Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

Lamb


A road trip like none you've ever seen.

A road trip like none you’ve ever seen.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Wexler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, Joel Murray, Ron Burkhardt, Mark Kelly, Robert Longstreet, Matt Oberg, Amirah Griffin, Iris Elliott, Drew Langer, Mackenzie Paige, Erin Kennedy Portress, Maggie Raymond, Kathleen Vernon, Jennifer Spriggs . Directed by Ross Partridge

As a society, we tend to be protective – some would say over-protective – of our kids. We try to insure that no harm comes to them, but there are predators out there, particularly those who get their sexual jollies by violating children. Those are the worst kinds of scum, the vilest kind of human being that we can imagine. But do we really imagine what a 47-year-old man can see in an 11-year-old girl?

David Lamb (Partridge) is just such a man. He’s reeling from the death of his father (Burkhardt) and is on the ragged edge of losing his job but also his girlfriend Linny (Wexler) who is getting fed up with David’s passive-aggressive behavior. Depressed and lonely, David finds a place to sit and think on a Chicago street corner in a dodgy neighborhood when he’s approached by Tommie (Laurence), a precocious 11-year-old girl who is trying to bum a cigarette. David reacts by trying to convince her to play a trick on the friends of hers who put her up to the cigarette dodge by pretending to be kidnapped by David. He drags her into his SUV and admonishes her for getting in with him in the first place; “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells he as they drive away, “But I could have been.”

The two begin a fast friendship. Tommie is being raised by her uncaring mom (Pulsipher) and her mom’s even less-caring boyfriend (McNairy). Like David, Tommie is lonely and prone to depression. She needs guidance and David might just be the man to provide it. She agrees to go with him when he proposes a road trip to the cabin his late father once owned. As the two drive to Wyoming through landscapes both desolate and rural, the two will discover that love takes all sorts of forms – and not all of them are what we expect.

Just reading the summary of the plot makes me a little bit squeamish and I’m sure it does most of you as well. This is a bit of a spoiler alert but a necessary one – the movie never goes where you think it’s heading, but that creepiness factor is always there. Partridge, who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, has a very thin line to straddle. David is a man who makes a lot of bad choices and there is some evidence that deep down he has a really good heart but holy crap! This is not a good idea and hopefully no 47-year-old men who see this will think this kind of behavior is okay.

Laurence has a difficult role to play and I’m not sure how old she is (IMDb doesn’t specify) but she handles this part with a maturity and self-awareness that is beyond the capability of most juvenile actors. She is never sexual although the situations that she is in have that undertone; she and Partridge dance around the obvious inappropriateness of the situation without crossing any lines, leading the audience to make their own decisions. Other critics have admired that about the movie.

And I can see their point. This is going to make audiences feel massively uncomfortable. We’re really treading in taboo waters here and there are those who are going to excoriate this movie because of it. No matter how you slice it, the relationship is an inappropriate one and even if you say “well, they clearly are good for each other” you have to wonder what a 47-year-old man gets out of a relationship with a child who is too young to be a Girl Scout. It just isn’t healthy.

Wexler is also outstanding in a tiny role that she makes the most of. McNairy and Pulsipher have even briefer roles in thankless parts but they both get the job done nicely. The cinematography is terrific and the score works nicely. The one drawback here is that some people are going to have a problem with the situation, a BIG problem. You’re going to have to decide for yourself how willing you are to endure a film that depicts a situation that is not only likely to make the viewer feel uncomfortable but might make them feel downright hostile…or even squeamish.

REASONS TO GO: Laurence delivers a surprisingly mature performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A very creepy situation that only gets creepier as the movie goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult situations and thematic material as well as adult language; there is nothing overtly sexual but there is certainly an underlying tone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lolita
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

Loosies


A ridiculously handsome man.

A ridiculously handsome man.

(2011) Dramedy (IFC) Peter Facinelli, Jaimie Alexander, Michael Madsen, Vincent Gallo, William Forsythe, Marianne Leone, Christy Carlson Romano, Joe Pantoliano, Eric Phillips, Tom DeNucci, Tom Paolino, Ara Boghigian, Anthony Paolucci, Glenn Ciano, Johnny Cicco, Stella Schnabel, Peter Berkot, Anne Mulhall, Sera Verde, Rebecca Forsythe. Directed by Michael Corrente

Sometimes people do the right things for all the wrong reasons. Just as often, people sometimes do the wrong things for the best of reasons. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why you do things, just that you did them.

Bobby (Facinelli) is a handsome, charming kind of guy. He walks around New York in a suit all day, letting all and sundry know that he works on Wall Street as a broker. Actually, Bobby is a pickpocket and a damned good one. He snatches watches, cash, cell phones, the occasional police badge – whatever he can get his slick fingers on.

But things are changing in his life. Lucy (Alexander), the pretty and spunky bartender at his favorite tavern, is pregnant – and Bobby’s the baby daddy. What had been a one night stand turned into a life changing event. Bobby, at his core a decent sort of fellow, wants to do the right thing. He wants to marry Lucy and settle down into being a good husband, father and provider.

That’s not going to be easy. Bobby owes Jax (Gallo) a fairly hefty debt, the legacy of his gambling-addicted father and is struggling to pay it off. Lt. Nick Sullivan (Madsen), the cop whose badge Bobby stole, is absolutely pissed off about it and is pursuing Bobby with the ferocity and tenacity of a pit bull on meth. His mom Rita (Leone) has a new boyfriend, the jeweler Carl (Pantoliano) who has been known to exchange punches with Bobby. And Lucy doesn’t want to be the wife of a lowlife, nor her child to be raised by one.

This is meant to be a star-making vehicle for Facinelli who has labored in the shadows for much of his career. An engaging lead with star potential, he has been relegated mainly to supporting roles although when he’s gotten the opportunity to shine (as on the too-brief TV series Damages) he has generally made the most of it and he does so here.

Bobby is a thoroughly likable rapscallion and while his choice aren’t the best, they are generally the lesser of two or more evils. Facinelli imbues the character with a general charm, ensuring the audience will like the schlub even though they know he’s doing things that are less than kosher. Facinelli and Alexander make a believable couple; there are a lot of bumps in the road for their characters but one never doubts the genuine affection.

While this is a bit of a mash-up between a crime caper and a romantic comedy, I don’t really see anything fresh here from either genre. It’s a bit paint-by-numbers in a sense  that is elevated by the performance of its cast. Facinelli is engaging enough performer that you’ll want to spend an hour and a half with him without checking your watch. These days, that’s kind of a plus.

WHY RENT THIS: Facinelli is likable. Good chemistry with Alexander.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer up anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some sexual content and some rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The husband of Nikki Reed, who co-starred with Facinelli on the Twilight series, contributes three songs on the soundtrack with his band Grand Magnolias (his name is Paul McDonald of American Idol fame).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,519 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: New York, I Love You

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X2

The Missing Person


Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

(2009) Mystery (Strand) Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Linda Emond, Yul Vazquez, Paul Sparks, Paul Adelstein, Kate Arrington, Anthony Esposito, Liza Weil, Daniel Franzese, Merritt Wever, Gary Wilmes, Betsy Hogg, Hailey Wegryn Gross, Coati Mundi, Neisha Butler, Jennie Epland, Abbie Cobb, Sakura Sugihara. Directed by Noah Buschel

There’s something to be said for a good noir film with a rumpled gumshoe on a tarnished quest, beautiful dames in dimly lit bars and plenty of cigarettes and martinis.  Not only is it a throwback to a simpler bygone age but in many ways it’s as American as a cowboy movie – although the Europeans (particularly the French) have proven themselves quite adept at the genre as well.

John Rosow (Shannon) is just such a private detective but Phillip Marlowe he ain’t. He does have rumpled down real good though. Anyway, he’s just kind of squeaking by and he fills his down time which there is plenty of with booze. Then he gets a phone call and a job – to board the California Zephyr train in Chicago and keep tabs on a man named Harold Fullmer (Wood).

The more Rosow follows Fullmer, the more suspicious he becomes – although that suspicion is tempered by frequent trips to the bar car. Fullmer isn’t necessarily who Rosow thinks he is and Rosow realizes that there is a connection between he and Fullmer that is unexpected – but crucial. This will lead Rosow to a moral dilemma that has no real right answer – just choices to be made.

Like any good detective story, the devil is in the details so I’m being a bit vague in my description of the plot. The Missing Person isn’t a traditional noir in the sense that there’s sex and violence a’plenty, but it is more noir in mood and convention. This is a modern noir, very much a product of the last half of the first decade of the 21st century but it has the DNA of a Raymond Chandler novel buried deep within.

Shannon has become one of the better actors in Hollywood; he’s as versatile as they come and while he may have a face only Willem Dafoe could appreciate, it’s an expressive face as well. John Rosow is a lost soul adrift in a post-9/11 world that he doesn’t quite understand. The drinking is to relieve the pain of loss and at unexpected times Shannon allows that pain to come to the surface and it can be devastating when he does.

Buschel doesn’t mind quietly poking holes in the whole noir ethos (tall characters bump their heads on ceilings and other moments of transcendent but very real silliness) but he has enough respect for the genre not to make fun in a snide way, more like the affectionate joshing of old friends. While he chose to make his characters more like kids dressing up in adult costumes and play-acting in many ways, the movie is anything but childish. In fact, it’s more adult than a lot of movies out there in that it carries a moral complexity that requires the viewer to examine his or her own moral compass in regards to Rosow’s conundrum. Sounds like a mathematical formula, doesn’t it?

In any case, this is mighty fine viewing but do be warned – it can meander in places, particularly in the middle third of the film. There were times I got the impression that Buschel himself wasn’t entirely sure how to move the film from point D to point E and the plot flounders when that happens. However lovers of old fashioned detective stories who like their stories hard-bitten with an intelligent chaser will be delighted to discover this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice juxtaposition between noir conventions and modern pop culture. Shannon gives a bravura performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never seems to know what direction its going in.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language, a smidge of violence and sexuality and plenty of scenes of drunkenness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John is seen to emerge from the California Zephyr at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. However, the California Zephyr doesn’t go to Los Angeles; it terminates at Emeryville just outside of Oakland.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,896 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Bang

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2

Paul


Paul

Paul still hasn't gotten the concept of the Finger perfected just yet.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Universal) Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen (voice), Kirsten Wiig, Jason Bateman, Sigourney Weaver, Jeffrey Tambor, John Carroll Lynch, Jane Lynch, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Blythe Danner, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons. Directed by Greg Mottola

There is a truism about being careful what you wish for. This is particularly true if you’re a science fiction geek on a road trip to America and are driving past Area 51.

That’s what British sci-fi geeks Graeme Willie (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are doing. They start off at San Diego’s legendary Comic Con (and for those who haven’t been there, it is heaven on earth for the fanboy contingent, a bucket list kind of event) where they meet noted sci-fi author and cult figure Adam Shadowchild (Tambor) who pooh-poohs Clive’s aspirations of being a writer and Graeme’s abilities as an artist. Then it’s into a rented RV and off to see America!

A not-particularly-comfortable encounter with a couple of rednecks (Koechner, Plemons) and a kindly diner waitress (J. Lynch) sends the Brits at warp speed down the Alien Highway where they are overtaken by a sedan which crashes in front of their eyes. When they investigate the wreck to make sure the driver’s okay, they discover to their shock that the driver is an illegal alien – and I’m not talking the sort that George Lopez jokes about. No, this is a little green man, who goes by the name of Paul (Rogen), named after the dog who he landed on with his spacecraft in the opening of the film. Clive promptly faints.

Paul begs Graeme for help, knowing he is being chased by one of those mysterious government agents – Agent Zoil (Bateman) to be exact. Paul needs to get to a particular location so that he can meet up with a rescue ship that will take him home. Graeme being a kindly sort agrees.

What ensues is a road trip odyssey that takes the boys to an American backwater of UFO myth and legend, running into ambitious but ignorant agents (Hader, Lo Truglio), a shoot first, ask questions later Bible-carryin’ shotgun-totin’ Fundamentalist (J.C. Lynch) and his naïve but misguided daughter (Wiig) whose belief system is thrown into disarray by the presence of Paul. When she realizes that all her previously held notions is wrong, she starts cursing up a storm and gets right to drinking, drugging and fornicating. My kind of girl.

Mottola has previously directed comedy gems Superbad and Adventureland. This continues his winning streak, giving us a comedy that is solidly funny throughout, dropping in-jokes about science fiction films and fandom in general like mustard on a hot dog. While some of those insider asides are subtle enough to keep fanboys smug and arrogant, the majority are obvious enough that any moviegoer who has seen at least a few sci-fi movies will get the majority of them.

Pegg and Frost, who established their reputation in such films as Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, are perhaps the best comic duo working today. Their easy rapport helps give Paul its heart and charm, making the two sci-fi geekoids believable without poking fun at the species with undue cruelty which fanboy films often do.

There are loads of cameos and terrific supporting actors here, including Bergen as the grown up version of a girl whose life is forever altered by the crash landing of a space vehicle, and Weaver as the brass-balled head of a mysterious covert government agency. Both Lynches  – Jane and John Carroll – inhabit their roles nicely, with Jane moving a little outside her normal persona as a heart of gold diner waitress with a soft spot for geeks, and John Carroll, nearly unrecognizable as the hellbent pursuer of the geeks who kidnapped his daughter.

As said daughter, Wiig has a role that could easily have been played over-the-top and for parody (and in the hands of a lesser actress – and director – probably would have) but instead, she delivers a subtle and nuanced performance as a woman whose universe is completely shaken up; if she’s a little batty at first it’s completely understandable and so she becomes a sympathetic figure rather than a ridiculous one.

Rogen has gotten some heat from critics for his performance as Paul, which is essentially a motion capture alien who sounds like Seth Rogen. Rogen’s shtick is a little jarring at times, but in defense of the guy you have to remember that Paul has been stuck on this planet for more than 40 years, plenty of time to acclimatize. I thought Rogen gave the movie plenty of character and while whether he has been over-exposed is a matter of opinion, I think he does a fine job here.

Fanboys are going to love the movie a lot more than the average moviegoer and quite frankly, Pegg and Frost have yet to produce much more than a cult following here in the States, nor is Paul likely to generate one. Still, there’s enough here to make it worth your while to check out, particularly if you have a great deal of love for science fiction and its mad, devoted followers. Sci-fi geeks, this is your movie and these are your people!

REASONS TO GO: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Lots of sci-fi nerd in-jokes. Pegg and Frost one of the premiere comedy teams working today.

REASONS TO STAY: Hit and miss on some of the humor. May be too fanboy-centric to appeal to a wider audience.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is plenty foul, particularly in Ruth’s case. There is also some drug use and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Carroll Lynch who plays Moses Buggs is only ten years older than Kirsten Wiig, who plays his daughter.

HOME OR THEATER: I think the movie theater experience is indicated here.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Babel

Flawless (2007)


Flawless

Michael Caine and Demi Moore make their plans.

(2007) Period Crime Drama (Magnolia) Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Joss Ackland, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barras. Directed by Michael Radford

Corporate stuffed shirts have always been with us, and the movies have always used them as villains; greedy, heartless and amoral. Heist films have always been a means for audiences to vicariously thrill to these individuals getting their comeuppance, although in real life they almost never do.

Then again, this isn’t real life although to the filmmaker’s credit, it sure feels that way. Laura Quinn (Moore) is a bit of a rarity; a female executive at a London diamond exchange circa 1960. While she is clearly capable and even, in many ways, superior to her peers, she continues to knock her stiff raven-shaded bouffant against the glass ceiling. She wants nothing more than to get ahead to prove to herself that she is capable and in many ways superior, but all her long nights of chain-smoking, fretting over reports and bantering with Hobbs (Caine), a friendly night janitor, have gotten her nowhere.

To add insult to injury, she discovers that she is about to be fired by the very people who stole her ideas and then took credit for them. At first, when Hobbs – who is much more than he seems – comes to her to propose a quiet little robbery of just a few gems (which the exchange would hardly miss but would set up the both of them for life), she is appalled but as she realizes that she has no future at the exchange, she finally relents.

What follows is pretty much a standard caper film. Radford, who directed the far superior Il Postino, is certainly a capable hand at the game but to be honest, the movie suffers from the same petrifaction that permeates the London diamond exchange depicted here.

Most of that is due to Moore, who operates as if a wax figure from Tussaud’s. Rarely does she betray any emotion, some of which could be attributed to the stiff upper lip mentality of the Britain of that time, but even when she is displaying emotion it rings false. Perhaps it’s her truly atrocious accent that brings that feel along.

Fortunately, the movie also has Caine, who has fun with the grandfatherly cockney who hides a brilliant strategist with an axe to grind. Caine seems to be having more fun than everyone else in the movie combined, and for my money the movie could have used a good deal more of that sense. Far too much of the movie comes off as stodgy.

While the scenes of the actual heist build credible suspense, it is the first reel and the last where the movie falls a bit. While the movie succeeds in creating the era and brings the sexual discrimination card into play, it never really captured my imagination nor grabbed the heart the way better heist films like The Bank Job and 11 Harrowhouse did. Fans of movies like The Sting and the Oceans trilogy will find this lifeless, but that’s somewhat unfair of a comparison. The movie is solid but unspectacular, and lacks the kind of twist that these types of films really call for.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places but otherwise this is suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; My guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Objective

Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper

As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.

Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.

Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.

One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.

On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.

However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.

He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.

The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.

The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.

As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.

Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: English as a Second Language

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road

In their latest movie, the only ship that's sinking for di Caprio and Winslet is their marriage.

(Paramount Vantage) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Richard Easton. Directed by Sam Mendes

We are all of us to a certain extent trapped by the circumstances of our lives. Our dreams are often casualties of the pressing immediate needs to make a living and a home. When those dreams die, often so does a part of ourselves.

When Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) sees April (Winslet) across a crowded room at a party, the attraction is immediate and undeniable. These are two young people who embrace life and are filled with it the way endemic to young people. Their futures are limitless, the world their oyster.

Several years later, the two of them are married, living in a Connecticut suburb. April, an aspiring actress, continues to perform on community theater stages, but we’re led to understand her performances are growing less and less outstanding. After such a performance, Frank tries to offer encouragement but in a way that hints at the cruelty that lurks within. We will later learn that the cruelty is the byproduct of his own desperation.

He is trapped in a soul-sucking job that he cannot stand. To make matters worse, he is working for the same firm his father did years before. He has become his father without realizing it. Their lives have become an endless parade of cigarettes and martinis, banal conversation at banal parties in a series of increasingly mind-numbing suburban get-togethers.

In desperation, April suggests they move to Paris. She could get a job as a secretary, or a translator at the U.S. Embassy while Frank took some time off to find out what he really wanted to do. At first, Frank is enthusiastic about the prospect, which elicits quiet scorn from their neighbors. Then he gets the offer of a promotion at work. He’d still be stuck in a soul-sucking job, but he would be getting paid better and isn’t that what the American dream is all about?

Into this mix comes John Givings (Shannon), son of Helen (Bates) their realtor and her husband Howard (Easton), a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. John has spent some time in a mental institution and Helen thinks he would benefit from being around “normal” people like the Wheelers. It turns out that Givings’ mental illness had to do with speaking his mind, and as he does we discover that he has quite the keen intellect and a very detailed observational sense. He speaks his mind and the truth isn’t always pleasant. This provokes terrible fights between April and Frank and we see the façade slowly crumbling. As it does, the pretenses are stripped away and we see what the American Dream has made of this once-promising couple.

Director Sam Mendes also did American Beauty, a more modern look at the American suburban existence and this makes an excellent bookend to that work. This was based on a novel by Richard Yates, considered one of the leading voices of his generation, one of the few not bound by the conformity of the times. Mendes touches on that a great deal here; everyone is expected to adhere to a certain standard of behavior and any deviation from the norm is met with mistrust and unspoken derision.

Much was made of this being Winslet and di Caprio’s first film together since Titanic and its clear to see that the chemistry they built in that film (which Bates also appeared with them in) has only strengthened in the intervening years. Their performances are scintillating and multi-layered with all sorts of nuances that it will certainly take repeated viewings to uncover completely. There is love between this couple, most certainly; there is also as it turns out much hatred as well. This is the kind of relationship that is prevalent in a lot of marriages (fortunately not mine) in which the passions are so extreme that both emotions are there in nearly equal quantities.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe is so good, I’ve noticed that nearly every review I’ve read on the film (including this one), the reviewer is moved to write in the kind of prose that is meant to show off our abilities as writers. That says a great deal about how well-written this script is, and quite frankly, how good the source novel is.

One of the best features I’ve saved til the end and that’s Michael Shannon. He’s in only three scenes but they are riveting. You watch this man in the rumpled suit that he clearly feels ill-at-ease in steal each scene and with his performance help fuel the engine of the story. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would have certainly taken it home were it not for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hopefully we’ll see Shannon get more work because of his performance here.

The novel was a child of its times and in some ways that is a criticism; the push for conformity still exists but not nearly at the same level it did in the 1950s and those points seem a bit dated. Still in all, that’s a minor quibble, especially given the overall strength and power of the story.

It is sometimes said that we turn up the music in our heads so that we can’t hear our own screaming, and that is certainly true in this movie. Mendes has come up with one of his best works, a movie that shows the pernicious dream-killing dark side of the suburban experience. As armies of men in grey suits march from Grand Central to their eight hours of meaningless work, we wonder how sane we really are to buy into an American Dream which has, in this case, become the ultimate American nightmare.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Winslet, Shannon and di Caprio. A gripping look at the darkness beneath the suburban façade.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the elements (such as the push for conformity) are from another era and not really relevant now.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language abounds. There is also some nudity and some seriously sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Frank and April’s children are siblings in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 25 minute feature on Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this is based, gives some insight into the themes of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Lovely Bones