Wednesday, October 26, 2005

An Evening with Steve Buscemi

A view from the top of the post-LONESOME JIM Q&A with Steve Buscemi (Mark Pfeiffer/October 26, 2005)

The Drexel Gateway Theater opened its doors to VIPs and the paying public for the first time tonight. (Proceeds from the event will go to ABATE--American Bikers Aimed Toward Education--and their Firefighters for Kids 18th Annual Toy Run.) The attraction was a screening of LONESOME JIM, the third feature film directed by Steve Buscemi. The noted character actor was also in attendance, a visit aided by the fact that Buscemi's wife hails from Hilliard.

Casey Affleck plays the weary and depressed title character, an aspiring writer in his late twenties who returns to his parents' Indiana home after his time in Manhattan produced nothing more than walking dogs for a living. Buscemi's direction proves him adept at capturing the details of rural midwestern life and finding a dry sense of humor amid the dissatisfaction and disappointment dragging Jim down. LONESOME JIM has a surprisingly light touch despite the heavier emotional tone. Although the film is full of sadness and despair, it still holds out hope that people are decent and all will turn out well in the end. It's a good film and worth looking for when it is released next spring.

The moderator asked a couple questions to kick off the post-film Q&A, but audience members had ample opportunities to ask Buscemi what their hearts desired. He humored the inevitable (and impolite) "why did you do that" question--there's one in every crowd--when asked if he regretted making CON AIR. Buscemi explained that he had fun, got to work with other interesting actors, and could help fund smaller, more personal projects with the payday he gets from appearing in bigger movies. It's worth remembering that very few actors are raking in $20 million a picture, so it's understandable why Buscemi or any other performer below the title would make some films less artistically minded than the indies that garner acclaim but pay squat. If being in CON AIR lets him direct small films he feels passionately about, where's the harm in it?

The new Drexel Gateway Theater (Mark Pfeiffer/October 26, 2005)

My first impression of the new Drexel Gateway is very positive. The seats are very comfortable, and there's plenty of leg room in the aisles. The auditoriums are plusher than I expected. This should be an excellent place to see movies. Parking around the Ohio State campus can be problematic, but a garage directly behind the theater is convenient and cheaper than anywhere else in the area unless you can snag a spot along the street somewhere in the neighborhood and are willing to hoof it.

A History of Violence

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Millbrook, Indiana is the picture of idyllic small town America that exists in Norman Rockwell paintings and TV sitcoms of the 1950s. In A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, trouble enters this peaceful burg when two criminal outsiders slink into a diner and try to rob it. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the soft-spoken diner owner, saves the day when he kills the bad guys in defense of his employees and customers.

Naturally the incident attracts a lot of attention from local media, but it also catches the eye of Philadelphia crime boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt). He believes that Tom is his long-lost brother Joey, a thug renowned for his brutality. Richie sends a crew to Millbrook to confirm that Tom is Joey and, if so, to bring him back to Pennsylvania.

Like a dormant virus, the propensity for violence is hidden until the proper conditions are realized in David Cronenberg’s film. When brought to the surface, the violence is unleashed in rapid bursts of fury. To illustrate the immediacy with which violent impulses are summoned, Cronenberg switches from the film’s restrained pace to quick cuts during the bloodshed.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE posits that such aggressive behavior lurks within everyone but remains masked most of the time. Cronenberg has the characters engage in role-playing in their everyday lives. They behave according to the norms and hierarchy in society, giving the director the chance to explore the purpose artifice and façade serve in personal and community relationships.

Like FAR FROM HEAVEN, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE takes nostalgic ideas of the so-called good old days and exposes the truth of human behavior that such rosy views obscure.

Grade: B+

An Unfinished Life

AN UNFINISHED LIFE (Lasse Hallström, 2005)

Single mother Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez)runs from an abusive boyfriend in AN UNFINISHED LIFE. With nowhere else to turn, she goes to the Wyoming home of her father-in-law Einar (Robert Redford). He still holds Jean responsible for the accidental death of his son—her husband—that happened more than a decade ago. Their relationship has been so frayed that Einar never knew he had a granddaughter. Also living with Einar is Mitch, a ranch hand played by Morgan Freeman. Mitch was mauled by a bear, and out of friendship and guilt, Einar cares for him. AN UNFINISHED LIFE brings these wounded individuals together with the anticipation of healing.

AN UNFINISHED LIFE is an affecting demonstration of the enormous impact forgiveness can have on oneself and others. Director Lasse Hallström’s Oscar-bait films, such as THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and CHOCOLAT, tend to have sentiment thickly applied, but AN UNFINISHED LIFE’S story of redemption is told with restraint. The film is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The characters’ emotional scars are old and deep, and the film grants time for changes to occur gradually. Aside from the abusive boyfriend, who pops up briefly, AN UNFINISHED LIFE is a film without a villain. The forces harming the characters’ lives are internal, not some external figure. Once they come to this realization, their lives are transformed. Jean learns to stand up for herself. Einar lets go of his anger and self-pity.

None of this is especially surprising, but it gains power through the cast’s uniformly solid performances. Lopez again shows that she’s a capable actress when she’s not being a diva. Redford lends great poignancy to the softening of his grizzled farmer’s bitterness. One more time Freeman is the film’s voice of reason, providing a steadying influence in stormy conditions. As Jean’s daughter Griff, Becca Gardner holds her own with these veterans.

Grade: B


PROOF (John Madden, 2005)

In PROOF long-suffering daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) cares for her brilliant, mentally ill father Robert (Anthony Hopkins). Catherine’s dad was a mathematical genius, but his final years have been marked with insanity that left him unable to work. PROOF begins the night before Robert’s funeral, a time that causes Catherine to wonder about her own mental health and if her father’s affliction runs in the family.

Math can confirm many things, but it can’t prove that love exists or how much of it there is. Such is the dilemma in PROOF, an emotionally charged film that throbs like an open wound. Catherine cannot prove the most important things in her life, and it is ripping her apart. Paltrow’s inward performance is of a piece with her stunning work as Sylvia Plath in the biopic SYLVIA. Again she’s an intelligent, depressed woman, but what makes her performance as Catherine different is the physicality of it. She often doesn’t look at others in conversation and wraps her arms around herself, making tangible how wrapped up she is in her own mind. In PROOF Paltrow and her SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE director John Madden reteam for a dynamite actor’s showcase and depiction of the ravages of mental illness on the individual and the family.

(Review first aired in a modified version on the October 11, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Oliver Twist

OLIVER TWIST (Roman Polanski, 2005)

Roman Polanski helms the latest cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST. Barney Clark stars as Oliver, an orphan who falls in with a group of boys who pick pockets on the London streets for their master. Ben Kingsley is Fagin, the devilish rogue who shows the boys kindness in exchange for their thieving.

With its handsome art direction and cinematography, Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST represents a triumph of formal design. It’s an impeccable production on a visual level and undeniably a well-made film, but the narrative often lacks the spark to bring it to life. The social commentary lingering from the source material grants Polanski some well-deserved potshots at those who believe Oliver should be grateful for even their most meager charity. Yet this airless adaptation chokes on its lack of freshness. A more interesting and relevant take on OLIVER TWIST might be to move it to the Brazilian slums in the explosive CITY OF GOD. OLIVER TWIST gradually improves, building to a climax in which Oliver pardons his oppressor, a scene that contains real power. Unfortunately, too much of the film lacks the same resonance.

Grade: C+

(Review first aired on the October 11, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

In Her Shoes

IN HER SHOES (Curtis Hanson, 2005)

Toni Collette’s Rose has a loving but exasperating relationship with her party girl sister Maggie(Cameron Diaz) in IN HER SHOES. Aside from a shared fondness for footwear, the two couldn’t be more different. Rose is the practical one who works hard at the office and struggles to get and keep a man in her life. Maggie can barely hold down any job, choosing instead to exploit her genetic superiority to snag well-heeled men to support her. Eventually Rose has enough of Maggie’s freeloading and throws her out, leaving her to turn to a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) neither of them know at all.

IN HER SHOES director Curtis Hanson again demonstrates his uncommon touch for storytelling with more of a literary approach. Working from Susannah Grant’s adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s chick-lit novel, Hanson’s loose direction lets the film meander, to soak up the tone, while still hitting the pivotal yet familiar developments in the plot.

Diaz and Collette are playing types, but they are given room to embody the characters, frequently with surprising results. Diaz’s Maggie proves to be more than just a good-time girl, although discovering her deeper dimensions requires moving into a retirement community. Maggie could have easily been just an object of scorn and ridicule, but Diaz finds the complexity that makes her character relatable. Likewise, Collette doesn’t characterize Rose as a martyr or someone who has all the answers.

IN HER SHOES may not look much different than other female relationship films, but when faced with the choice to follow convention or not, it usually goes the other way. It’s practically a given that such a film will end with a wedding, but it’s a rarity, one found here, that such a scene will feel fresh. A funny, generous film with strong performances, IN HER SHOES redeems the often derogatory "chick flick" label.

Grade: B


DOOM (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005)

The Rock leads a tactical fighting unit to a research base on Mars in DOOM. The station is locked down until the squad can locate and eliminate whatever is wreaking havoc. These elite fighters are loaded with weapons capable of dealing with whatever alien predators they may encounter. The compound even has a few extra-lethal guns stashed away for the cleverest to find.

DOOM originated as a first person shooter video game, but what makes such games fun to play does not translate into compelling viewing. The characters are merely slight variations of one another, with Rosamund Pike’s blonde scientist in the mix in to provide relief from all of the raging testosterone. Although the film spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to develop them, the results are the most boring cut scenes a gamer could watch. The Rock is wasted, employed more for his physical stature than his comedic abilities. A film this humorless is in bad need of the charisma he has demonstrated time and again, whether as a lead in THE RUNDOWN or as a supporting player in the dud BE COOL.

Considering that DOOM and other first person shooter games thrive on constant ammunition firing, there’s surprisingly little action for much of the film’s running time. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, responsible for helming two of Jet Li’s worst American films, repeats scene after scene of the squad creeping around dark, dank corridors that lead only to brief engagements in combat. The action finally gets ratcheted up in the end, which includes the one noteworthy sequence: the game’s first person point of view with the gun bobbing in the lower center of the frame. Gamers would be better off playing DOOM or sitting in front of a blank screen than wasting time with this incredibly dull ALIENS rip-off.

Grade: F

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Keane Conversation with Lodge Kerrigan

Film critic Kent Jones and director Lodge Kerrigan discuss KEANE at the Wexner Center (Mark Pfeiffer/October 21, 2005)

Lodge Kerrigan

In addition to introducing (and reintroducing) central Ohio cineastes to the best the film world has to offer, the Wexner Center also possesses an enviable record of bringing in the people who make the films. Capping their latest visiting filmmaker program was the area premiere of KEANE followed by Kent Jones' post-film discussion with director Lodge Kerrigan. (His other features, CLEAN, SHAVEN and CLAIRE DOLAN, screened last Friday. Unfortunately I was unable to attend.)

While I wouldn't rank KEANE among the year's best films, Kerrigan's rigorous and empathetic examination of a mentally ill man, intensely played by Damian Lewis, is recommended viewing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Lull

Allow me to make my periodic post apologizing for the lull generated by my lack of posting of late. The reasons aren't anything exotic: no avian flu or blockbuster deal with web portal. Rather, it's a combination of being exceptionally busy and desiring to tinker with reviews I've already written for television. The busy part has interfered with the plan to lengthen what I've already delivered on NOW PLAYING.

I'll get around to posting a few reviews soon, hopefully beginning after returning from the Antonoio Banderas ZORRO sequel that has taken an unusually long amount of time to get to the screen. (Maybe it isn't so unusual. This year has turned up follow-up films arriving several years after their forebears [DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO, MISS CONGENIALITY 2].) Then again, I'm going to have the latest episode of LOST waiting on the DVR when I get home.

This time might as well be as good a time as any for an unscientific study. If you're a regular reader of this blog--and I hope you are--please feel free to let me know you're out there, what brought you here in the first place, what keeps you coming back, and from where you're reading (city, country, etc.--not "in front of the computer"). The comments section is probably the best place, but if you'd prefer to e-mail me, that's fine too. I have a general idea of the readership from looking at the site traffic reports, but I know they're imperfect.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Trailer Tricks

For an object lesson in how editing and music in trailers can make enormous differences in setting expectations, take a look at the clever mock trailers for THE SHINING and WEST SIDE STORY.

THE SHINING has been transformed into a heartwarming domestic comedy while WEST SIDE STORY becomes a horror film. The former is a brilliant piece of work. If I didn't know any better, I wouldn't suspect that it completely perverts what the film is actually like. The rejiggered WEST SIDE STORY trailer is pretty good too, although it "cheats" in adding some well-placed special effects to enhance the illusion.

(Credit to Rob Blackwelder for posting these links on the Online Film Critics Society forum)

Addendum: I found another one linked on the P.S. 260 blog. It applies the horror film template to TITANIC. Not bad but not as inspired as the other two.