Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Say "cheesy".

Say “cheesy”.

(2006) Fantasy (Picturehouse) Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Boris McGiver, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy, Mary Duffy, Lynn Marie Stetson, Gwendolyn Bucci, Eric Gingold, Christina Rouner, Marceline Hugo, Emily Bergl, Matt Servitto, David Green, Sandriel Frank, Krista Coyle. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

In the 1950s, housewives were expected essentially to be seen and not heard. The only voice their husbands wanted to hear was “Welcome home, honey” and “Here’s your martini” and “Dinner’s ready” and maybe “Yes, dear.” Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things and most wives, even back then, had voice and were heard, although they often had to find subtle ways of doing it. Diane Arbus was never the strongest of women, but she had a vision and her determination to express it led her to places that she could not have expected to go.

Diane Arbus (Kidman), the quiet, mousy daughter of fur magnate David Nemorov (Yulin) and his overbearing wife Gertrude (Alexander), is also the devoted wife to would-be photographer Allan (Burrell). She has aspirations to being a photographer herself, but has had little time to pursue that dream, helping her husband run his portrait studio as well as clean their apartment and raise their children. However, her passions and eclectic nature have led even her children to label her “weird,” although her saintly husband is willing to overlook her occasional emotional outbursts and supports her in nearly everything she wants to do.

However, a drastic change ensues when the mysterious Lionel (Downey) moves in upstairs. He only ventures in public wearing a sweater mask; that is, when he ventures out at all. She finally summons up the courage to go introduce herself to the new neighbor and discovers he suffers from a rare disfigurement; his hair grows rapidly and all over his body, turning him effectively into a living wolf man. Once she gets over his appearance, she wants to take his portrait but he keeps demurring, offering her a glimpse into a world of what used to be called the freaks; a world of dwarves and dominatrix, giants and gender benders. She begins to immerse herself more fully into that world, withdrawing more and more from her own family. Which world will Diane Arbus eventually choose?

Kidman is asked to carry this movie while retaining the obedient and subservient demeanor of a 1950s housewife. Much of her dialogue is in a whispering, excuse-me-for-speaking voice which at times gets irritating, considering you’re asking the audience to retain an interest in her character. To her credit, Kidman’s  acting is right on the money for the character as written, but pales when compared to Downey’s Lionel.

Essentially pared of facial expression for most of the movie (except for the very last reel in which Kidman tenderly – and sensually – shaves the fur from his skin), Downey uses his eyes and his voice to great effect. Although he received no acting nominations for any major awards for his performance, he was certainly deserving of consideration. If they’d used a fictional photographer loosely based on Arbus in many ways this would have been a better movie, because then they could make it about Lionel. In addition, Burrell does a surprisingly good job as the husband helplessly watching his wife drift away, wanting her to be happy and yet needing her love and support. You can see the potential he would eventually fulfill in Modern Family.

The filmmakers capture the energy of New York circa 1958 rather nicely. The apartment set by Amy Danger and Carrie Stewart, is spot-on. The set decoration, both of the Arbus’ apartment with its 1950s normality, and the more whimsical loft of Lionel, is bold and striking. Carter Burwell’s score captures the jazzy feel one associates with the city in the era of the Beat Generation. The legendary Stan Winston’s make-up for Lionel makes him the perfect Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.

First of all, I don’t like the whole concept. Why create a fictional account of Diane Arbus’ life? I’d much rather prefer to see a movie about her actual life. Wasn’t it interesting enough? I also find it highly telling that in a movie purporting to be a tribute to the world-famous photographer they use none of her photographs. I found very little of Diane Arbus in this movie, at least as far as I could detect. While Kidman does a pretty good job acting, she is asked to essentially carry the movie and yet be reserved and quiet (most of her lines are delivered in almost a whisper), leading to a curiously flat quality to the movie. We never get a sense of who Diane Arbus really was or why anyone should bother making a film about her life.

No. I honestly think this does a disservice to the memory of Diane Arbus and her work. I felt after seeing it that I hadn’t gleaned anything new about the artist; in that sense, you’re better off picking up a book of her photographs (of course, that’s pretty much true of any artist). Despite Downey’s wonderful performance and Kidman’s presence, the movie is neither inspiring nor informative and sadly, not really entertaining either.

