Holy Rollers


Holy Rollers

Oy! Betcha Jesse Eisenberg never flew coach in that Facebook movie!

(2010) Drama (First Independent) Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny Abeckaser, Ari Gaynor, Mark Ivanir, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Fuchs, Q-Tip, Hallie Eisenberg, Bern Cohen, Stella Keitel, David Vadim, Charlie Hewson, Penny Bittone, Ori Pfeffer. Directed by Kevin Asch

 

The Hasidic Jews are particularly devout in their Jewishness. They tend to follow Jewish law more closely than the reform and even the orthodox sects. With their distinctive side curls and black dress, they are easily identifiable and travel freely all over the world. Their devotion to God is such that crime is extremely rare among them, enough so that law enforcement doesn’t consider them any sort of threat.

Certainly Sam Gold (J. Eisenberg) wouldn’t seem to be. A young man growing up in the Hassidic community of Brooklyn, his life seems to be pretty much mapped out for him; a marriage arranged for him by his parents, a future as a rabbi which he is studying to be and raising a family in the same community he himself grew up in. The world for Sam is a pretty stable, secure place.

Then that stability begins to crumble. His marriage arrangement ends, leaving him single and a figure of some suspicion in the community. His father and mother become keenly disappointed in him, wondering if he fits in to the community at all. Sam begins to question himself.

His best friend’s (Fuchs) brother Yosef Zimmerman (Bartha) asks Sam to do him a favor amidst all this. If he could just go to Amsterdam and pick up a small bag of pills, some medicine that is extremely expensive here but cheap over there – he’d be ever so grateful.

Sam naively agrees. Soon he finds out what he’s really transporting – ecstasy – but rather than recoil, he embraces his new venture. With his business acumen learned from his father, he impresses Yosef’s boss Jackie (Abeckaser) who takes Sam under his wing. He also impresses Rachel (Graynor), Jackie’s girlfriend whom he develops a connection to. Sam begins to make some serious money, far more than his father. He becomes intimately familiar with the night life in Manhattan and Amsterdam. He changes.

Sam thinks he’s the smartest boy on the block, not realizing the police are pretty smart too and are closing in on him. In fact, Sam in wanting to make something of himself truly has – an outsider in his own community.

Loosely based on actual events, director Asch creates a movie that in lesser hands might have wound up as cliche and boring. He chooses not to make this a movie of car chases and gun fights but of insight into the Hassidic community and a look at the evolution of a young man from Godly to criminal.

Unfortunately, we don’t really see it as an evolution so much as an abrupt change from one to the other. We never get a sense of Sam’s moral dilemma, never see him wrestling with his conscience. One moment he’s a naive, shy Hasid and the next he’s a worldly drug lord, overseeing a network of Hassidic mules going from Amsterdam to New York City with the notion that the Hassidic won’t excite suspicion from the authorities.

This is the type of role Jesse Eisenberg does so well with. He can capture both elements of the character – the shy naiveté and the brusque somewhat streetwise criminal. In a large sense, it’s reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network although mostly there he is in the latter mode.

The story is unusual enough that it captures the attention; the execution of it sadly misses the mark somewhat. Still, there’s enough rich material here to keep the film moving from start to finish and keep our interest until the end credits run. I wish they might have taken a little more time to develop the internal conflict that Sam surely must have had; the audience might have been able to get behind the character more instead of just thinking he’s a colossal putz.

WHY RENT THIS: A role tailor-made for Eisenberg’s strengths. A rare look inside the Hasidic community. An interesting and unusual concept.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sam’s change of character is abrupt and not well-explained.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief sexual stuff, lots of drug use and some foul language. Not to mention some Hassidic ass-kicking like you wouldn’t believe.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse and Hallie Eisenberg, siblings in real life, play siblings in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sit-down interview with Bartha and Eisenberg, detailing the actor’s preparations for the film and how they became involved with it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $608,027 on an unreported production budget; the movie was probably somewhere just south of breaking even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Chloe

Dark Matter


Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With

Big Fan


Big Fan

Patton Oswalt is a New York Giants fan and lives with his mom. 'Nuff said.

