REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘independent movie’

THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)

CRAZY HEART (2009)

In C, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

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STUDIO
– Fox Searchlight

CAST – Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jack Nation

DIRECTOR – Scott Cooper

MPAA Rating: R

In the days before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was watching TV at my mother’s house, when the trailer for Crazy Heart came on. After seeing the trailer only once, I said “I have got to see this movie!” I immediately put it into my Queue, and when Jeff Bridges took home the Best Actor Award a few weeks later, I moved it up. Now that I have seen this movie, I can say it is worth the wait.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a once-famous country music star who, because of years of hard living (and hard drinking), has been relegated to playing bars and bowling alleys to make a living. Traveling by himself cross-country, just him, his guitars, and his ’78 Chevy Suburban, a day in Bad’s life constitutes wandering into town, meeting the pick-up band of the night, checking into a motel, procuring his nightly bottle of McClure’s, doing the show (with the occasional emergency trip off-stage to throw up), then finishing off the bottle, quietly leaving the groupie of the night asleep at the motel the next morning. Not exactly what you would call a glamorous life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) performs in Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter from the local newspaper (and niece of the keyboard player in the local band). At first, their relationship is professional (she’s there to interview him), but they quickly form an unlikely bond. Soon, his agent has him diverted to Phoenix, where he is slated to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s one-time protégé, who is now a major recording star in his own right. Bad resists at first, but the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people again (and getting decent pay doing it) appeals to him, so he agrees. Later, on his way home to Houston, he makes plans to stop over at Jean’s for a few days.

To venture any further into the story would mean spoilers, but I will say that Crazy Heart is a movie about living a hard life and paying dues. I think many of us can relate to that in one way or another; I can say that I’ve been paying my dues for some time. Anyway, Bad likes doing what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like where he does it (As stated earlier, his first performance in the movie is at a bowling alley), but he keeps plugging away, hoping his next gig is better than his last.

His relationship with Tommy seems to have some drama involved, but I don’t think it had to do with Tommy himself. From the looks of things, the rift between them was actually caused by the record label, but when your blood is 80-Proof, your judgment get clouded and you don’t see the outside influence; you only see what’s in front of you. In Phoenix, Bad and Tommy talk about the old times, and that night’s show went off pretty much without a hitch, so it’s obvious these two really still like each other. But Bad is set in his ways, much to the chagrin of those around him.

I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges. He has an easygoing way about him that makes him look so natural on the screen. Here, his performance is very solid, and his portrayal of Bad (who says his given name will be on his tombstone) is among the best of any movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Those of you who are familiar with country music from the 1970s will recognize the name Kris Kristosfferson, himself a one-time hard-drinking former star who later got a second chance. Bridges channels Kristofferson so well that in some of the performance scenes, he nearly looks like him. By the way, both Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell did their own singing, and from the looks of it, all the performances were recorded live on location (either that, or the sound editors were vastly underpaid for their services).

Though this may be considered a romance film, I put this in that rare field of “romance films for men”. It’s a movie told from a man’s perspective, it’s not a “five-tissue” movie (though it is still powerfully emotional), and it doesn’t have a typical romantic ending. In fact, I think the ending is about as realistic as can be, given the circumstances surrounding a key incident between Bad and Jean regarding her son, Buddy (Jack Nation). There is also an influence from the movie Tender Mercies, thanks to co-star and producer Robert Duvall (who won his Oscar in that movie). The songs are all very good, too. One of them, “The Weary Kind”, written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, resulted in this movie’s second Oscar. On a side note, it isn’t often that a character and a real person who share the same name are mentioned at the same Academy Awards ceremony (Goerge Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was also named Ryan Bingham).