WHY RENT THIS: Downey is compelling. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We don’t ever see any of Arbus’ actual photographs. Would have preferred seeing her actual life story. Kidman speaks in a whisper and we never get the sense that Arbus was of any interest whatsoever.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is much explicit nudity and a graphic sex scene. The adult tone to the film make it unsuitable viewing for any but the most mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Steven Shainberg’s Uncle Lawrence was a close friend of Diane Arbus.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 3.5/10
NEXT: Selma

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Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50

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 Unborn


The Unborn

Idris Elba finds out firsthand that kids suck, especially creepy icy blue-eyed dybbuk kids.

(Rogue) Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, Carla Gugino, Jane Alexander, Idris Elba, Rhys Coiro, James Remar. Directed by David S. Goyer

Life is precious and we get to experience it all-too-briefly. If it’s precious to us, how much more so must it be to an entity that doesn’t possess it?

Casey Beldon (Yustman) has been experiencing some terrifying nightmares of late, bad dreams that she can’t explain but are unsettling. She is a pretty college student with a group of awesome friends, but those nightmares are starting to spill over into her waking hours. Images of creepy children with icy blue eyes, dogs with creepy masks, creepy fetuses floating in creepy jars, creepy big-ass ants, creepy creepy creepy.

It turns out that Casey is actually one-half of a matching set; she had a twin who had died in utero, leading to the suicide of her mother (Gugino) and some lingering guilt from her dad (Remar). Along the way she is led to an ancient woman in a nursing home who – surprise! – turns out to be her grandma Sophie (Alexander) and also a concentration camp survivor. It also turns out that the experimentation that had been performed upon identical twin in Auschwitz had led to the unleashing of a dybbuk, a creature from Jewish legend that was the spirit of the unborn. And this particular dybbuk (with the innocuous name of Jumby) wants to be born in the worst way.

Casey watches her friends get picked off one by one by the angry Jumby and those he is able to control until she reaches out to the local Rabbi Sendak (Oldman) for help. This leads to the mother of all exorcisms, this one from the Jewish tradition and involves the bleating of a ram’s horn courtesy of the good Rabbi, who must have gotten a kick of the irony of a cleric named for the author of Where the Wild Things Are blowing through a ram’s horn.

I read several fanboy-type reviews that bashed this movie and particularly the director, sneering at a resume that includes such treats as The Invisible to his directing resume and Kickboxer 2: The Road Back and Puppetmaster vs. Demonic Toys as a writer. However, they fail to mention he also wrote the remarkable Dark City and the last two Batman movies as well. That’s what we in the critic biz call “selective resume tunnel vision” or SRTV for short. It’s a terrible condition, so give generously at the next telethon.

This is actually not a bad horror movie at all. It has a lot of the requisite elements – a major league yechh factor, frightening images, attractive female leads dressed in skimpy underwear and plenty of shock frights to give you the jumpies. It is a bit light on the sex, which is a bit intriguing considering it is essentially a horror movie about something wanting to be born so bad it would kill for it, but I suspect that the studio wanted a PG-13 rating which is what this got. Sometimes, you gotta go for the gusto for a really effective scare film.

Odette Yustman is a pretty girl and a decent actress, but I’m not sure she’s really scream queen material. She doesn’t have that kick-ass quality that a good horror heroine needs, and her character is written to be a bit on the passive side anyway, which makes it harder for the audience to connect with her. Alexander stands out in a fairly solid supporting cast as the grandmother, and Twilight’s Gigandet does well as the second banana boyfriend.

I give Goyer props for writing a supernatural theme from a Jewish viewpoint instead of the usual Catholic one. It gives the movie a nice twist that sets it apart from other supernatural horror movies. If you’re looking for a disc that’s going to deliver some nice frights and make for a dark night scary movie popcorn evening, this one certainly makes a solid candidate.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty nifty visuals, particularly the demonic upside-down headed people and dogs. Some quirky humor scattered throughout shows up at unexpected moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points stretch believability to the breaking point. I couldn’t really get behind Yustman who seems a bit too passive to be a horror heroine.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of graphic violence and terrifying images, lots of foul language (hey, you’d swear too) and some implied sexuality in this one, so no kiddies allowed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene depicting concentration camp experimentation on the pigmentation of the iris of the eyes is based on actual experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele who is, we assume, the doctor depicted here.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief