are the twin stories told by Harmony Korine's new film. In the main path, we meet a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna). While performing at a home for the elderly, he is discovered by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) who describes their community and invites him to join - they don't have a Michael yet! Michael's and Marilyn's arrival is greeted with excitement by most of the group except for Marilyn's husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Levant), who is jealous. There are more practical concerns there, though, as the group is trying to build a theater to put on a show and dealing with a disease that has stricken their herd of sheep.

Meanwhile, in Africa, a mun who falls out of Father Umbrillo's (Herzog) plane during a food drop concludes that faith gives one the power to fly.

Almost every shot in the film is surreal in some way, whether it be the dizzying shots of the nuns falling through the sky or frames which have hazmat-suited health officials inspecting the sheep while Abraham Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, and James Dead look on from the background. Even though Michael Jackson is already a punchline, Korine does a nice job of mining laughs from just how silly his routine looks removed from context.

Not all of these weird, off-kilter moments work. Korine has a reputation for being strange or perverse simply because the option is there (I don't know first-hand; I've not seen his previous films), and there are certainly signs of that here. The image which opens and closes the film is kind of random - beautiful, in a way, but rather disconnected from the rest of the film. There's no story connection between the celebrity impersonators and the flying nuns, and the thematic one I came up with after the film feels tenuous. And there's one scene where Korine screws with the focus on the camera for what seems like no purpose other than irritating the audience. One could probably find an artistic reason for it in hindsight, but it's the sort of artistic decision that can literally take an audience out of the film, to the lobby, to complain about the screwy projection.

Some of that's to be expected and forgiven; the movie has a bizarre premise, so some strange execution is probably to be expected. It is, arguably, a worthwhile trade-off in order to be introduced to some of the strange characters who populate the film's world. That Werner Herzog is a treat goes almost without saying; even if he never directs another film, he could have a great career delivering off-kilter lines with a straight face and the sort of precise diction that tells us that this is exactly what he means. Michael's Parisian friend and booker Renard (Leos Carax) steals both of his scenes. Most of the impersonators are at least amusing enough to get the audience curious about them, although it is Richard Strange's Abraham Lincoln who seems to get a huge laugh almost every time he appears. A grouchy, f-bomb-dropping, no-nonsense Lincoln is a great counterweight to some of the other characters.

Like the main character. Luna does a good job of suggesting Michael Jackson, though not really looking like him, and his dancing bits are a stitch. Luna does capture the sort of creepy, deliberate childishness that has made the real thing so unnerving in his performance, but a side effect of that is that his Michael winds up being just a bit too much a blank slate. The audience just never has any relationship with this guy aside from laughing at his dancing.

Samantha Morton's Marilyn winds up much more interesting; she's kind of chatty, has a contentious relationship with her husband, and there's always this question about how much and what kind of interest she has in Michael. As much as Michael remains a cipher despite his occasional narration and other moments of self-description, Morton gives us a nuanced portrayal of fragile self-esteem. So does Lavant, although his Charlie doesn't shrink the way Marilyn does; he's more the type to compensate by being a bully.

Is there something worthwhile to be found here? Absolutely, no question about that - Richard Strange and Werner Herzog may be worth the price of admission alone. The question is, how much of the movie will come across as interestingly strange and how much is strange as a substitute for interesting?

Also on EFC.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

IFFB Opening Night: Transsiberian

So, there's opening night. There will be pictures later, as soon as I find the USB cable to get them off my camera. My brothers mocked said camera at the ballgame last week, pointing out that it had the resolution of the one built into their phones, and this makes it look a bit sillier. Still, I can't bring myself to replace it, both because I don't take that many pictures and the darn thing isn't broken yet.

Opening night was fun; the writers, producer, director, and one of the stars of Transsiberian were on hand - Anderson is from the area (he once worked at the Brattle theater), and Sir Ben Kingsley is shooting Shutter Island nearby (so is Emily Mortimer, but maybe her part is done or something like that). Seeing them on stage, I wasn't sure whether Anderson was very tall or Kingsley is short. Kingsley had some nifty stories to tell about how he winds up playing people from so many different countries: As he puts it, his genetics are a mix and he's good at mimicry. For Transsiberian, one of the Russian-speaking crew would stand off camera reading the lines, and he would copy his pronunciation and accent.

Anyway, that was day one. Tonight's plan is to hope Mister Lonely starts (and thus finishes) on time and then head from Somerville to Brookline for Blood Car; if that doesn't look possible, I'm not sure what the backup will be.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The train thriller is almost a genre in itself: You get a group of people on a train, something bad happens, and the characters have to figure out who can't be trusted by the rest, and the impending arrival at the destination is a ticking clock. Brad Anderson's latest is a nifty train thriller, in part because it doesn't always play by the rules.

The Transsiberian railroad of the title runs between Moscow on one end and Beijing and Vladivostok on the other. After a brief opening in Vladivostok, where Russian narcotics detective Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley) is investigating a drug-related murder, we meet up with Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a married couple from Iowa on a church mission. Roy loves trains, while Jessie has taken up photography. At the border, they're joined by Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a young couple who have been teaching English and Spanish in Japan. The couples take to each other. At the next stop, Roy gets left behind, and when Jessie gets off at the one after that to wait for him, Abby and Carlos join her - but is it because it's not safe for Jessie on her own or because they're nervous about the police sniffing around the train?

So there's your first difference from most train movies - the train is making stops with passengers getting on and off. As much as the story plays on the claustrophobia of having no place to go or hide on a moving train at times, a lot of the important action takes place at the stops. That's part of the fun of taking the train, and lots of train movies wind up twisting themselves into knots to figure out ways to keep everyone on the train when it stops. Instead, the script by Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy opts to toss a few surprises at the audience. As much as it sets up the basic plot of the story early on (you'd have to be pretty dim to not figure out why Carlos only lets Jessie examine that matryoshka doll), the first big twist is surprising both in and of itself and in how many new directions the film can go in. Anderson and Conroy have another moment or two like that up their sleeves, and it's exciting not to know what's going to happen next.

Brad Anderson's previous movies have fallen into two categories - romances built around female characters (Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents) and nightmare scenarios with mostly male casts (Session 9 and The Machinist). He mixes it up a bit here by centering this thriller around Emily Mortimer's Jessie, and it's an interesting if not perfect set-up. Mortimer is great when it comes time to ratchet up the tension, really selling us on the character's desperation as she tries to find a way out of her situation, only to be stymied at every turn. I don't know if we're ever totally sold on Jessie's bad-girl past; as much as there's clearly some tension and restlessness in their marriage, she seems a bit too reformed at settled much of the time.

Similarly, Jessie's insistence that Abby is basically a good girl is a little tough to swallow; Kate Mara plays Abby as far more twitchy and suspicious than Eduardo Noriega's Carlos. It does make sense that Jessie believes from experience that there's something decent behind Abby's abrasive exterior, but it doesn't quite connect as well as the simple thriller elements. That's not a knock on either Mortimer or Mara; the story just doesn't showcase the hidden parts of their characters in a flashy or obvious way; it's an "awful close" case. The guys don't have as much hidden: Woody Harrelson plays up Roy's simplicity; he's basically a small-town guy with a big heart and a big train set, though it not surprising when we see him able to make quick decisions - he's simple, not stupid. Eduardo Noriega is casually charming as Carlos, taking advantage of how well the audience knows the basic story to avoid heavy-handed foreshadowing of his darker side. Ben Kingsley is fun to watch as a hard-edged cop who plays off Roy unexpectedly well.

As much as the screenplay has a few nifty twists, it is conventional in other spots. Sometimes the film telegraphs what's going to happen a little too obviously; a long shot of Jessie's camera bag in one scene and a flashback to what must have happened off-screen there seems a bit like overkill, and some of the more graphic bits of violence are more than the movie needs. Anderson is good at playing up the swerves, and there are a few really well-played action beats in the film. He does a good job playing to the movie's strengths - any time he can go to Emily Mortimer under pressure, he does, and he also does a fine job of immersing the audience in the environment (Lithuania doubles for Siberia), giving the film a great sense of place.

The train movie is a bit of a dying form, as most passengers today opt for air or the trips go too fast to really fill a movie. Transsiberian is a worthy entry in the genre, with a good knack for when to obey its rules and when to break them.

Also on EFC.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Family fun - Horton, CJ7, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Son of Rambow

One last gasp before starting the IFFB stuff (and then a likely massive catch-up post).

It saddens me a little that HBS/EFC had no reviews for CJ7, even though I didn't love the film; I can't be the only guy there who thinks a new Stephen Chow film is a big deal, can I? Of course, I suspect it didn't get far out of the big cities anyway (it's already long gone from Boston), so maybe not as many people had the opportunity to review it, or did it for some other paying gig.

At least The Forbidden Kingdom opened well, because it's a fun action-adventure that I'd happily use to introduce folks to Jackie Chan and Jet Li if I knew someone age-appropriate. I did feel like a bit of a dummy when I read some of the other reviews, of course - was I the only person who didn't immediately twig to some of the casting (he said, trying to avoid spoilers, even though every other review he's seen lays it right out without worrying about it)?

Horton Hears a Who!

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at Regal Fenway #10 (first-run)

So, it turns out adapting Dr. Seuss well is possible, although like any adaptation, you wind up with something much different in feel from the source material. The story's still there, but part of the appeal of Seuss is stopping to examine some crazy detail he put in, or getting caught up in the cadence of his rhymes. You can't quite do that with movies; they run at a set pace that doesn't allow the audience to explore until home video, and the running time of a feature means that more words have to be put in, until the rhymes are nearly swallowed.

Judged on what it is, though, Horton Hears a Who! is a fun movie. Blue Sky captures the look of the storybooks without being quite so enslaved by it as the live action films have been. Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell both give lively vocal performances, and the story touches on the idea of faith and how we handle things we cannot explain without being too heavy-handed about it. That's pretty impressive.

Cheung Gong 7 hou (CJ7)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

CJ7 was a mammoth hit in Chinese theaters, but didn't produce much of a blip in the U.S. There's just no place for it; parents don't bring their kids to movies with subtitles and the ever-shrinking audience for foreign films would rebel if it was shown dubbed. They won't make it a sleeper hit because they don't see kids' movies. So it slips through the cracks, which is unfortunate - so many kids' movies are terrible that it doesn't make sense to dismiss a good one just because people are speaking Chinese.

Dicky (Xu Jiao) is the poorest boy at his private school; the film opens with him trying to sew his sneakers back together. As so often happens, he's not just picked on by the other kids but treated like crap by most of his teachers. His construction-worker father Ti (Stephen Chow) spends every dime they have on the school, so they live in a hovel near the dump. One night, while searching that dump for a pair of sneakers for Dicky, Ti stumbles across something that came from a crashed alien spaceship. He doesn't realize it, but the toy he gives Dicky is an impossibly cute alien with strange powers ("CJ7", since the rich kid boasts of having a "CJ1" robotic dog).

Chow writes and directs as well as acting, and like his other recent films (Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle), he's using a lot of digital effects. They don't look look completely real, but they're not supposed to. Chow has always been a performer who has tended toward broad physical comedy, so it's not surprising that not only is CJ7 full of rounded surfaces and hyper-cute design, but Chow engages in a lot of Loony Tunes-style slapstick with it. CJ7 is highly malleable, pulls tools out of nowhere, and when he gets kind of beat up, cartoony springs poke through the surface. The story's got large chunks of E.T. in it, but a lot of the stuff with the creature/robot is closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

Even when CJ7 is not on screen, the vibe is something of a live-action cartoon. One bizarre scene toward the beginning has Dicky and Ti competing over who can squash more cockroaches in their kitchen (between this, Ratatouille, and Enchanted, I'm wondering where the meme about vermin being family movie fodder came from). There are students at Dicky's school who shake the ground when they lumber into the scene, and his math teacher Mr. Cao (Lee Shing-Cheung) is a thoroughly hissy snob, who stops just short of pulling out a pair of tongs when circumstances force him to handle something that Dicky has touched. On the opposite side of the fence is the almost impossibly beautiful and friendly Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yugi), who brings the requisite innocent sex appeal to the film.

Then there's Xu Jiao, who delivers some pricelessly funny reaction shots. She's not subtle, and in a lot of movies she'd be dismissed as a child actor trying to skate by on being cute. It works here, I think, though someone would need to have just slightly less tolerant of kids mugging for the camera for it not to. And, yes, those pronouns are right; Stephen Chow's son is played by a girl. This isn't unprecedented (it happens in animation all the time), and the audience will likely hardly notice it; it's just an odd choice.

Chow himself takes a back seat to Xu, playing Ti as generally a good dad without being anything close to saccharine. Folks expecting a lot of him may be disappointed. His work behind the scenes is pretty good for most of the film, but it does seem to come apart a bit in the end - after an hour or so of fun, CGI-enhanced slapstick, the movie decides to get serious and be heartwarming, and that leaves the ending kind of a downer on the one hand and kind of random on the other.

Kids might not mind that, though, and that is who CJ7 was made for. The question is, just how many English-speaking kids are likely to see this movie, even if it is a lot better than much of the stuff being sent their way?

Also on HBS.

The Forbidden Kingdom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (sneak preview)

I don't know if an attempt to measure such things objectively would actually find that the audience with which I saw The Forbidden Kingdom enjoyed the obligatory scene where martial arts masters Jet Li and Jackie Chan pummel student Michael Angarano in the name of training more than they usually would. You'll forgive us if we took a certain amount of sadistic joy in it, though - after all, no-one came to the movie to see him, and it's fun to see the movie acknowledge that.

Angarano plays Jason Tripitikas, a South Boston teen who loves his chop sockey movies. A group of bullies forces him to help rob the shop where he gets his import DVDs, and after the owner is shot, he winds up in possession of a golden staff that fans of the genre and those who watched the prologue will recognize as belonging to the Monkey King. It somehow pulls him back in time to ancient China, where he's told the story of how the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) tricked the Monkey King, freezing him as a statue until his staff is returned. That job's too big for James, but he does meet up with drunken master Lu Yan (Chan), revenge-seeking orphan Sparrow (Liu Yifei), and a mysterious monk (Jet Li). Together, they attempt to reach the Warlord's fortress atop Five Elements Mountain, though he has sent white-haired Wolf-Witch assassin Ni Chan (Li Bingbing) after them.

It is easy to mock The Forbidden Kingdom for casting Jet Li and Jackie Chan in the same movie and having them technically be supporting characters to the American kid. There's probably a line of less-than-ideal compromises that have to be made to get to that point - it takes Hollywood money to make it happen, Hollywood money means Hollywood producers, and Hollywood producers means it has to make money in America, so shoot it in English with a central American character so that the previews don't look too foreign. It's forgivable, though, in part because the movie did, in fact, get made, and in part because John Fusco's script wears its love for these movies on its sleeve. He makes Jason an annoying name-dropping fanboy, but he drops good names. Fusco tailors his script to his cast, giving Jet Li chances to do both quick hand-to-hand combat and wire-fu, while Jackie Chan gets to reference what is likely his most beloved work (the Drunken Master movies) and do his "using whatever is near at hand" shtick. Heck, we got a "Journey to the West" movie when I'm certain that at one point, some American studio exec said "what's all this 'Monkey King' stuff; can't they just be rival cops?"

That's not saying it's a great script; it's frequently sort of awkward, and the Boston scenes feel a little rote. There are great huge information dumps, although I do like the way Fusco and director Rob Minkoff quietly toss the basis for a clever plot twist into the middle of a long-winded retelling of the Monkey King myth. That one bit of misdirection makes up for a story that seems to be cobbled together from several sources. It's worth noting that despite the presence of a time-traveling American teenager, this is probably the sanest Journey to the West movie I've seen; be relieved or disappointed as you will.

Enough about the script, though - Jackie Chan and Jet Li fight! How cool is that? Pretty darn cool, actually. I must admit to being a little worried during Chan's early scenes; combine Lu Yan's bulky hair and more shots from behind than usual, and he could have been doubled as he was in bits of Rush Hour 3. The Chan-Li centerpiece dispels those fears, though; they're both in good form, and Minkoff makes sure the audience gets a good look at them in action. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping keeps things going at an exciting pace and does a good job of blending their styles - Chan's drunken boxing is a fun contrast to Li's more violent fighting. The two are clearly having a blast, and that's conveyed to the audience. There are probably a couple places this sequence could have stopped, but the movie lingers on it; after all, this is what the audience came for.

The pair acquit themselves well enough when they're not fighting as well. Chan seems more comfortable being funny in English than in many of his other movies; Jet Li does a nice job of making his character seem human as well as being a testy man of mystery, as well as being surprisingly funny in other scenes. Anganaro sometimes does perform his role a little too well - he's sort of fan that collects and catalogs, but hasn't yet moved beyond that superficial level, and that's kind of annoying. Liu Yifei is a bit tough to get a handle on, since Sparrow is given an odd way of speaking, referring to herself in the third person in a sort of disengaged manner. I wish Li Bingbing had the chance to do more of the heavy lifting as the villain; as much as Collin Chou hams it up a bit, he never seems as ferocious as she does.

I'm glad The Forbidden Kingdom turned out to be as good - and as much fun - as it is. Aside from not knowing whether we'll ever get to see Chan and Li work together again (it took a bunch of North American money to make it happen and Chan's not getting any younger), I want it to remind audiences how much fun this style of movie is. Last year gave us the depressing one-two punch of Rush Hour 3 and War; hopefully this signals a return to martial arts stars actually putting on a great show on the big screen.

On HBS along with five other reviews.

Son of Rambow

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (sneak preview/Sunday Eye Opener)

Son of Rambow knows kids. You can tell from the opening credits, where a twelve-year-old boy runs through the neighborhood, only stopping long enough to cause mischief, or when the little sister of the other main character simply can't stand still even though her jumping around might distract from the two people talking. The movie shares its young cast's surplus of energy, and even though it's got adult wisdom to it, the end result's never a lecture.

The kid running across town after sneaking a VHS camera into a cinema to record First Blood is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a brat who lives in the back of a nursing home with his brother Lawrence while their mother spends her time in Spain with her new husband. He soon meets his polar opposite in Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) when both are sent into the hallway during school - Lee for being a disruption, Will because his family's strict religion means he's not allowed to even watch the documentary being shown in geography class. Will already loves to draw, and when he winds up accidentally watching the Stallone movie while hiding from Lee's brother, it's like nothing he's imagined before. Soon the pair are shooting their own sequel together, even though that means hiding the project from Lawrence (Ed Westwick) and Lee's mother Mary (Jessica Stevenson). Meanwhile, the arrival of a group of French exchange students, particularly ultra-cool Didier (Jules Sitruk), is blowing other kids' minds the same way the movie blew Will's.

Among other things, Son of Rambow is a love letter to the movies, making them as much as watching them. We see Will stunned and amazed by his first movie-watching experience, transported into another world where a scarecrow can come alive and be the villain in the movie they're going to make. He's already been making flipbooks, and soon he's drawing scenes in his Bible that evolve into storyboards. Will and Lee are about as far from cool as kids can be, but once the word gets out about what they're doing, Didier and his crew suddenly want to hang out with them, because what's as cool as making a movie? Of course, once Didier joins up, it doesn't take much to read the next scenes as a riff on going from small independent films to big studio works, with more people on the set than you can handle and demanding stars taking charge.

Writer/director Garth Jennings doesn't spend so much time talking about movies that he shirks his duty to make a good one, though. This is basically a coming-of-age buddy flick at heart. Will and Lee are a fine pair of opposites: Lee is a pint-sized thief and con man, Will's a sheltered kid who dives in head-first because he's never had this sort of outlet for his creativity before. They make a good team, whether Lee is taking advantage of Will in a Tom Sawyer manner or just busting out laughing at some of the screwy stuff that Will does. Their misadventures are honestly funny, with a perfect level of whimsy. Jennings is also very good at presenting physical comedy and genuine peril differently, which becomes a factor toward the end of the movie. I love things like the repeated sound of cheering when Lee is kicked out of his classroom, and how it lightens up a potentially heavy moment toward the end.

The most important thing Jennings and his producing partner Nick Goldsmith do, though, is get great performances out of Milner and Poulter. The movie would likely disintegrate completely if we ever stopped believing they were genuine early-eighties kids. One false note, whether it be a script that was too self-aware or a young actor who can't just relax and play on-screen and the movie would be a goner, just adults who couldn't get the kids quite right. Happily, that never happens. Will Poulter is especially terrific; he makes Lee the sort of kid that would drive the adults who had to deal with him absolutely insane but shows the audience he's not really a bad kid (there aren't any really bad kids in this movie's world). Bill Milner finds just the right notes to hit for Will; he's as much a regular kid as his unusual environment will allow. He never plays Will as stupid, or even ignorant - he's just uninformed.

The movie belongs to Milner and Poulter, but the rest of the cast is good. Jules Sitruk is pretty darn hilarious embodying everything about the eighties which has become embarrassing twenty years later. Jessica Stevenson is just right as Will's mother; there's a whole other movie about how she and Neil Dudgeon's fellow sect member Joshua implied whenever they're both on screen, although Jennings keeps it implied, so as not to distract from the kids or make the film too harsh or easy a condemnation of the characters' beliefs.

I can't say for sure that kids will love this movie; there weren't any at the screening I attended. The former kids there got a real kick out of it, though, and there's enough straightforward fun without talking down or over-reliance on nostalgia that there's no reason for them not to have a good time.

On HBS come 2 May, along with at least one other review.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Comedies, romantic and otherwise

Charles M. Schulz once said that cartooning was the art of drawing the same thing every day for decades without repeating yourself. I wonder why reviewing a bunch of generally good comedies as a group makes me think this.

The condensed version: If you missed The Grand or Miss Pettigrew, you missed out (although I think Pettigrew is still kicking around Somerville and/or Arlington, here in the Boston area), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is just as funny as it looks.

Also, I'd like to thank Zak Penn for using an archival still in The Grand that allows me to use my favorite tag.

Definitely, Maybe

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 February 2008 at AMC Boston Common #17 (First-run)

Just by the numbers, Definitely, Maybe doesn't make for an uplifting romantic comedy - its premise, after all, depends on things not working out for at least two of the women in the flashbacks, while the present day framing sequences tell you right off the bat that the ones that do get together wind up getting divorced. If I had been seeing it with a girlfriend on Valentine's Day, this might not be the message I'd want sent.

And even better, there's an adorable little girl caught in the middle of this disintegrating marriage! Things kick off when Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) picks up his eleven-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) from school for his weekend with her, only to find out she had a sex-ed class and now wants details about how she came to be. Will's reluctant, but she insists, so he makes it a game - he'll tell her the story, but he's changing the names, and she has to figure out who he wound up marrying - college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks), fellow Clinton campaign worker April (Isla Fisher), or journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz).

Given how politically polarized the country has become since Clinton's 1992 campaign, using that as the backdrop for a film looking to attract a broad audience may seem like a commercially questionable decision - why potentially alienate half your audience when the film isn't really about politics? It works, though, because Will's feelings about candidate and later later President Clinton are a nice barometer for his romantic life and maturation as a man - initially full of wide-eyed optimism and faith, later brokenhearted and cynical, and by the end no longer in a position where his feelings must be all-or-nothing. It's a metaphor well worth enduring some political talk that doesn't do much for the movie as a romance or a comedy.

It also works because Ryan Reynolds turns in a nice performance. He's generally relied on some form of slickness or another in his previous roles, whether it be the boys that the universe can't rattle (as in Van Wilder) or the wiseasses with a quip at the ready (as in Blade Trinity). Will gets hurt, confused, and angry, and it plays well. He's gotten to the point where he can turn off the charm, let us see the character as an immature jerk for a moment, and earn his way back into our good graces. He also pulls off my favorite moment in the movie, when an excited Maya is looking at penguins, chattering about how they mate for life, and the camera turns around to show Reynolds and the actress playing Maya's mother. They're a note-perfect display of lost chemistry; it's a moment which earns the movie a shot at an improbably happy ending.

Breslin's pretty great in that moment too, all the bubbly optimism that the other characters have lost, even though it wasn't long before that Maya had been nearly crushed by the way Will's story was heading. She does have her extra-precious moments, but not too many. We're probably supposed to be equally charmed by other other three ladies in the story, but that's not quite possible. Elizabeth Banks is nice enough as Emily, but we don't get the chance to meet her for the first time alongside Will, so she seems a little bland in comparison. We do get to meet Rachel Weisz's Summer, who seems fantastically wicked and enticing, and brings along Kevin Kline as the older professor she's been sleeping with (we just don't see enough of Kline on the big screen these days). And then there's Isla Fisher as April; she's the one who makes us laugh but also deftly handles the scenes that give her character some heft.

I like the job filmmaker Adam Brooks does; he balances his mix of characters well, not tipping his hand as to the end of the movie by favoring one character too much over another. He handles the passage of time well, so that the flashbacks cover a fair amount of time without either feeling like there are gaps or that Will is ping-ponging between women without the breakups having an effect on him. There's plenty of good jokes, but you can always take the characters seriously.

Definitely, Maybe is a low-key charmer. It's arguably not primarily a romantic comedy, but a story about growing out of youthful naïveté and through cynicism to become a true adult.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental HD DVD)

Accepted is not complicated or subtle, which is part of its charm: It will, at any moment, go for the biggest joke that the people making it can think of, and will not let any opportunity for even a little one pass. The upside of this is that only something like one out of three jokes have to work for the movie to provide a pretty constrant string of laughs. The downside is that the jokes that don't work really don't work, some of the extra bits that are crammed in feel like too much (Justin Long's pratfalls, for instance), and when it starts trying to get the audience to pull for the characters in a story, it's got no weight whatsoever.

Not that it needs it, I suppose, although the central idea - that the relentless push for every kid to attend college and the one-size-fits-all education offered there doesn't serve their interests - is good enough to merit a little weight. And there are some times when less would be a little more, given all the talent attached - there's a ton of fun young actors, and a lively performance from Lewis Black.

Nine reviews at HBS.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #10 (First-run)

Mrs. Pettigrew doesn't initially look like much, and that applies to both the character and the film itself. And in some ways, they aren't much; a simple woman and a spritely period comedy. There's beauty in their simplicity, though, along with an awareness that simple doesn't necessarily have to mean stupid.

Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess, who finds herself homeless after being fired from her last of last chances. She swiped a name before being dismissed from her agency, though, and shows up the next morning at the apartment of actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who was not looking for a nanny but a social secretary (though she doesn't quite know what one does), whose first job is disposing of Phil Goodman (Tom Payne), a young would-be theater producer. That's not the only man in Delysia's life; there's also Nick Colderelli (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub where she sings, and Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), the piano player there who was recently released from jail. Then there's Delysia's friend Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and her fiancé Joe (Ciarán Hinds), who make life difficult for Guinevere in their own ways.