Crazy Heart isn’t for everyone, but this is one of the better films of 2009 that I have seen so far. Anyone who has an appreciation for country and/or blues should see it. I may not be a country fan, but I do like the blues, and this movie is definitely about having the blues!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

In Comedy, D, Independent, Motion Pictures on June 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

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STUDIO – Universal/Gramercy 

CAST – Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Shawn Andrews, Michelle Burke, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Christin Hinojosa, Sasha Jenson, Milla Jovovich, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ribisi, Wiley Wiggins 

DIRECTOR – Richard Linklater 

MPAA Rating: R 

Every so often, a movie comes along and takes a nostalgic look at the innocent days of youth from years long past. Arguably, the greatest example of this is George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In 1993, writer/director Richard Linklater tweaked the Graffiti formula, relocated it to Austin, Texas, set it in 1976, added lots of beer and grass, and gave us Dazed and Confused

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, starting on May 28, 1976. But this isn’t just any day picked at random; it is the last day of school for students in Austin, Texas. At Lee High School, the outgoing juniors are preparing to wreak havoc on the new crop of freshmen. For the girls, it’s a series of humiliating, yet relatively harmless, stunts, including being covered in ketchup, mustard, and oatmeal. then cleaning off at a car wash. But for the boys, it’s being hunted down like prey by gangs of upper-classmen and getting swatted with custom-made paddles. One of the new seniors, star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) seems less interested in the hazing than he is in the so-called “team pledge” he feels he is forced to sign so he can play football next season. Meanwhile, one of the freshmen, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), starts to blend in with the upper-classmen after getting “busted” earlier in the day. But everyone is geared up for the event of the year: an end-of-school-year blowout at Kevin Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) house. But the beer arrived early, his parents cancelled their trip, and the party got nixed before it even started. Bummer! Enter David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), an old-school party animal who quickly rustles up the gang for an impromptu gathering at the Moon Tower. Before long, everyone is drinking beer, smoking pot, and making out at the party. 

Dawson, Wooderson, Pink, and Mitch (Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins) hang out at the Emporium

 It goes without saying that Dazed and Confused is a very loose movie. Basically, the plot has at least five different story lines. First, “Pink” Floyd doesn’t want to sign a written pledge made out by his coach to stay off drugs, though his teammates want him to. Next is a small group of freshmen trying to evade getting “busted” by the seniors (with mixed results). Then there are the three intellectuals (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sabrina Ribisi), who try to fit in, even though they can’t stand anyone else but each other. There is the two-time senior – and major jerk – Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) who gets his comeuppance, masterminded by freshman Mitch Kramer. And, of course, there is the aforementioned party that got busted and relocated. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this move, so much that it took two screenings to get it all. I had seen this movie before several years ago, and quite frankly, I didn’t get it. After watching again, there are some things I now understand, and others that make me think “My God, were things really that anarchistic in the ’70s?” Behaviors exhibited in this movie clearly demonstrated how lax things were back then. Public hazing, pot smoking, underage beer consumption, and an apparent lack of curfew were among the many things that were not only not enforced, but in some cases even encouraged (as evidenced by one junior-high teacher who smiled when the seniors came over to announce their intentions). I wonder how today’s kids would view this movie. Would they inspired into some kind of radical behavior, or would they look at their parents (and even grandparents!) in awe at imagining them doing even some of the things seen here? Given that the school year is wrapping up here in Southern California, and that my car got egged while I was working this evening, I’m more inclined toward the latter. Egging a car? Not very original… 

Upon viewing this movie, I started drawing comparisons to my own high school experiences. No one got paddled my freshman year. The preferred method of hazing was called “trash-canning” (I got it twice; the second time, they tied my laces together). Drugs were pretty pervasive my first two years in high school; there was a spot near the girls’ locker room known as “the field”, where hundreds of students would get stoned during recess. The seniors in my freshman year were quite rowdy, too; the Senior Class President was actually forced to resign when he was busted for shellacking Playboy centerfolds onto the school’s lunch tables! Mind you, this was the late-70s and early-80s, not 1976, but there are some similarties, nonetheless. 

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s personal American Graffiti. Some would argue the movie is semi-autobiographical. Several residents in Austin, Texas, tried to file a defamation lawsuit against Linklater and Universal Studios because some of the characters had names similar to theirs, but the statute of limitations had passed. Still, Dazed and Confused launched the careers of some of today’s more popular Hollywood stars (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey), and it is an amusing and nostalgic look back to a time when our whole lives were ahead of us, even if momentary terror made it appear otherwise. 

