Answers to Nothing


Dane Cook emoting.

Dane Cook emoting.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Julie Benz, Barbara Hershey, Zach Gilford, Erik Palladino, Gillian Vigman, Kali Hawk, Hayes MacArthur, Greg Germann, Tony Denison, Alan Rachins, Mark Kelly, Caitlin Gerard, Karley Scott Collins, Jacqueline Pinol, Brian Palermo, Aja Volkman, Miranda Bailey, Leslie Durso. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler

Ensemble movies with inter-weaving storylines can be really interesting when done well. When they’re not, they can be exceedingly frustrating to the viewer.

Here the lives of several people entwine and intersect in L.A. against the backdrop of a high-profile child abduction case that has Angelinos riveted to the unfolding events. Here we meet Ryan (Cook), a psychologist who is having an affair with a singer (Volkman) that is strongly conflicting him. His wife Kate (Mitchell) is an attorney and the two of them are having trouble conceiving a child. She finds out about his affair just before going under anesthesia for an in vitro fertilization although unbeknownst to her he has already decided to call off the affair.

One of his patients is Allegra (Hawk), an African-American who writes for TV. She also hates African-Americans which is not as unusual as you might think. She has been dating a young white guy (Gilford) who is sort of caught in the middle of her identity issues. Meanwhile one of Kate’s clients, Drew (Bailey) has all sorts of guilt issues. Her brother Bill (Palermo) is completely disabled but was only a year earlier an accomplished marathon runner. She feels guilty because his injury occurred in a post-race car crash after a celebration in which both Bill and Drew, who was driving, had both been drinking. She means to run the same marathon in tribute to her brother. Meanwhile she is fighting her parents who want to put Bill in a home.

Frankie (Benz) is Kate’s best friend and the lead detective on the child abduction case. She initially suspects Mr. Beckworth (Germann), the next door neighbor of the family but when some questionable porn is found on the father’s computer the suspicion shifts over to him. Lonely school teacher Carter (Kelly) becomes even further obsessed with the case and pesters his neighbor Jerry (Palladino), a police officer and a fellow gamer, to do some investigating. Jerry, a beat cop, tries to keep Carter calm but Carter is growing more and more psychotic about the case and the fate of the little girl.

That’s an awful lot of stuff happening for a single film, even one that’s more than two hours long. I think a good deal of the fluff could have been trimmed, as much as half an hour’s worth. As it is there are too many characters, too many storylines and not enough really holding it together. The entire Allegra subplot could have been excised from the story quite easily and really, so could the Drew and Bill story.

It’s not that I mind character studies – in fact, I love them but there has to be some strong characters worth studying and there simply aren’t many here. I did like Palladino’s performance as the police officer and Mitchell, a veteran of Lost, as the lawyer. Both were the most sympathetic characters. As for most of the rest of them, I really didn’t want to get to know them any better. That spells bad news for any film.

Leutwyler has been involved with some pretty impressive films before now as producer, writer and/or director (he performs all three functions here) but this is sadly not one of them. There are some worthwhile moments if you want to check them out but quite frankly this is a bit of a hot mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the performances here are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many storylines and not enough story. Way too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly strong sexual content and nudity, a fair amount of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leutwyler studied film at the San Francisco Institute of Art.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,029 on a $3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

Dog Sweat


Dog Sweat

Sunset in Teheran.

(2010) Ensemble Drama (Indiepix) Ahmad Akbarzadeh, Tahareh Esfahani, Bagher Forohar, Sharokh Taslimi, Rahim Zamani. Directed by Hossein Keshavarz

Since the revolution in Iran deposed the Shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran has existed as an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, its laws deriving from the Sharia law of the Koran. Moral police enforce the laws, harassing women who are wearing lipstick, or young men for wearing t-shirts that display messages friendly to the West.

The Iranian population is the youngest on the average on Earth, with two thirds of the population under thirty. These young people have grown up indoctrinated by the mullahs and ayatollahs as to the rightness of Islamic law. They have also grown up seeing American television on clandestine broadcasts, showing them the freedoms available elsewhere and many yearn for the same thing for themselves.