The film takes place in 1930s London, and feels like a film of that period, with beautiful Art Deco style, women in fabulous gowns, and nightclubs full of jazz and sophistication. It's wiser than that, though. It's keenly aware that those glamorous images were mirages into which audiences were escaping, with the reality being the Depression. There's a dark recurring joke about Guinevere not getting a chance to eat, and the desperation she feels is palpable. Similarly, it's also the eve of World War II, and there's a wonderful moment between Guinevere and Joe late in the movie, sharing their memories of the last war as the younger characters cheer the planes flying overhead.

As you might gather from that last paragraph, McDormand is giving her usual fine performance. There is, from the beginning, something rebellious about her that doesn't quite fit with her nervous, spinstery exterior, and it's a delight to watch her come out of her shell without ever losing her grounding. McDormand handles the trick of being very funny while also being very serious like it hasn't tripped a great many actors up. Amy Adams, on the other hand, often seems lighter than air as Delysia, moving from event to event like she was blown by a strong wind and rapid-firing her lines in classic screwball style. She does, on occasion, also get serious, giving Delysia self-awareness without making her less of a naif. Neither part is a particular departure from the actress's recent work, but that just lets them concentrate on the details that make Guinevere and Delysia come alive.

The rest of the cast is good, too, although their characters are a distant third in priority behind Guinevere and Delysia. Shirley Henderson's Edythe is maybe the most complex, rather callow and selfish and yet still strangely vulnerable. The men form a continuum along which the wisdom of age and experience can be plotted, from Payne's spoiled and childish Phil to Hinds's Joe, a much more grounded fellow than the usual male character who designs lingerie for a living. Pace shows us a charming if battered romantic, while Strong makes Nick altogether more pragmatic.

Director Bharat Nalluri and company make a nifty little movie. There's actually quite a lot of story packed into Guinevere's twenty-four hours and our ninety minutes, with characters and plotlines darting in and out quickly enough for us to sympathize with how dizzy it might make her, even while slowing it down just enough at points so that actual important information is quite clear. They never lose sight of the fact that they're making a comedy, even though there are frequent and needed detours into the less cheery aspects of the period. They don't overdose on realism, though, so that when things end in the rushed but tidy manner of a stage comedy, it feels entirely appropriate.

Yes, Miss Pettigrew could be more realistic. It's perhaps just a little more sophisticated than the 1930s films it pays homage to. Its faithfulness to those films' ideals and aesthetics is a great part of its charm, though, and it would gain very little by being more complex than it is.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.


* * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2008 at The Brattle Theatre (The 80's Rock!)

I don't know if I'd actually call myself a fan of Meat Loaf's, at least not in an active, going to concerts that require more effort than getting on the T, talking him up to friends, or trying to amass everything he's done sense. I like him as an entertainer, though, and the idea of him doing a wacky rock 'n roll movie directed by Alan Rudolph, of all people, with Zalman King somehow in the mix, made me giggle at the potential for quality insanity.

Unfortunately, the "quality" part isn't always there. There are some wonderfully daffy bits, such as a sedate and charming Alice Cooper, and some of the goofy contraptions Meat's Travis Redfish constructs out of whatever's on hand at the time. There's some fun music, including a thoroughly gratuitous appearance by Roy Orbison. The batting average on the jokes isn't that great, though, and a number of them are pure "check it out - rednecks! They're stupid! That's funny!" stuff.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (sneak preview)

For all of the crazy bits that can be found within this film itself, perhaps the strangest thing about Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that the film got its creative team the chance to make the next Muppet movie. It makes sense, in a way - Sarah Marshall has that sort of anything-goes sense of humor and even uses puppets at one point - but it's also gleefully raunchy, enough so that giving its makers a beloved G-rated franchise is not the obvious course of action.

It's crude almost from the very beginning, when TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) returns home early to break up with her boyfriend Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), but finds herself rather distracted by his nakedness. She does manage to get the job done, though, leaving him a quivering mass of jelly who finally bends to his brother's advice to get away for a few days. That's a good idea, but he makes it a bad idea by choosing a Hawaiian resort that Sarah had told him about, and he gets there at the same time as Sarah and her new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The woman manning the front desk (Mila Kunis) takes pity on him, though, and soon he and this Rachel Jansen are hanging out during her off hours, which makes things awkward for everybody.

Star Jason Segel wrote the screenplay, and it turns out that he's pretty good at it: He's got a knack for good pop culture jokes that are more than just name-dropping, for instance, and the dumb or strange things his characters do are dumb or strange in a way that seems to be in character. The movie isn't bogged down with characters who advance the plot but are not actually funny, and all the main characters get a chance to be both sympathetic and unreasonable at various points.

As an actor, Segel avoids being the boring center that all the insanity happens around mostly by being kind of over-the-top mopey, but every once in a while he breaks out something that makes us realize that Peter is more than a little weird; he's got quite a knack for finding the border between eccentric and uncomfortable and hovering there. Mila Kunis is the closest thing the movie's got to a straight man, but she's good at adding a bit of snap to her set-ups and reactions and being generally charming enough to distract Peter from Sarah. That's pretty remarkable, because Kristen Bell does not play Sarah as the villain of the piece; she makes Sarah likable enough that we never wonder what Peter was doing with her in the first place. There's material for a cute love triangle here.

And then there's Russell Brand, who plays Aldous as broadly as he can and collects big laughs whenever he's on-screen. Yes, he's every spoiled rock-star cliché rolled into one, but he's too hilariously relaxed about it to be the bad guy. He's joined by a bunch of supporting characters who are sort of one-note, but hit that note with perfection: Jonah Hill's over-eager waiter (who happens to be a big fan of Aldous), Jack McBrayer and Maria Thayer as as a pair of newlyweds who, having saved themselves for marriage, are having radically different reactions to their new intimacy, and Paul Rudd as a surfing instructor whose memory is pretty much fried. Rudd has built up quite a roster of scene-stealing minor roles, but for this movie it's tough to beat Billy Baldwin's self-parody as Sarah Marshall's co-star in Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime; every clip of that series kills.

There are going to be a lot of people who assume Judd Apatow directed this movie from the advertising, and hopefully Nicholas Stoller will take that as a compliment. It does have a lot of the same feel as The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and winds up being a little better than the latter. It's got a very nice balance of crude but effective jokes and honest emotion, and seldom stops being funny in order to be sentimental - in fact, the final sequences, when the movie could have gotten maudlin, are some of the most densely-packed with jokes of the movie.

Which is saying something; there's a lot of funny stuff in the movie. Wouldn't it be great if all actors could write such good vehicles for themselves?

On HBS as soon as the movie comes out; there will probably be more than one other review then.

Run Fatboy Run

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run)

There's a scene in Run Fatboy Run where Thandie Newton's Libby more or less baldly states that the basic outline is ridiculous - she's not going to dump her boyfriend and go back to the man who has disappointed her so much just because he runs a marathon. This makes a ton of sense, because as insanely difficult as running twenty-three miles is for someone who starts from where Simon Pegg's Dennis does, it's nothing compared to getting back into a woman's good graces after what he's done.

What he's done is leaving her at the altar on their wedding day - when she was seven months pregnant. Now, five years later, there's a new man in her life, and Whit (Hank Azaria) is everything Dennis is not - handsome, well-off, responsible, and athletic - he even runs marathons. In a bid to not look totally emasculated in front of Libby and their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), Dennis says he could run one, too, and it becomes harder to back out once Libby's cousin (and Dennis's best mate) Gordon (Dylan Moran) bets on him to finish, and he bets his landlord Maya Goshdashtidar (India de Beaufort) his back rent versus eviction. So it's training time, though Jake, Gordon, and Maya's father (Harish Patel) aren't exactly a crack coaching staff.

The comment from Libby that Dennis running the marathon won't win her back, aside from being a challenge to the filmmakers to come up with a situation where that could actually happen, has the additional effect of moving the film out of the romantic comedy arena. This is a nice move - it keeps Libby from being presented as just a prize to be won, and running a marathon for a prize is kind of a silly thing to do, anyway. You do that sort of thing to improve and test yourself, not beat someone else, and that's what we see Dennis do - go from slacker man-boy to maybe being someone who can accomplish something.

Pegg and Moran make an entertaining pair of slacker man-boys in the meantime. Pegg plays the excitable, sort of whiny one; he's the victim of all kinds of good slapstick and abuse, while also being kind of off-handedly charming and funny. Moran, on the other hand, plays Gordon just about as dry as is possible; he's got the sort of accent that makes one feel as if they've just been insulted by someone a great deal more learned than is actually the case. Hank Azaria does a really nice job with Whit; for much of the film, the audience is actually inclined to like him. Azaria, director David Schwimmer, and writer Michael Ian Black do a nice job of piling little things on so that the audience feels some of Dennis's natural, if not necessarily fair, annoyance at the very idea of this guy; when he starts doing kind of jerky things, there's the feel that Dennis brings out the worst in him, rather than him just being a bad guy and Libby being unable to see it.

It's interesting that the creative team for this movie is mostly actors - sitcom veteran David Schwimmer directs, Michael Ian Black writes, with Pegg Anglicizing American Black's script. The three of them know their comedy, and tend to approach it by giving people funny things to do rather than just setting up a situation or having the cast read potentially-funny lines. Pegg, especially, tends to act with his whole body here, and just the way he stands when discovering he's locked himself out of his apartment again can draw a laugh. The climactic race itself has a bunch of little gems sprinkled through it, as well - I'll probably giggle during sports coverage for a while, imagining the commentators yelling "Bastard!" during instant replays.

Run Fatboy Run isn't sophisticated comedy, and there are some things like Gordon's aversion to pants that maybe play better in the UK than they do in the States. It's got plenty of laughs from start to finish, though, more than enough to make up for the occasional bit that doesn't quite work.

On HBS along with three other reviews.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run)

George Clooney has many fine qualities, but among the ones I most appreciate is an appreciation for past eras in film and American life that doesn't approach blind worship. Leatherheads could easily wallow in nostalgia, but that wouldn't really be funny, and it's always worth noting that the good old days had a lot of the same issues as today.

The film opens with a comparison of professional and college football in 1925. The college game, as exemplified by Princeton's Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), is just as huge as you might remember from Harold Lloyd's The Freshman; the "professional" Duluth Bulldogs play in cowfields with shoddy uniforms and equipment, booking games with whichever teams haven't yet succumbed to bankruptcy. When the Bulldogs go under, its fortysomething star player and brain trust, Dodge Connelly (George Clooney)comes up with a radical plan to save it - recruit Rutherford and use his star power to draw a much larger crowd. There's side effects to this, though - Rutherford brings reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who is secretly trying to expose the truth behind Rutherford's war hero status, and the increased money in play attracts the likes of C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), who acts as Rutherford's agent.

Clooney's film is something of a throwback, though not quite all the way to its period - that would have meant making it black and white and silent, which the studio likely would have balked at. Still, he gets as far back as the thirties, and the rapid banter between Clooney and Zellweger is well worth it. They've got a sharp chemistry from the very start, and the script never insults us by having them not recognize it. There's just Carter, who is legitimately charming, and neither of them is really the romancing type. Zellweger is prety good here; the sharp-tongued character suits her, and she's able to make Lexie more than just abrasive.

Clooney gets a chance to do a little bit of everything. His character is something of a tragic figure, in that he winds up destroying the thing he loves in order to save it, but he's not an angry or self-pitying character. Clooney's got gobs of matinee-idol charm, and has the knack for making Dodge both kind of cocky and self-deprecating at once. He snaps of his lines with perfect rapid-fire pacing, but gets some of his biggest laughs just from facial expressions.

John Krasinski is pretty good, too; he makes Rutherford smooth without making him seem deliberately smooth. There's a lot to like about the guy, although you can also see where Dodge might resent him, from the way everything seems to come so easily. There are a bunch of other fun supporting characters, though the team itself isn't a big part of that, the way one might expect it to be. Stephen Root is laid back as the rummy sportswriter who lets Dodge dictate his stories, and Johnathan Pryce is perfectly oily as the money man who represents every negative of the transformation of the game into a business. I also like Jeremy Ratchford (a regular scene-stealer on Cold Case), who shows up in the last act as an old war buddy of Dodge's.

Composer Randy Newman has a funny cameo in the same scene (he is, of course, the piano player), and he contributes a soundtrack that embraces its period but is seldom intrusive about it. The whole production feels like that; there's attention to detail and fondness for the details of the period and classic movies - it's a shame sleeper cars don't come into play in more modern movies - but the story recognizes that although the past is something that has great appeal, holding steadfastly to the way things are doesn't make a bad situation better.

The movie's not perfect: The last act both forces an unlikely "big game" scenario and a fairly ridiculous resolution to it, and as director George Clooney occasionally sets too slow a pace both for a modern movie or an authentic screwball comedy. Many more moments zing than drag, though, and the cast fits their parts so well as to make up for any issues with the story.

On HBS along with three other reviews.

The Grand

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Like the Marvel superheroes in the movies for which he writes screenplays, Zak Penn lives a double life. Sure, by day he's churning out nondescript comic book adaptations, but by night he directs mock documentaries with Werner Herzog - and they're far more entertaining than the likes of his X-Men scripts would have you expect.

The Grand focuses on a Las Vegas poker tournament with a ten million dollar winner-take-all pot. Though it takes place in the Golden Palace, it was started by the founder of The Rabbit's Foot, whose embattled owner Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) needs the money to cover a bridge loan or risk losing his grandpappy's casino. He starts the movie in rehab for every kind of addiction available - drugs, alcohol, tobacco, marriage (he's been married approximately 72 times). He's got some stiff competition at the tournament, though: Twins Larry (David Cross) and Lainie (Cheryl Hines) Schwartzman hail from Long Island, New York, and have been competing from a very early age, when their father (Gabe Kaplan) would pit them against each other but only encourage Lainie in order to motivate Larry. Lainie brings her family along with her, three kids and husband Fred Marsh (Ray Romano), who has been more than a bit peculiar ever since surviving a lightning strike. He doesn't quite compared to Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell) In the strange department, though; Melvin still lives with his mother (Estelle Harris) in his late twenties or early thirties, although his obsessive nature (to the point of being Asperger's) gives him a leg up calculating odds at the table. We also meet "Deuce" Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), who is basically Dennis Farina, an old rat-packer who misses the days when Vegas was committed to his trashiness; not enough legs get broken these days. Then there's The German (Werner Herzog), who is basically Werner Herzog on an especially crazy day, and Andy Andrews (Richard Kind), a rube from Wisconsin who won his seat playing poker online.

Those are just the main characters, of course; the likes of Jason Alexander, Judy Greer, Michael McKean, Hank Azaria, and others show up for quick bits as other players or supporting cast. The script for this movie is said to be only thirty or forty pages long, which means that there was not only plenty of room for improvisation, but most of the good jokes likely had to come from there. Some of these actors are playing fairly familiar personae - Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, and David Cross are playing exactly the characters one might expect, for instance, but that just means they know just what these people will do without thinking.

The less-obvious characters are just as funny, though. Werner Herzog arguably belongs in the "familiar" category - the photographs of Herzog used to tell us of The German's strange exploits are likely unretouched - but The German is so deadpan bizarre that even Herzog's reputation for eccentricity isn't enough. Consider that during the sit-down interview segments, he's patting his pet rabbit like he's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and it still feels like a tease for something even stranger. Then there's Parnell's Harold, who eschews the usual basement-dwelling nerd stereotypes in favor of an obsession with David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, which is just far enough off the beaten path to be humorously strange to non-fans but to give those who are just familiar with the franchise a laugh when he recites the Mentat's Mantra or says Lainie has the hairstyle of an Arrakinean prostitute. Which, of course, leads to a joke about the announcer who immediately claims experience with Arrakinean prostitutes.

Penn does a nice job herding all these strange characters; there was likely a lot of good stuff to edit. In style, it's much closer to Christopher Guest mockumentaries like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show than his previous entry in the genre: Incident at Loch Ness, aside from having Werner Herzog play the sanest person in the cast, was played with a completely straight face and a fairly linear story. There's story to The Grand, but the majority of it is jokes packed into a loose structure.

Most of them are good jokes, although every viewer will likely have a list of things they'd like more of and less of (I would trade a bunch of Ray Romano for more Werner Herzog). I'm sure aficionados could find flaws with the poker, as well, but you don't have to be a Mentat to calculate that the bits that work add up to much more than the bits that don't.

On HBS along with two other reviews.