8½ (1963)

In #, Classic, Comedy, Foreign, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

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STUDIO – Embassy Pictures

CASTMarcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rosella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia

DIRECTORFederico Fellini

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

For many years, I have heard about , the acclaimed film by Italian director Federico Fellini. But because I generally have an aversion to non-English-speaking movies (I confess, a rather unhealthy centrist conceit), I avoided this movie for fear that I would not understand it. I had seen only a couple of European movies before (specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1949 French movie Gigi, which would later be remade into the Best Picture of 1958). It takes a certain kind of talent to read subtitles and still be able to follow the movie; recall that I had a little difficulty with Inglourious Basterds a few months ago. So, sitting through a film like would appear to pose a unique challenge, and rather than stay safely in my American hole, I took a chance and expanded my horizons.

This movie opens at a health spa at a remote location somewhere in Italy, where film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to escape the rigors of his everyday life and prepare for his next movie at the same time. Reporters, gossip columnists, producers, diva actresses, his wife, his mistress, and even a Cardinal all play their parts in both running interference and contributing to the movie’s creation. At the same time, Guido’s dreams of escapism and sexually-charged recalled memories from childhood step in to influence his decision-making process. To make things even more twisted, Guido starts incorporating these dreams and fantasies into his movie, causing everyone to wonder just what Guido’s movie is all about.

Guido and his wife Luisa (Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée) at the café

Confused yet? To blur the lines between art and reality even further, is a movie about the making of… . Now, you’re all mixed up, aren’t you? Well, considering that the working title of this movie was La Bella Confusione (“The Beautiful Confusion”), it is easy to spot that Fellini himself wasn’t sure which direction this movie was going, either. Officially, this is Fellini’s ninth movie, but because it’s a left-turn from his usual fare, and because it is somewhat autobiographical, the title is based on his notion that it’s “movie 8½” to him, nestled between La Dolce Vita (1960) and Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965). As a result, is about as “meta” a movie can become, with disjointed imagery that actually forms a cohesive whole. For example, early in the movie, Guido and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), are engaging in a little sexual role play. At one point, he takes her eyeliner and draws garish eyebrows onto her forehead. This is a deliberate reference to a beach-dwelling prostitute he’d known when he was a child; she was called “La Saraghina” (Eddra Gale), who is later introduced during a flashback.

Fellini’s use of imagery, from the claustrophobic dream of the traffic jam at the beginning of the movie, to the Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into the spa’s steam room all carry significance; of course, some are more obvious than others. In a fantasy, we first see the lovely Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as wholesome and pure, dressed in white; when we finally meet her in person, she is glamorous and sexy, dressed flamboyantly in black. It is also no coincidence that Fellini peppered with quick glimpses of a mysterious woman, one of which bearing her likeness on a Virgin Mary. This woman was Caterina Boratto, a renowned Italian actress and Fellini’s “dream girl” from his own childhood.

Now, I’m not about to try to examine this movie. There are college courses in Italian cinema because of , and numerous students have dissected this movie in their Masters theses for over 40 years. But watching this movie was indeed an eye-opening experience, filled to the brim with unconventional cuts, shots, dialogue, and editing, all of which seem to give a life of its own. I screened it twice, first by watching the movie itself, then by listening to the essay commentary which provided some of the tidbits of information I have learned. The commentary examines the reasons why old women were cast as Catholic priests in one scene, and in another the Cardinal (Tito Masini) is shown as nothing more than a naked old man. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the giant scaffolding which is to become a launchpad for a rocket in Guido’s movie. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I knew something was up when a producer shows a two-foot tall matte painting of a rocket to be superimposed onto the full-scale launchpad shown under construction. According to the commentary, Fellini had ordered the scaffolding to be built as high as the workers could get it, but even he had no idea what he was going to do with it.