(First Independent) Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rappaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Serafina Fiore, Gino Cafarelli, Jonathan Hamm, Matt Servitto. Directed by Robert Siegel

Sports fandom is a double edged sword. It can bring us enjoyment, great memories and a sense of belonging to something bigger. It can also grow into obsession and overwhelm everything else in our lives.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a New York Giants fan. That might be an understatement; it might be more accurate to say that he lives for the New York Giants. His life revolves around them. He works as a parking garage attendant and lives in a closet-sized room in his mom’s Staten Island apartment. That might not be so bad if he were just starting out, but pudgy Paul is 35 with no ambition for family or career. All he really cares about is his beloved Giants.

Every night after he gets off work, he calls into the Sports Dogg radio show as Paul from Staten Island, where he has some small degree of celebrity. Usually his rants involve a reaction to what his nemesis, Philadelphia Phil has already said. Paul carefully writes down on a legal pad exactly what he’s going to say, then reads it into the phone, pacing his room like a caged animal. His rants usually wake up his light-sleeping mom (Kurtz) who beats on the wall and yells at her son to shut up, it’s 2am. He yells back, a kind of Fred and Wilma Flintstone with a New York Italian edge.

One night, he and his buddy – his only friend really – Sal (Corrigan) spy their hero, Quantrell Bishop (Hamm), a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, at a Staten Island gas station. Impulsively they follow him to a dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood where it appears Bishop might be buying drugs, then to a downtown Manhattan strip club. The buddies follow him in, pay for their ten dollar Budweisers and work up enough nerve to meet their hero.

He’s pleasant enough at first, but when they let slip that they followed him all the way from Staten Island, he gets the impression they’re trying to shake him down. Enraged, he beats Paul within an inch of his life. Paul wakes up three days later after emergency surgery. Bishop has been suspended, the Giants are losing and the police, particularly in the person of Detective Velarde (Servitto), are anxious to bring charges against the football player and bring the incident to a close.

This brings Paul to a turning point; the Giants’ season literally rests in his hands and he simply can’t let them down. He tells the incredulous detective that he can’t remember the incident; the cop responds “Can’t? Or won’t?” Of course, it’s won’t; Paul remembers the incident clearly enough, and it haunts him like Marley’s ghost.

When Philadelphia Phil finds out that the beating victim is none other than Paul of Staten Island, Paul’s world crumbles. His hatred for his nemesis reaches a boiling point; how far is Paul willing to go to prove his loyalty to his team?

Writer/director Siegel is best known for writing The Wrestler which brought Mickey Rourke’s career back to life. This is a different kind of sports film, taken from the perspective we’re mostly used to facing on our own – that of the fan. Of course, few of us are as rabid as Paul is, but there is still the same outside-looking-in kind of feel to the movie that most of us are used to.

Oswalt is best known as a stand-up comedian (and to film fans as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) but he does just fine in this straight dramatic role. His Paul has a life that most of us would think of as unfulfilling, but he likes it just fine. He’s completely satisfied to be without romance, ambition or curiosity. His relationship is with his football club; it’s the only thing that matters to him, the only thing that makes sense. His family doesn’t understand; really, I don’t expect most viewers will understand either. Only those who have the kind of passion Paul possesses will truly get his character.

The movie revolves around Paul to a very large extent; the other characters are on the periphery of your vision. That Oswalt can carry the movie is crucial; if he falters, the movie fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. The only real glitch is I found the ending to be a bit perfunctory and even a little surreal. Then again, I might not be the kind of guy this movie is meant for, even though I consider myself a pretty rabid fan of the San Jose Sharks NHL club. While I don’t see me getting in the grill of a fan of an opposing club the way Paul does, it’s a good thing that there are fans like Paul around; makes the world seem a bit more normal, a bit more familiar. That’s all that I need to recommend this, quite frankly.

WHY RENT THIS: A decent insight into the soul of the superfan. Oswalt does a pretty solid job carrying the movie in a dramatic role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was a bit anti-climactic. Some of the actions of Paul border on the surreal.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language here, a little bit of sexuality and some fairly adult themes. I think it best that the kids skip Big Fan.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The host of the radio call-in show that Paul regularly calls is Scott Ferrall, who really does host a sports call-in show on Sirius satellite radio.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a downloadable Quantrell Bishop poster. Woohoo!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Law Abiding Citizen

Gigantic


Gigantic

Paul Dano is all wrapped up in Zooey Deschanel.

(First Independent) Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, Ian Roberts, Brian Avers, Robert Stanton. Directed by Matt Aselton

We all have our own set of aspirations. Some of them border on obsessions, which is fine. Some of them are a bit out there, which is also fine. Some of us give up on them, which is not so fine. And still others do not deviate from their plan on achieving those goals.

Brian Weathersby (Dano) is a mattress salesman in New York with seemingly low career goals, but that’s only on the surface. What’s really on his mind is the adoption of a Chinese baby, which he has wanted to do all his life and which he is now so close to he can just about taste it.

While his personality is rather bland, his life is somewhat complicated. He is repeatedly and without explanation attacked by a homeless man (Galifianakis) who might well be a figure of his imagination other than the facial wounds he leaves. He, his brothers and his father (Asner) bond over hallucinogenic mushrooms. Indeed, a Norman Rockwell family at its finest. Remember his famous Saturday Evening Post painting “Daddy gets high on mescaline”?

Brian sells a high-end mattress to Al Lolly (Goodman), an oversized man with severe back troubles. The mattress costs north of $14K so it’s not a slam dunk procedure. Al decides to send his daughter Harriet (Deschanel) over to test it out for herself before arranging the payment.

Harriet turns out to be one of those New York waifs with an independent spirit and who acts as if every moment needs to register on the quirk-meter in order to be meaningful. She falls asleep on the mattress, well past closing time. Brian somewhat sweetly places a blanket over her, more to make sure nobody looks up her skirt while she’s asleep.

They converse in murmurs. She asks if he is interested in having sex with her, and he confides that he might be. He tells a friend he’s not sure if he likes her. Brian’s whole life is about getting that baby; the presence of Harriet might jeopardize that in some odd way.

There’s no denying he feels something for her though. He brings her to meet his family which is a bit risky; only his mother (Alexander) is even halfway sane. Still, he’s not sure he can bring himself to love her when loving her might mean that he has to change the plans he has for his life.

This is the kind of movie that a lot of folks characterize as “fiercely indie” and that’s not in a good way. Not long ago these types of movies were all the rage at Sundance and Toronto, but these days more traditional storytelling seems to be more in vogue. That’s not to say that Gigantic is without merit. It’s perfectly cast and that cast is impressive, with all of them delivering solid performances at the very least.

Deschanel is one of those actresses who can make even an uninteresting role interesting and a too-quirky role seem more down-to-earth. She makes Harriet real and believable; in lesser hands the character would have been so annoying that Ellen DeGeneres might have been moved to punch her in the face. Dano has made a niche for himself as a somewhat deadpan character who displays little in the way of emotion except for occasional tiny cracks. It served him well in Little Miss Sunshine and it serves him well here. The romance between the two becomes believable.

This movie might have well made higher marks with me had they not tried so hard to be funny and quirky. Scenes like the one in the massage parlor are unnecessary and serve to jar you out of the overall mood of the movie; it’s like driving a car whose transmission is on its last legs. If they had just tried to tell the story of Brian and Harriet straight it might have worked out better.

Still in all, this is a solid film with several moments that are worth cherishing. It may not be the kind of indie film that breaks the mold but at least it gets points for doing what it does do very well.

WHY RENT THIS: Any movie with Zooey Deschanel is worth seeing. Great cast who all have their moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film loses steam in the last half. At times it feels like they’re trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and some scenes of sudden violence make this a bit rough for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Galifianakis’ role although listed as “Homeless Man” on IMDB, does not in fact appear on the film’s credits.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Easy Virtue

The Great New Wonderful


The Great New Wonderful

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco share a tense lunch.

(First Independent) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Judy Greer, Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Naseerudin Shah, Stephen Colbert, Sharat Saxena, Tom McCarthy, Billy Donner. Directed by Danny Leiner

New York City is without a doubt one of the greatest cities in the world. It throbs with the vitality of its citizens, and as the song says, never sleeps. One day in 2001 would change the meaning of what it is to be a New Yorker forever.

A year after that day, the citizens of New York are getting on with their lives for the most part. Sandie (Gaffigan) is talking to a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist (Shalhoub) about anger issues which Sandie doesn’t think he has. With each session, Sandie becomes more and more frustrated and his anger seems to be more directed at the doctor than culled from some internal reservoir.

David (McCarthy) and Allison (Greer) are the young parents of Beelzebub, otherwise known as Charlie (Donner). Their young son has been acting out and these actions have grown exponentially worse as time has gone by. They are beginning to realize that he is becoming beyond their ability to control and as a result, their marriage is suffering. The headmaster (Colbert) of the exclusive private school they have sent him to is expelling him for his behavior and they have no idea what to do with their child.

Emme (Gyllenhaal) is an up-and-coming pastry chef in New York’s cutthroat bakery market and looks to unseat Safarah Polsky (Falco) as the reigning queen of the scene. Her ambition is driving her to use means both fair and foul to reach her goals, and she is unknowing or uncaring of the toll it takes on those who work with her, live with her or purchase her products.

Judy (Dukakis) lives with her husband across the East River in Brighton Beach in the borough of Brooklyn. Each night she fixes him dinner, then after eating makes collages while he smokes out on the balcony. Her re-connection with an old friend will open new doors and awaken new feelings of sensuality in her.

Two Indian-born New York resident security guards – Avi (Shah) and Satish (Saxena) have been given the assignment of watching over a dignitary from their native land while he is in New York to make a speech at the United Nations. Avi is carefree, joyful and humorous; his buddy Satish is dour, grumpy and prone to outbursts of rage. It’s hard to believe these two are neighbors, let alone friends.

All five of these stories carry little in common other than that they are set in New York a year to the month of the World Trade Center attack, and that all ten of the main characters share an elevator near the end of the movie. It is up to us to thread these stories together and quite frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch.

What one notices most is the emotional disconnect prevalent in almost all of the stories. The characters have latched onto some sort of idea or emotion and are holding onto it with a death grip, to the exclusion of all else. The self-absorption needed for this kind of focus is staggering, and yet those familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or The New Yorker magazine will not find it particularly far-fetched.

There is a routine also in each one of the main character’s lives and that routine is either a source of comfort or a fiendish trap. Breaking out of that routine seems to be, at least I’m guessing here, what the filmmakers suggest is the key to finding happiness, solace, call it whatever you want.

This is a very impressive cast for a micro-budget indie drama and they live up to their reputations for the most part. The vignette with the least-known actors in it (at least to those not familiar with Indian cinema), the one regarding Avi and Satish, was my own personal favorite as I found Avi to be the least hung-up of the main characters here.

I admit to having a certain fascination with everyday life in the Big Apple. I fully realize I don’t have the equipment to live there myself – it takes a certain kind of person to handle the pace and the feeling of being alone in a crowd that goes hand-in-hand with the NYC lifestyle. Still, I admire those who have what it takes and certainly New York offers perhaps the most attractive and varied choices for those who live there. I’m not sure if The Great Big Wonderful offers me any further insight into the psyche of New York, nor how it was affected by 9-11, but it does offer a nice visit to that town; I’m just not sure I would want to live there.

WHY RENT THIS: A solid cast gives solid performances. Some of the vignettes are interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the vignettes hold my attention. The linking thread is tenuous at best; this is certainly much more of a New York story than anything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly significant amount of salty language in the movie as well as a small amount of sexuality. Much more suitable for a mature audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Leiner is best known for comedies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Dude, Where’s My Car.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 12