Massoud (Taslimi) copes with this yearning by drinking himself into a stupor day after day on black market liquor (alcohol is forbidden in Islam), often imported from America or the notorious home brewed “Dog Sweat.” His indolent life comes to a screeching halt when his mother is seriously injured in a car accident, her neck broken as well as other terrible injuries. She is brought to a hospital which is overcrowded and by our standards, primitive. She gradually slips away and Massoud becomes enraged with what he sees his country’s decline.

Hooshang (Akbarzadeh) and Homan (Zamani) are the best of friends, inseparable. They work out at the gym together, horseplay in their swimming pool and hang out at cafes. And while it is never stated overtly, it seems pretty likely they are gay which is also forbidden – in fact, it is so forbidden it doesn’t legally “exist” in Iran. Their parents are most eager to get them married off. Many gay men in Iran are faced with similar choices – to exist as “bachelors,” unwed and severely limited in their activities, or to have some freedoms as married men and fathers. When Hooshang is paired with a bride, the relationship with Homan is put into doubt.

His bride is Mahsa (actress uncredited), who yearns to be a pop singer which is also forbidden in Iran – women cannot sing solo. Still, she cuts a demo in a friend’s studio and proves to be quite talented. She gets some interest but now a respectable married woman she must decide whether to risk her standing or pursue her dream.

Kate (actress uncredited) is a self-proclaimed feminist who is having an affair with a married man – a man who happens to be married to her cousin. Her brother Dawood (Forohar) is recently returned from studying at an American university and he becomes enamored with Kate’s friend Katherine (actress uncredited). The two decide they want to take their relationship farther but finding a place to do it is difficult at best so they walk the streets of Teheran endlessly, waiting for their chance for privacy and intimacy.

In the meantime Kate is also being pursued by Bijan (actor uncredited) in a creepy stalker-like way. She is left with the choice of a life of sexual encounters with a man she loves but cannot have, or the freedom of being a married woman with a man she doesn’t love.

Such is life in Iran. I found the glimpse fascinating. Much like life in any totalitarian regime, people find a way to live their lives, looking for back alley ways to get the things they want and need to bypass the authorities. There is the ever-present specter of the harsh punishment for violators, including imprisonment and execution for certain offenses.

The filmmakers had to shoot this guerilla style, sometimes without the knowledge of authorities and sometimes with forged permits. The result gives us a look at the everyday Iranian, free of government propaganda about how moral the society is. Some might find it more moral than our own in many ways, but people have their own moralities; some find drinking, smoking, dancing and fornicating to be perfectly acceptable by their own moral compass. All right, most do.

There were plenty of logistical difficulties in making this film. For one thing, they could only make it in small doses, forcing some actors to drop out as they became more nervous about their involvement in it being discovered. This leads to some storylines feeling hurried and ending abruptly.

There’s a great scene when Kate and Dawood’s mother finds a condom on the floor. She assumes it’s Dawood’s and asks him when he’s going to bring his girlfriend home, and seems pleased that her son is interested in someone. When he responds that the condom isn’t his, she goes into Kate’s room and has a screaming match, calling her daughter all sorts of names and slapping her face until Dawood intervenes and says he was mistaken, that the condom is really his. It seems that some things aren’t so different in their society as ours, eh?

While this is an ensemble-style drama, the storylines for the most part don’t intersect. While Keshavarz does an admirable job of giving all of the stories equal time and attention, some are more successfully told than others – an occupational hazard for this kind of storytelling. Still, this is worth checking out if for no other reason to see how the other half lives – and how things could easily be here were fundamentalist religious sorts in charge.

REASONS TO GO: A rare glimpse of everyday life in Teheran and the challenges that face the people living in a fundamentalist theocracy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the story lines meander a bit and end abruptly.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexuality (although nothing overt), smoking and drinking, some violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Teheran, usually clandestinely and often with forged permits. The actresses mainly wore wigs when filming scenes without their shawls in order to keep their heads covered per Islamic tradition and Iranian law.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the images of Teheran deserve a big screen viewing.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Happy Poet

Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer