Wendy and Lucy


Wendy and Lucy

Lucy patiently awaits the return of Wendy.

 

(Oscilloscope) Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Larry Fessenden, Will Oldham, Walter Dalton, John Robinson, Marilyn Hickey, John Breen. Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

The world is not always an easy place to live in, but it’s particularly hard on those who have nothing. Sometimes even making a move from one place to another to find work can be an undertaking requiring the bravery of a soldier running into battle. 

Wendy (Williams) is down on her luck, having dwindling funds and no job. She is driving from Indiana to Alaska to (hopefully) find work in a cannery, although nothing is certain. She is alone save for her only friend in the world, Lucy (a golden retriever) whom she hangs onto like a life raft. The only love Wendy experiences in life comes from Lucy. 

Unfortunately, as often happens to those who can least afford it, disaster sets in. Her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon. Unnerved, she goes to a grocery store to get some dog food for Lucy, and winds up being arrested for shoplifting. By the time the mess is sorted out, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie is taken up by Wendy’s search for her only friend in a place she doesn’t know. 

The plot is deceptively simple but undeniably effective. Most of us have, at one time or another, lived on the ragged edge, one paycheck away from utter disaster. We can all relate to having nothing, or being left with nobody. Director Reichardt brings a sense of realism to the movie that is palpable; there is little background music and nothing forced about the plot. 

There are a number of background characters who flit in and out, most notably Dalton as a security guard who is the only oasis of human kindness in the movie. Most of the other characters in the movie treat Wendy with indifference or contempt, which is how the homeless are generally regarded by most of us, as if they chose homelessness over a life of productivity. While some may have, every last one of them has feelings just like the rest of us and this film reminds us of that. 

Williams does a courageous job as Wendy, her face expressing so much of the internal dialogue, reflecting Wendy’s hope, terror and concern when need be. She has to carry the movie to a real extent and she does so with a good deal of dignity. This isn’t a glamorous role – far from it – but it’s a role that can make directors and producers sit up and take notice and hopefully Williams will get a few juicy roles out of this. 

This is the first movie I’ve seen by Reichardt although she’s done several, and I must say she’s quite a talent. She keeps the tone low (perhaps too low for those who prefer their movies more challenging) and quiet; this isn’t a movie that gets up in your face but rather, it sticks with you. She co-wrote the script along with original short story author Jonathan Raymond (the two also collaborated on Old Joy) and while this isn’t a strident call to arms, the spirit of Tom Joad is alive and well and living in this movie. That is quite the legacy as far as I’m concerned. 

WHY RENT THIS: A decent indie film about poverty and the bonds of love that are unshakable. Williams gives an impressive performance. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s gut-wrenching at times. The overall tone is a bit slow. 

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a bit rough, and the subject matter is a little on the mature side; even though there’s a dog involved, this is probably more for the more mature members of the family than the kids. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get into character, Williams did not bathe for the two weeks of shooting, wore no make-up and did not shave her legs or cut her fingernails. After shooting was completed, her friend actress Busy Philipps treated her to a manicure and pedicure. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Reichardt also acts as a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College; she has thoughtfully included five short films by four of her colleagues made from 1979 through 2004. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or might have made a slight profit. 

FINAL RATING: 6/10 

TOMORROW: Zoom

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Trucker


Trucker

Michelle Monaghan discovers the joys of motherhood.

(Monterey Media) Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams, Jimmy Bennett, Bryce Johnson, Brandon Hanson, Maya McLaughlin. Directed by James Mottern

For everything in life there is a cost. Even freedom to do what you like doesn’t come without a price. That price can be more than you might be willing to bear, but it’s nearly always too late by the time you figure that out.

For Diane Ford (Monaghan), she has lived by her own rules her entire life. As a big rig driver, she competes as a woman in what is very much a man’s world. She has to be twice as tough as any man to survive and she knows it; what’s more, she’s okay with it. She drinks to excess, uses caffeine and cigarettes far too much and sleeps around.

One of the few guys she won’t sleep with is her neighbor Runner (Fillion), who is married. The two are best friends and drinking buddies and Runner has surely got a thing for Diane. Most men do, as a matter of fact, but she wants or needs no man. She had a kid eleven years earlier during the one tryst that lasted more than a night, but that relationship couldn’t stand up to the call of the open road.

