Voyeur (2017)


Gay Talese, dapper man about town.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Gay Talese, Gerald Foos, Nan Talese, Susan Morrison, Morgan Entrikan, Jackson Scholz, Anita Foos.  Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury

 

We are a society that loves to watch. We are obsessed with chronicling every aspect of our lives and looking in on the chronicles of others. We are a nation of voyeurs, titillated by both the sexual and the ordinary, able to leave our own lives while we glimpse at others, pursing our lips and waggling our fingers as if our own lives are above reproach.

Gay Talese is one of the last of his kind. A New York journalist back when that meant something, he has written some of the most compelling works of non-fiction of the last 60 years. His piece “Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire is one of the defining celebrity portraits ever written and it has influenced the genre ever since its publication. He’s written about crime families in Honor Thy Father and about the sexual mores of the 70s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as an observer but admittedly as a participant. Talese has always had a certain swagger and a particular style. His trademark is immaculately tailored suits, often accompanied by Fedora and scarf. Emerging from his Manhattan brownstone, he cuts an urbane figure from a bygone era when such things mattered.

Kane and Koury are given access to the basement of the brownstone which was once used as a wine cellar but now is Talese’s archive and office, a kind of man-cave that is a tribute to a career which, truth be told, merits that kind of celebration. Quite frankly while Talese has garnered his share of controversy over the years, he has also done some incredible work.

Now 85, Talese is looking for one last book and one last story to cap off his career. He thought he had it in a story he had started working on 30 years earlier. Gerald Foos was the owner of a Colorado motel which he had outfitted with an observation platform which ran the length of the property. Through strategically placed ventilation louvers he could observe guests without being seen or heard.

Now this sounds creepy enough but given where society is at this moment in time this seems like a fairly timely documentary. Foos, something of a teddy bear of a man, cheerfully admits to his sexual arousal but insists that this was a research project and not a precursor to Pornhub. There’s an air of disingenuousness about Foos but Talese seems to take him at face value.

However, Foos is reluctant to have his name revealed so that puts a kibosh on any involvement by Talese. However, 30 years later Foos has a change of heart and Talese gets back on the case. Foos gives Talese his journal complete with charts facts and figures about his “research.” Some of the stories Foos has to tell are pretty fascinating. Others are grim – like the murder he claimed he witnessed. Talese knows he’s found the story he’s been looking for.

His editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, is less enthused. She confesses that she thinks that Foos is a sociopathic pervert but agrees the story is a fascinating one. Talese submits it and the fact checkers get to work. Talese also signs a book deal to expand the article in the New Yorker into a full-length non-fiction book that’s sure to be a best seller.

However, the fact checkers turn out some disquieting discrepancies. After the book is published, a Washington Post reporter comes up with a devastating fact that threatens the book’s future and Talese’s reputation as a journalist. Much of what happened is of public record but I am being vague about it in case you didn’t follow the story when it happened because the way it unfolds here truly is blindsiding in a good way.

I think this is one of those documentary projects that began as one thing and then turned into another. This was supposed to be I think a piece on a regal lion making his last charge into the hunt and then morphed into a catfishing piece. I do think it took the filmmakers by surprise; while they give a fairly in-depth portrait of Talese (and Foos) early on, as the situation changes we don’t get a whole lot of commentary from the parties involved.

Talese comes off as a fastidious egocentric man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t really tolerate much exception to his rules. I suppose he can afford to be choosy. Still, he seems to lead a fairly lonely life….makes me wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price to be Gay Talese. But that’s a question that only he can answer.

The directors made use of a miniature model of the motel in an innovative fashion rather than staging recreations of the incidents that Foos related to Talese. There are also virtually no talking head interviews; everything is essentially Talese and Foos with Foos’ enabling second wife lurking furtively on the edges of the film.

Foos remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. He comes off as quite reasonable and even eager to be liked but there’s a creepiness at his core that is off-putting. I don’t think he sees anything wrong in what he was doing; it’s like there’s a big gap where his conscience should have been. The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t editorialize much; they present the story and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.

At the same time though the movie feels like it’s missing context. I think a little bit of outside, objective opinions might have helped the film in the long run – that’s right, I’m advocating for more talking heads – can you believe it? But talking heads have their purpose and sometimes a little bit of that can actually help the viewer feel more informed. I still felt a bit like the viewer is flailing in the dark here.

The documentary has a fascinating quality – as I said there’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us. However, I felt curiously unsatisfied by the movie as if by the end that I hadn’t seen all of it. There is much more to the story I think than is on the screen here and it could be simply that the nature of the watchers is that they shy away from the spotlight when it is they that are being watched.

REASONS TO GO: Talese is one of the last great personalities in journalism. The movie is full of interesting twists (particularly if you know little about it to begin with).
REASONS TO STAY: There is a surprising lack of depth to the documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, occasional profanity and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foos contacted Talese in 1980 after reading his tome on the sexual mores of the 1970s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
A Ghost Story

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Sinister


Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Summit) Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King, Lorraine Aceves, Rachel Konstantin. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

It isn’t hard to wonder why people do the things they do. Why they feel compelled not just to take life but to do so in particularly gruesome and sadistic ways. There really is no explanation for it. No earthly one, anyway.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a writer specializing in true crime. A decade previous, he wrote Kentucky Blood which not only chronicled a lurid murder in the Bluegrass State but also solved it, making the police of the area look awfully bad in the process. Since then, a string of failures has left his career disintegrating before his very eyes. He has moved his family from New York City to a house in Long Island which they aren’t too happy about.

They would be twice as upset if they knew that an entire family had been murdered there weeks before and that the youngest daughter of that family was missing. Ellison means to solve the murders and find the missing girl which he believes would be enough to make him famous again. However, first things first; he has to get his study set up and the family moved in.

While exploring the house, Ellison finds a box of super 8 films in the attic. They have innocuous titles such as Pool Party ’66, BBQ ’79 and Family Hanging Out ’11. However when Ellison views them to his horror they turn out to be footage of entire families getting murdered, including the one that had lived in the house.

He chooses not to tell the police about his find, mainly because the Sheriff (Thompson) takes a dim view of a writer who wrote such uncomplimentary things about the police. However, his nebbish Deputy (Ransone) has a major case of hero worship and agrees to help Ellison in exchange for being mentioned in the book as a researcher or something along those lines. It soon becomes clear that the apparently random murders are all connected – and that a mysterious figure identified as “Mr. Boogie” in childish drawings of the murders is the connecting thread.

In the meantime, the pressure is getting to Ellison and he’s begun drinking much to the chagrin of his wife (Rylance). After consulting with occult specialist Professor Jonas (D’Onofrio) Ellison is worried that his family has now become the targets of Mr. Boogie. Can he protect his family from something that he can’t understand?

A couple of years ago this one made some big waves in Hollywood for making big box office numbers on an indie-like production budget; in fact, the movie was initially shown at South by Southwest and was picked up there by Summit, an unusual move for a major. However it paid lots and lots of dividends.

Derrickson used this as a springboard to get the director’s chair for the upcoming Dr. Strange movie coming from Marvel in 2016. You can see why; he has a talent for painting a mood and making the most out of a small budget. Hopefully with a bigger budget like James Gunn before him he’ll turn it into a flat-out global blockbuster.

Hawke has always been consistently good, one of those steady actors who never turns in a bad performance. It is only recently that I’ve begun to think of him as an outstanding performer and this movie is one of the reasons why. Ellison is far from being likable. He’s self-centered and puts his career ahead of the well-being of his own family. However, in Hawke’s capable hands we still end up rooting for the character.

Like The Legend of Hell House this is much more of an atmospheric horror film than a visceral one. There isn’t a ton of gore but the creepy factor is off the charts. Much of the action takes place in Ellison’s office space which is cramped and shadowy. That gives the movie a nice claustrophobic feeling.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie and really makes for negative marks in the film’s overall rating. While the use of found footage is cleverly integrated into the movie, this feels a lot like V/H/S which used the same concept much more gracefully. Those who are looking for real scares there aren’t a lot of them and those mostly of the jump scare variety. The movie is spooky rather than scary which may not necessarily be what you’re looking for, although the horror wimps in your household looking to show some Halloween bravery may find it palatable. The demonic figure and the children may be nightmare-inducing for those sorts however.