The two-disk set comes packed with features, including interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, who recounts her 17-year love affair with Fellini (even after she had married someone else), assistant director Lina Wertmüller, who went on to have a distinguished career of her own, and three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shared his thoughts on how Fellini achieved his vision on-screen. There is also a 1969 pseudo-documentary by Fellini which aired on NBC; in it, he traces the creative process in the casting of his next project. It plays off as a mini-, complete with reporters, actors, and producers all vying for an audience with Fellini.

But what fascinated me was a German documentary about composer Nino Rota, a reclusive musical savant best known for two things. First was his famous collaboration with Fellini, which rivals that of Spielberg and Williams, or Burton and Elfman. A typical meeting between Fellini and Rota would have the two at a piano, trying to hammer out a composition for a given movie, only to give up hours later, exasperated. Then, as Fellini would leave the room, Rota would improvise a piece (probably just to relax after a hard day), and Fellini would exclaim “That’s it! That’s the music I want!” But Nino Rota was also notorious for recycling his music. Did you know that his Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score for The Godfather was withdrawn because it was based on his score for Fortunella (1958)? Listen for yourself, and you will recognize it!

So, I have long last come to the conclusion of another long review. But, as is often the case, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fellini’s is a movie different from any other. Elements and inspirations from Citizen Kane, “Pinocchio”, Dante’s Inferno and even the Keystone Cops, as well as Fellini’s unique ability to draw from memory to feed his imagination, make a standout among classic cinema. You may need to watch it more than once to get it, but this one is worth the effort.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (2009)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, P on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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STUDIO — Lions Gate 

CAST — Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton 

DIRECTOR — Lee Daniels 

MPAA Rating: R 

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the latest “next big thing” known as Gabourey Sidibe. I am here to tell you that the claim is justified. 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe, in her motion picture debut), an overweight 16-year-old girl, pregnant with her second child by her father, and still in junior high school. As if life wasn’t already hard enough, she lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), an abusive monster of a woman whose sole purpose in life is to make nicey-nice with the social workers by using Precious’ mentally-disabled daughter as a means to keep the welfare checks coming in. 

When her school finds out about her second pregnancy, they have no choice but to expel her. But the principal reaches out by telling her of an alternative education program, where she can work toward a GED. There, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who can see the inner beauty and intelligence within Precious and, bit by bit, helps her to discover it for herself.

Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) on her first trip to alternative education school

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I was taken in and I never let go. I have seen interviews with Gabby Sidibe; she is a charming, funny young lady with a bubbly personality. Her characterization of Precious Jones was so moving, it is very easy to see how she was very likely a strong runner-up in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 2009 (which went to one of my personal favorites, Sandra Bullock). Sidibe’s performance is so captivating, it is truly hard to believe that we are actually watching (to borrow a college football term) a redshirt freshman in the role. I can only see bigger and better things for her down the road. And one might dismiss the movie altogether because the supporting cast features three singers (Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey) and a comedienne (Mo’Nique), but think again. Mo’Nique may have taken home the Oscar, but it was Mariah Carey(!) who really surprised me as social worker Ms. Weiss. Here she is, with no makeup and wearing frumpy clothes, and she looked and acted so much like a real social worker, I almost forgot this was one of the most popular (and most glamorous) singers of the last 20 years! And director Lee Daniels’ cutaways into the fantasy worlds which Precious creates whenever she is abused, whether by her father, her mother, or even some punks on the street, gives us, the viewers, a look into how an abuse victim mentally escapes from the pain, even during the act.

This movie is about the vicious cycle that is the depravity of inner city life, and how one woman gave a girl quickly slipping on that downward spiral the gift of literacy and, ultimately, the power to step out on her own and make a new life for herself and her children. But it was more than just having the right people help her; it’s also a story of finding inner strength. And where there is strength, there is courage, and it is in courage that one develops a positive self-esteem.

The DVD is packed with several features, including Gabby Sidibe’s mesmerizing audition video. Did you know that over 400 women auditioned for the part in a nationwide open call? Did you know that filming of Denzel Washington’s American Gangster (2007) blocked Sidibe’s normal route to school, so she decided to go in the opposite way to the audition instead? Did you know that executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to promote the movie after the movie was completed? That last little fact debunks the theory that, since Oprah put her name on the project, her show had to be mentioned in the movie. Sorry. While it’s true Precious asks another character if she watches Oprah, the all-powerful Ms. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

Precious is a gripping and moving motion picture with a powerful message that there is strength in each of us to find the ability to reach out, to love, to learn, and to improve ourselves, all in the face of adversity. There aren’t many films that reach into the bowels of despair, yet convey a strong message of hope. This movie succeeds, and with a payoff for the ages.

3-1/2 out of 5

IN THE BEDROOM (2001)

In Crime, Drama, I, Independent, Motion Pictures on April 5, 2010 at 9:04 am

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STUDIO — Miramax

CAST — Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother, Nick Stahl

DIRECTOR —  Todd Field 

MPAA Rating: R

Once in a while, a movie comes along and makes you ask yourself how you would change if the unthinkable happened to you. In the Bedroom is one those movies.

Set in coastal Maine, this movie takes its title from a lobster trapping term (which is explained early on). A typical lobster trap consists of two parts, the entrance and the parlor (or “bedroom”). The entrance has a funnel, into which a lobster crawls inside. Next, it enters another funnel leading to the bait inside the parlor. If a trap is left unattended for too long, the parlor might become overcrowded, which may lead to the trapped lobsters fighting among themselves. Therefore, it is best to avoid having more than two lobsters “in the bedroom”. Interesting, the things you can learn in movies, huh?

Anyway, the story is about a middle-aged couple, Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek); he is a physician, and she is a music teacher. They have a son, Frank (Nick Stahl), who wants to become an architect, but he is also considering staying in town at least one more year to work on a lobster boat so that he can stay with his girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). It all seems nice and normal, except for one minor detail: Natalie has two children, is nearly twice Frank’s age, and is separated from her abusive husband, Richard (William Mapother).

Okay, kids and age difference aside, Frank and Natalie’s relationship is a perfectly normal one. But Richard, in a fit of jealousy, confronts Frank in Natalie’s kitchen and… Well, let’s say for sake of argument a gun discharges, resulting in Frank being being shot in the face at point-blank range. We, the viewers, are not witness to the shooting, but we do know that Richard had the gun and Frank is killed.

The Fowlers (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson) in the days after their son's death

But the real story begins with how the Fowlers deal with the sudden, untimely death of their son. Matt experiences internal struggles, to the point that he seems to lose confidence in himself; he also seems to be drinking more than usual. As for Ruth, she appears to be cool and detached, when in fact she seems ready to explode with rage at any moment. These conflicting personalities simmer throughout the rest of the movie, as the Fowlers fight desperately to continue leading normal lives. But left unattended, a simmer gradually builds to a boiling point, and Matt and Ruth eventually learn things about themselves and each other that they had never known before, and they are not pretty.

Speaking from the perspective of someone whose parents have buried a child, I can tell you firsthand that this sort of tragedy is at best traumatic. Without going into detail, I had a brother whose life ended far too early, and my parents were both profoundly affected by it. I was quite young myself, but I recall my mother doing lots of artsy-craftsy things like needlepoint and painting as (I believe) a form of therapy, while my father took nearly all traces of my late brother’s existence and buried it inside a desk drawer, never to openly speak of it again.

This movie brought back some of those memories for me, and I really felt empathy for Matt and Ruth. As for Natalie, she turned into a sort of lost soul. After the shooting, she found herself with a dead boyfriend, and the father of her children accused of the crime. So, I ask you, the reader, the following question: What would you do if you were thrust into a situation like this? Even if you think you know the answer, you really don’t. And In the Bedroom makes you realize this in an introspective way. I have read that this movie is a modern-day tragedy, and I agree with that assessment. It almost plays out as a story written by Shakespeare if he were alive today. High praise, indeed.

3-1/2 out of 5

A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, S on March 26, 2010 at 12:52 pm

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STUDIO — Focus Features  

CAST — Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus  

DIRECTORS —  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen   

MPAA Rating: R   

So, I’m putting this DVD into my player, knowing that it’s the Coen Brothers, and I come away from this movie asking more questions…  

Why is that?  

In A Serious Man, a Jewish physics professor in the Midwest  named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes home from work one day, when his wife (Sari Lennick) tells him out of the blue that she wants a divorce, as well as a “get” (a Jewish ritual divorce). Why? She has fallen for another professor (and Larry’s friend), Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). And with that, we are taken on a journey that leads to a test of faith. Along the way, he has to contend with his pot-smoking son (Aaron Wolff) and his upcoming bar mitzvah, his overbearing daughter (Jessica McManus) obsessed with her outward appearance, his mooching homeless brother (Richard Kind) and his gambling problem, an unscrupulous student (David Kang) trying to bribe his way to a better grade, a gentile macho neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) who apparently doesn’t know where the property line is, and the beautiful woman next door (Amy Landecker) whose husband is frequently away “on business”.  

The Gopnik family (from left: Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Aaron Wolff, Michael Stuhlbarg) at the dinner table

 Obviously, Larry has a lot on his mind. But as a physics professor, he knows that all actions have consequences, a point he made clear when confronting Clive, the student who had attempted to bribe him. And in A Serious Man, consequences account for a major contributor to the plot (such as it is — The Coen Brothers admit in the Special Features there really isn’t one). 

It is widely reported that this movie is based on the Story of Job in the Old Testament. Now, I do not claim to be religious by any means, but here is how I understand the Story of Job: God and Satan made a bet that a well-to-do farmer with a happy family would still believe in Him after everything he loves (his family, his home, his friends, his farm, etc.)gets taken away from him; God wins. 

So, what is at stake for our Professor Gopnik? Well, the movie (the main portion of it, anyway) begins with him taking a physical. We also learn he is awaiting tenure at the college where he works, and the “other man”, Sy Ableman, is so supportive of Larry it borders on creepy. 

There is a prologue in this movie about an eastern European Jewish couple, spoken completely in Yiddish. In it, the husband comes home late from work and tells his wife that his cart lost a wheel, but he got help from a man believed to have died from typhus three years earlier. He shows up at the house, and the wife, skeptical of his existence, stabs the “dybbuk” in the chest with an ice pick. The guest then laughs, gets up, and walks out the door into the snow. What does this have to do with the movie? Well, without revealing too many spoilers, Larry has a series of nightmares during his “rough patch”, and at least one of them involves talking to a ghost. 

On the surface, A Serious Man appears to be doing little more than going through the motions. But, after digesting it 24 hours later, I find myself answering many of the questions that I found myself asking when I had finished watching it. The Special Features were somewhat helpful. They included a featurette about making the movie, another about re-creating a Midwestern 1960s atmosphere, and even a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms for us  “goys” (gentiles). 

Normally, the Coen Brothers make movies that I just don’t get; this one, on the other hand, turned out to be an interesting profile of a man facing a crisis, and the consequences of the actions (and inactions) he takes in response to it. In the end, A Serious Man is an introspective movie that takes a while to sink in, but once it does, it will make you think. 

CORALINE (2009)

In Animation, C, Drama, Family, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on March 15, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO — Focus Features

CAST — Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr.

DIRECTOR —  Henry Selick

MPAA Rating: PG

I have been a fan of animation for almost my entire life, so when the Academy decided to add a Best Animated Feature category to the Oscars, I found it to be welcome news. And when Coraline became one of the nominees in this category for 2009, I decided to check it out.

Coraline is the story of Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) whose family has just moved into a rather unusual apartment building occupied by rather eccentric tenants. Her parents seem to be too overly occupied with a catalog that they have been working on for what appears to be (from Coraline’s perspective) an eternity. In fact, when she got exposed to poison oak, her parents did nothing about it.