One afternoon there’s a knock on the door of her small southern California home. It’s Jenny (Adams), the girlfriend of Len (Bratt) who was the man she had her son with. It turns out that Len is very ill, colon cancer. Jenny is no longer able to care for his son – Diane’s son – and care for Len. She needs Diane to care for Peter (Bennett) – that’s her son’s name – for a short while.

Diane takes to this like a cat takes to platform diving. It would be bad enough to take on a roommate after years of taking care of herself, but a kid? The thing is, Peter is a pretty sharp tack. He understands that his mom really doesn’t want anything to do with him, and he can see pretty clearly just how messed up the situation is, but rather than whine about it he just deals with it. It’s a pretty mature performance, and also very nice to see a kid who’s not precocious in a sickly sweet way.

Diane is forced to take Peter along with her on the road, something which crimps her style more than she’d like but as it turns out, the company is kind of a welcome thing in a twisted way. The two are like a couple of caged bantam roosters warily circling one another. Bonding is certainly not going to be very easy. Is it even possible?

First-time director Mottern should be applauded for delivering a slice-of-life type of movie that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show the warts. The characters aren’t heroic; these are real people just trying to make their way through day by day, just like the rest of us. They aren’t especially brave, nor smart nor particularly talented; they just do what they do.

Monaghan is impressive here, giving the kind of performance that can only come from deep down inside of a very talented actress. Although she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for her work, she surely could have been – and maybe should have been. Unfortunately, this was distributed by a small company rather than one of the major studio affiliates; I’m pretty sure the performance didn’t get the kind of publicizing that other actresses got.

Bennett is also worthy of mention; most twelve-year-old actors come off as stiff and mannered; you see it all the time on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or ABC Family. Bennett instead is natural and raw; he doesn’t hold anything back. It’s one of the better juvenile performances I’ve seen in a very long time.

Fillion, Bratt and Adams deliver solid backing performances in roles that have more depth to them than most supporting roles, and the three of them known what to do with characters who have some meat on their bones.

There are times that the movie gets overly raw; some of the emotions that come to the surface are painful, even. However, there is a sexual assault that occurs nearly two thirds of the movie that just left me going “huh?” with a bit of a slack jaw. It didn’t really need to be in there, other than to highlight the vulnerability of a single woman and that’s kind of a given.

Short of that one misstep, this is solid work elevated by a scintillating performance by Monaghan. I have never had an ambition to drive a rig, but I do understand the siren song of the open road. I also understand the pain of living exactly the way you want to. Sometimes it’s getting what we want that causes us the most pain.

WHY RENT THIS: Michelle Monaghan gives the performance of her career. Her supporting cast gets kudos for fleshing out roles that for the most part are layered and deep. A great example of a “slice of life” film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie can be a little too raw in places. The sexual assault scene comes out like it’s almost part of a completely different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of swearing (hey, it’s about truckers) and some sexuality, including a scene depicting a sexual assault. There’s also significant amounts of drinking and a little drug use, some of it involving minors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monaghan learned to drive a big rig for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Education of Charlie Banks

Spiral


Spiral

Joel David Moore is getting tired of all the wedgies.

(Anchor Bay) Joel David Moore, Amber Tamblyn, Zachary Levi, Tricia Helfer, David Muller, Annie Neal, Amber Dahl, Kristin Luman, Ryan Chase. Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore

We are, all of us, victims of our past. The demons that are a result of past traumas often drive our present behavior. Some of us have demons that are more insistent and more deadly than others.

Mason (Moore) is a socially awkward cubicle dweller living in Portland, Oregon. Most of his fellow co-workers ignore him; Mason’s neuroses are many and notorious at work. That suits Mason just fine; he tends to be on the reclusive side in any case and prefers to spend most of his time listening to jazz records (we’re talking LPs here; Mason prefers the warmth of vinyl to the cold soullessness of CDs) and painting, and Mason is surprisingly talented at both.

At work his only friend (and we use the term loosely here) is Berkeley (Levi), who also happens to be his boss. Berkeley is not particularly a nice guy, but he seems to have a soft spot for Mason and kind of adopts him, which Mason seems to accept albeit not with great enthusiasm. Mason exists in the curious shadowland that is Portland in the fall, when the nights get darker and the rain falls incessantly in a cold curtain of camouflage.

His life turns around when he meets Amber (Tamblyn), a new co-worker who is as gregarious as Mason is shy. She is drawn to the shy young man, her curiosity piqued and for his part Mason is moved by her kindness and starts to come out of his shell. When Amber discovers Mason’s talent as an artist, she insists that he paint a portrait of her.

What Amber doesn’t know is that Mason is not at all well; he has been scarred by the murder of his mother by his father and is tormented by awful nightmares, nightmares that Mason thinks might possibly be real and if they are, Mason could very well be a mass murderer. Only Berkeley knows about the dreams and has dismissed them as just that, dreams. If he’s wrong, however, Amber is in mortal danger.

Moore’s name shows up all over this film as a co-writer, co-director and co-producer, as well as the lead actor so much of the blame or credit, depending on your opinion of the movie, will be directed his way. He certainly surrounded himself with able support; co-director Green went on to direct the much-acclaimed thriller Frozen, while Levi is best known for his work in “Chuck” (and he’s quite good here in a very different role). Tamblyn is one of the more underrated actresses working these days and she turns in a terrific performance as the lonely and insecure Amber who masks her insecurities with a kind of false sense of bonhomie.

Moore himself is best-known as being the gangly geek in Dodgeball and the scientific nebbish in Avatar. His own performance is not too shabby; he seems to be on the verge of tears often but there is a rage and tension just below the surface that makes you wonder if instead of tears we might not see homicidal mayhem instead. That’s the centerpiece of Spiral and the movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe it. Fortunately, I did.

I liked the sense of place and time in the movie; the environment of Portland becomes a big part of the mood and it is shot exceedingly well. There is almost the feel of an indie romantic drama here, and that also serves the movie well, making the jolts more effective when they come.

Like most movies, there is a twist to it and it’s not a bad one. One of the problems with psychological thrillers in general is that you’re expecting a twist so you spend most of the movie looking for one, and most veteran observers of the genre can usually spot them early on, but I didn’t so kudos on that account.

On the negative side, this feels a bit long and some of the scenes felt more like padding. It could have used a little more judicious editing to cut out some of the material that seemed to me to be extraneous, with certain scenes merely confirming what has already been established elsewhere in the movie. Still, this is a satisfying movie for its genre, a sandwich that could have used a bit more meat and a little less bread, but delicious even so.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie works because of its indie romantic drama feel that helps make the jolts more effective. Fine performances, particularly from Tamblyn and Levi, as well as Moore, characterize the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes were unnecessary in terms of plot development and action and could easily have been snipped out.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly disturbing imagery here as well as partial nudity and a bit of violence. The language is a bit blue in places. Probably okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amber Tamblyn’s dad Russ, he of West Side Story fame, shows up here as an extra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: TiMER

The Go-Getter


The Go-Getter

Betcha didn't know Zooey Deschanel is a rootin' tootin' cowgirl!

(Peace Arch) Lou Taylor Pucci, Zooey Deschanel, Jena Malone, Maura Tierney, Bill Duke, Jsu Garcia, Judy Greer, M. Ward, Nick Offerman, Julio Oscar Mechoso. Directed by Martin Hynes

An argument can be made that our whole lives are basically about being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Sometimes, the solution is just to get into the car and start driving, even if we only have just a vague plan in mind. Life changing things can happen on the road.

Mercer (Pucci) is a callow young man living in Eugene, Oregon trying to pick up the pieces after the death of his mother eight months earlier. On a bit of a whim, he steals a car in a car wash and drives off east to find his brother Arlen (Garcia), whose very name provokes intense emotional responses in the people that he has wrong (and the list of those is impressive indeed). Mercer has an urge to inform his brother, who has been out of their lives for some time now, of his mother’s death.

The car’s owner left her cell phone in the car and although angry at first, agrees to let Mercer use her car if he keeps her abreast of his travels. In turn he imagines her to be any one of dozens of beautiful faces (as another critic stated, it turns the part into a bit of a Benetton ad) until Kate (that’s her name) unexpectedly shows up and turns out to look a lot like Zooey Deschanel. That’s a really good thing in my opinion, however.

Along the way Mercer meets a collection of oddballs and losers, ranging from Joely (Malone), a middle school classmate with a gigantic libido and a yen for recreational drugs; a liquor salesman (Duke) with the kind of attitude that gives bad attitude a bad name; a group of drug dealers (led by Tierney) whose community service involves playing music – badly – at community events, and a pornographer who has taken the name of Italian spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone (Mechoso).

Wacky things happen. Some serious things occur. And yes, finally Mercer catches up to Arlen after stops all over the map of the Western U.S. and the meeting isn’t like anything he – or we – imagined.