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) discovers the secret doorway

Then one day, the landlady’s grandson Wybie (voice of Robert Bailey, Jr.) drops off a gift for Coraline: a doll that looks just like her. That night, she is awakened by the sound of mice scurrying under her bed. She chases them to a secret doorway leading to another apartment  just like hers. Almost. It’s more brightly lit, the food tastes good, and her “other” parents dote on her. It’s perfect, with one exception: Everyone in this alternate universe has buttons where their eyes should be. And in order to stay in this world, Coraline must have buttons sewn into her eyes, too

I think I will stop here, because the trailer tells you this much of the story. But I have to say that I had a fair amount of expectation for this movie. It was received well by critics, it had decent box office, and it was up for the Animated Feature Oscar. This should be a decent movie, right?

Not really. Stop-motion animation is the most ambitious form of the craft. Personally, I am fascinated by it, and I wish I had the patience to do it myself. But, as the first stop-motion animated feature released in 3-D, Coraline disappoints. From the word “Go”, you are exposed to one “clever” 3-D shot after another. Okay, so I watched the 2-D version of the movie, but constantly seeing jumping mice, flying cotton candy, and numerous objects ”reaching” toward me throughout the film is not my idea of a good time. 3-D is supposed to enhance the movie experience, not dominate it. The end result is that the 3-D in this movie was too distracting. If you want to see how stop-motion animation should be done, I would like to direct your attention to Nick Park and his very talented staff at Aardman Animation (the people behind “Wallace & Gromit”, Chicken Run, and those Chevron commercials with the talking cars). I would also like to suggest the people behind this movie do the same; perhaps they might learn something from it before embarking on their next project.

As for the plot, I thought the story was very clever, but the execution was lacking the energy to drive it. By the third act, I did sit up and pay close attention, but everything leading up to it looked like it needed to be done over again. Too much 3-D distraction. Another weakness I found here was the voice talent. The most interesting character in the whole movie is the cat (voice of Craig Daniel). The rest of the cast sounded like they phoned in their lines, just so they could collect a paycheck.

To its credit, Coraline is full of stunning and sometimes original imagery, but the lackluster voice work and the overdose of old-school 3-D trickery make this movie fall flat.

THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century. 

THE WRESTLER (2008)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sports, W on January 31, 2010 at 1:23 am

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STUDIO — Fox Searchlight

CAST — Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

DIRECTOR —  Darren Aronofsky

MPAA Rating: R

I entered this movie not as a wrestling fan (which I am not), but as a fan of movies about men struggling to find themselves. Also, I have been a longtime fan of Mickey Rourke (I first caught him in The Pope of Greenwich Village, back in the 1980s). During the 1990s, he more or less fell off the radar, only to return in 2005’s Sin City. From there, he reached a well-deserved, long-overdue critical (and popular) acclaim in The Wrestler. In this movie, Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, professional wrestler and self-described “broken down piece of meat.”

Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) prepares to make his signature move.

In the credits, we view The Ram’s past glory, through ticket stubs, flyers, magazine covers and newspaper clippings, all from the 1980s. Then we lurch forward 20 years later to see him still stepping into the ring every week to do what he loves to do. Make no mistake, this is not the WWE we’re talking about; this is a small-time circuit, where the fights are uglier (even though still choreographed), the blood is real, and the pay is lousy. So, to make ends meet, he works for a local grocery store. Along the way, he befriends a local stripper (Marisa Tomei) and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

It is not often when I say this, but Mickey Rourke was born to make this movie. He plays Randy The Ram as an inwardly tortured soul who knows he has screwed up in his life, and the scars he wears from his years in the ring are symbolic of the pain within him. He loves what he does every weekend, but in the real world things just don’t go over well. The most noteworthy example is when he manages to reach out to his daughter, only to drop the ball later on.

The Wrestler was wonderfully-acted, the script was well-written, and director Darren Aronofsky made what I consider a must-see movie. I recommend it as a must-add to your Queue.

4 out of 5