There is a whole subgenre of indie films that are basically road movies, and there’s a special place in Hell for those who make them. There seems to be this conceit that these movies take place in small towns in the middle of nowhere in the Western United States, and that these towns are full of fun, eccentric people – which makes me wonder if they are teaching kids in film school that all of the small towns of Western America are filled with kooks, nut jobs, losers and head cases, as if there is something in the water that causes brain damage and personality overload all at once.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love quirky indie road pictures just as much as the next guy, but couldn’t we vary the formula a little bit? Does every self-discovery have to be made accompanied by someone with serious mental and/or emotional issues?

For me, any film with Zooey Deschanel in it is worth seeing. Not only is she absolutely gorgeous (never a bad thing when you’re a male), but she is also an amazing actress. She has the ability to take characters that are literally indie film cliches and bring them to life, make them real and not just a collection of personality tics, which so many other actors and actresses tend to make these sorts of characters.

Also of note here is the cinematography which is breathtaking in places. Byron Shah has a knack for taking big empty vistas and making them a character in the scene. Also, indie folk rocker M. Ward contributes a pretty nifty score (and as a kind of grace note, would eventually go on to form a band with Miss Deschanel called Me & Him and make some really good music with her).

Still, it’s hard to overcome the feeling of “been there, done that” that permeates the film, or the kind of self-congratulatory cinema buff references that make Film Geeks absolutely stiff with pleasure in trying to decipher them all. It’s a bit like getting to know an absolute expert on pizza who waxes eloquent about unusual toppings and artisan cheeses, but when it comes time for them to serve a pizza of their own you find out it was delivered from Pizza Hut. In this case, the product is a bit better than Pizza Hut, but I would have preferred more character interaction and less wackiness.

WHY RENT THIS: Two words: Zooey Deschanel. A credible road film with some mighty fine cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much indie quirkiness and a few too many cinematic name checks make the movie occasionally too film geek-centric for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sex, a little bit of drugs, a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll and a fair bit of foul language make this more suitable for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director’s dad makes a cameo as an older man wearing a cowboy hat at the car wash as the film begins.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Dr. No

August


August

Robin Tunney and Andre Royo are baffled by Josh Hartnett's rehearsal of an Oscar acceptance speech.

(First Look) Josh Hartnett, Adam Scott, Naomie Harris, David Bowie, Rip Torn, Robin Tunney, Andre Royo, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Ron Insana, Caroline Lagerfelt. Directed by Austin Chick

America is fascinated by entrepreneurs, particular the ones that seem to live by their own rulebook. We applaud their aggressiveness and secretly admire their ability to take risks and go after whatever they want, an ability that most of us don’t possess.

Tom Sterling (Hartnett) is the public face of LandShark, a dot com whose product is never really detailed. His brother Joshua (Scott) is the genius behind LandShark, the programmer who developed the product that has made the executives of the company billionaires when the company went public. Tom is the salesman, the loud, brash jerk who has a perpetual middle finger extended to those who don’t get with the program.

That was at the beginning of 2001. As the summer would wear on, the bursting bubble of the dot.com world would render their shares nearly worthless. The capital needed to operate the company was evaporating. Tom’s rock star lifestyle of parties, clubs and an endless supply of willing women is a cover for his increasing loneliness and stress.

As the problems at LandShark continue to grow worse, the rift between the brothers grows incrementally. Joshua is everything Tom is not; where Tom is flashy, Joshua is reserved. Where Tom is aggressive, Joshua is mellow. Where Tom is self-absorbed, Joshua is all about his family. Tom has spent most of his money; Joshua has saved as much as he could.

Their parents (Lagerfelt, Torn) are refugees from the Sixties, socially aware and in the case of the father, a bit contemptuous of the accomplishments of his sons. Throw into the mix Sarrah (Harris), an architect that Tom once had a thing for and still in fact does and Tom’s life is about ready to explode.

This might easiest be explained as Wall Street.com but that’s not really the sum of its parts, not really. Tom Sterling is no Gordon Gekko, although the two share an ego that dwarfs the island of Manhattan. Certainly it is a cautionary tale that bears some resonance in an era when the excesses of unregulated business has brought our country to its economic knees.

However Hartnett carries the movie quite nicely; he is just enough of a prick to be interesting, just vulnerable enough to allow us to relate to him. It’s not what I would call an Oscar-worthy performance, but it does illustrate why Hartnett is becoming one of the most solid lead actors around; while he hasn’t gotten the major studio roles that can bring recognition and better roles, he is due for one.

Bowie shows up in the last reel as an old money venture capitalist that holds the fate of LandShark in his hands, and the part is memorable to say the least. Torn, Harris and Scott all do well in their roles as well. In fact, the movie is uniformly well-acted.

The writing could have used a little shoring up. At times, the movie seems to lose its focus and by the end of the movie I found myself wondering if there was a real point here, other than to say “hey, business is, like, bad, dude” in a nasal, asthmatic wheeze. There was a story here but I’m nt sure they told all of it. Even so, there’s enough here to make it interesting viewing if you’re looking for something you haven’t seen yet.

WHY RENT THIS: The arrogance and frenetic lifestyle of the dot.com millionaires is perfectly captured. Hartnett performs solidly and Bowie is a pleasant addition in the third reel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders a little bit and the point is a little elusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of foul language and a whole little bit of sexuality, enough to make this for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nathan Larson, who composed the electronic score for the movie, is married to Swedish pop star Nina Persson of The Cardigans.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (1981)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

A beach party, Pittsburgh-style.

(Peace Arch) Jon Foster, Peter Skarsgaard, Nick Nolte, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Keith Michael Gregory, Seth Adams. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

There comes a point where we all need to find ourselves. We drift aimlessly from moment to moment, never really sure who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act. Sometimes, it takes one strange summer to right our drifting ships.

Art Bechstein (Foster) has a very bright future ahead of him. The son of Joe Bechstein (Nolte), a powerful businessman in the city of Pittsburgh, he’s been accepted to a prestigious university to learn business, with an eye to becoming a stockbroker, much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe’s business, you see, is laundering money for the mob, and he is eager for Art to take over the family business.

Art would much prefer to lose himself in a minimum wage job for the summer, and he finds just the one as a clerk at a book store. He gets involved in a highly sexual relationship with Phlox (Suvari) his manager, and exists in a state of passive stupor. Only when he meets Jane (Miller) at a party does he begin to rouse from the waking slumber he seems caught in.

Jane also has a boyfriend, Cleveland (Skarsgaard), a petty criminal who has a penchant for manipulation, bisexuality and occasional violence. Still, Art is fascinated by him and the two become buddies, each sleeping with Jane and eventually with each other. Cleveland is his own worst enemy and soon runs afoul of the wrong people, leading Art to seek intervention from his father, the ultimate in degradation as far as Art’s concerned. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh, happy endings aren’t a regular occurrence.

This is based on Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel which he wrote in 1988. Chabon, who also wrote “The Wonder Boys” and “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” is one of my favorite authors today. He is a very literary, smart kind of writer and the movie tries to capture that feeling. Director Thurber, who previously helmed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, was much taken by the novel and convinced Chabon that he was the man to bring it to the screen after many failed efforts to do so. That he persevered and got the movie made is to be commended.

That said, it should be noted that the movie suffers from a surfeit of languidness. I think Thurber was trying to emphasize the overall passiveness of the Art character, but Christ on a crutch, he’s borderline narcoleptic here. Art never acts at any time in the movie, always reacts and consequently it’s hard to get fully invested in the character. Foster doesn’t help by playing him colorlessly, although that may have been intentional given the script. Foster’s voice-over narration is over-utilized in places, although the fact that much of the narration is lifted directly from the book is somewhat compensatory.

That opens the door for Skarsgaard and he kicks the damn thing in with a vengeance. This becomes in no small way Cleveland’s movie and Skarsgaard plays the character as something of a modern-day pirate, full of lust for life and zeal for lawlessness. It’s a memorable performance and Skarsgaard could well be on his way to becoming one of the better young actors in Hollywood.

Nolte has become a solid character actor with his hangdog expression; he glowers often like a pit bull is hidden inside. He’s tough but reaches out to his son with regularity, knowing in advance that his feckless boy will turn away. He puzzles over how such a creature could have come from his loins, but doesn’t overly obsess about such things. It’s a great role for Nolte and he’s perfectly cast.

Miller and Suvari are both pleasant enough in their roles, with Suvari getting the nod for performing in a role that has little going for it and makes it at least memorable, which is more than Foster could do with the lead role.

The Pittsburgh depicted here is a tough survivor, the capital of the Rust Belt. While Philadelphia carries with it certain sophistication and is firmly planted in an Eastern mindset, Pittsburgh is more rooted in the Midwest and is much more blue-collar. Abandoned factories and rough and tumble punk clubs are just some of the hangouts for the characters here, and it feels pretty authentic – that much the filmmakers got right. Unfortunately, the movie could have used a bit more oomph in it and quite frankly, a different actor as Art. Foster may well be a decent actor, but he simply couldn’t make Art a character I’d want to spend any time with – not even the 90 minutes of the movie that is about him.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard gives an electrifying performance that lights up the screen. Chabon’s prose, utilized in the narration, is always quite wonderful to hear. Nolte gives yet another solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is uneven and Foster is unfortunately not terribly memorable as Art, although this is perhaps intentional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, sexual tension and nudity throughout, as well as some fairly strong language. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, the character of Cleveland is not bisexual and plays a very minor role. His character was merged with the main gay love interest Arthur Lecomte in order to provide a love triangle for dramatic purposes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting interview with author Michael Chabon, director Thurber as well as some other people connected with the production detailing the novel’s somewhat bumpy journey to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Great New Wonderful

10 Items or Less


10 Items or Less

Morgan Freeman discovers that people will do all sorts of things when told to over a loudspeaker.

(First Look) Morgan Freeman, Paz Vega, Anne Dudek, Jonah Hill, Alexandra Berardi, Bobby Cannavale, Kumar Pallana, Jim Parsons, Danny de Vito, Rhea Perlman. Directed by Brad Silberling

As we move through life, our lives intersect briefly with other lives, and then we move on. Sometimes even the briefest of interactions can affect us profoundly, having an impact on the remainder of our lifetime.

An actor – nay, a movie star – known here only as Him (Freeman), is considering a new project (not a film – things aren’t to that stage yet). He hasn’t committed to it yet, which is somewhat surprising, since he (or is it He?) hasn’t done a movie for four years and is coming dangerously close to being “Say, weren’t you that guy who…”

Because the role is as a grocery store manager, the production company sets up an opportunity for Him to research the role at an actual grocery store in the godforsaken wasteland that is Carson, California. He is driven there by an overeager Kid (Hill) who is not so much starstruck as he is hyperactive. The Kid promises to be back in an hour, but we never see him again, which isn’t very surprising to anybody, not even Him.

He finds himself drawn to Scarlet (Vega), an acerbic check-out clerk in the Express Checkout Lane – the one where you can have no more than ten items or less in your cart. She foils customers who would skirt the rules, terrifies an assistant manager (Pallana) who is deaf as a post and slower than that molasses spill on aisle four, and has a running war with the only other checkout clerk (Dudek) in the market who despite the dearth of help seems content to sit on her behind while Scarlet does most of the work.

Scarlet, who emigrated to America from Spain, has found life incredibly hard in the Land of Milk and Honey. She’d gotten married to a man in what turned out to be a major mistake, has had most of her hopes and dreams crushed by the realities of Los Angeles and has been burned so often that she doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe – often they are one and the same in her experience. Despite all this, she finds a common bond with Him.

In turn, he is fascinated by her and her ethics. When he discovers she is going on a job interview later that day, he is keen to go with her, but insists on taking her shopping at Target for new clothes. As an actor, he understands that first impressions are everything during an audition, and when playing a role, one must look the part. The two couldn’t be any more worlds apart than they are, but still they develop a surprisingly intense friendship.

Silberling, director of such blockbusters as Lemony Snicket and City of Angels, picked this indie project for the challenge of completing shooting in 15 days.  It’s a quiet little movie, offering no great emotional resolution nor any particular insight that you can’t find elsewhere. Still, it is refreshing to watch a movie content to remain within its own framework.

Freeman does a bang-up job of essentially playing himself. Although there are some differences between Freeman and Him, there are enough similarities that it becomes eerie at times. For me, however, the opportunity to watch Vega (previously incendiary in Spanglish) is well worth it. Not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, she is a tremendous actress who truly wears her heart on her sleeve. I was riveted every time she made an appearance.

This is a shamelessly independent movie; the production values are next to nothing and at times, it seemed like the pace of the movie was hurried a bit, as if they had some sort of deadline to meet even after the movie had been shot. I liked it and found it charming at times (enough to give it a recommendation), but I can see where that charm would wear thin on people. Think of it as “Seinfeld” without the laughs.

WHY RENT THIS: Paz Vega. Charming without being overbearing. Paz Vega.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground broken here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit too coarse for young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be available legally on the Internet while it was still playing in theaters.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: This has one of the most light-hearted set of features that aren’t out-and-out parodies. A Q&A session with the two main stars and director Silberling in the middle of a Target store, as well as a making-of feature that is notable in that it is longer than the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Leap Year