I liked Sinister more than it probably deserved but I’m rating it lower than I’d like. I just can’t get past the ending I’m afraid. However if you don’t mind being disappointed at the end of the movie and you like your horror to be more creepy than crawly, this might be what you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t overstate the gore. Relies on atmosphere and claustrophobia for scares. Hawke does some fine work here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending is a bit of a letdown. More spooky than scary. Trope of found footage murder reels has been done before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Disturbing images of violence and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer C. Robert Cargill came up with the idea after a nightmare he had following a viewing of The Ring. He also admits that the name of the lead character, Ellison Oswalt, comes from author Harlan Ellison and comedian Patton Oswalt.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A couple of interesting featurettes; one on real life true crime authors, the other of experiences the crew had living in a house where a murder happened for real during filming.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.7M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Four!

Real Genius


Party on, nerds!

Party on, nerds!

(1985) Comedy (Tri-Star) Val Kilmer, Gabe Jarret, Michelle Meyrink, William Atherton, Jonathan Gries, Patti D’Arbanville, Stacy Peralta, Ed Lauter, Louis Giambalvo, Charles Shull, Robert Prescott, Mark Kamiyama, Tom Swerdlow, Randolph Dreyfuss, Dean Devlin, Yuji Okumoto, Deborah Foreman, Monte Landis, Paul Tulley, Joanne Baron, Charles Parks, Beau Billingslea. Directed by Martha Coolidge

I have to admit having a great deal of fondness for movies that came out in the 80s. I was in my 20s back then (ugh!) and although I was already skewing towards a demographic that movies weren’t serving quite so much, I was still close enough to it to relate.

The 80s were kind of a transitional period, moving away from the anti-heroes that were the rage in the 70s and more towards lighter, fluffier movies that started with Star Wars and continued as special effects began to become more sophisticated. It was also a great era for comedy as directors like the recently departed Harold Ramis, the late John Hughes and Ivan Reitman were all turning out classics like Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles and Caddyshack.

One of the more underrated comedies of that era was Real Genius. Directed by Martha Coolidge who had previously helmed Valley Girl, the movie was somewhat akin to Revenge of the Nerds which had been released the previous year.

Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is a 15-year-old science prodigy who has been accepted into the physics program at Pacific Tech (a ringer for Cal Tech) headed by none other than television scientist and personality Dr. Jerry Hathaway (Atherton). Not only that, he’ll be rooming with Chris Knight (Kilmer), a legend in the honors student community who is now a senior at Pacific Tech.

However, Mitch finds that college isn’t exactly the way he thought it would be. The brilliant Knight is more interested in partying and playing elaborate practical jokes than he is in studying and preparing to become the next generation of scientists and engineers that will shape the future of our world. And, just like in high school, there are a group of bullies led by Kent (Prescott) who mercilessly badger and tease young Mitch. Kent it seems is insecure about his position with Dr. Hathaway and sees Mitch as a threat – and for good reason as it turns out as Dr. Hathaway puts Mitch in charge of finding a way to power a four megawatt laser, a project both Chris and Kent had previously been in charge of.

However, things aren’t all bad although the pressure on Mitch is spectacular. He meets Jordan (Meyrink), a hyperactive insomniac who is sweet on him – and vice versa. There is also a mysterious figure who lives in his closet, one Lazlo Hollyfeld (Gries) who was smarter than both Mitch and Chris but cracked when he found out the research that he was doing had been used for weapons.

The stress is growing to the breaking point for Mitch despite Chris’ admonition to blow off steam. The pressure is also growing on Dr. Hathaway, who had been given a grant to get results but was fobbing off the work on his students (who were working for free) and using the money to remodel his house. At last he tells Chris that the job waiting for him after he graduates will evaporate – in fact, he won’t graduate because Dr. Hathaway will fail him no matter what he does in class.

After a disastrous test melts down the laser (due to sabotage from Kent), Chris has an epiphany and gets the laser to work. However, when Lazlo wonders why they are celebrating, he asks them what the use of such a powerful laser would be and there is only one – as a weapon. Devastated, these brilliant students must find a way to make sure their research is never used – and at the same time, get even with those who betrayed them.

The humor here is more gentle and less raunchy than what we’re used to today, and there is a certain amount of sweetness, particularly in the relationship between Mitch and Jordan. Kilmer, who more often than not has been cast in dramatic roles in his career, was at that point a fine comic actor (remember Top Secret?) who had a bit of a quirky edge to him. He is really the center of the movie in many ways although the protagonist is ostensibly Mitch.

Jarret was a bit underwhelming as Mitch although I suspect that is as much by design as anything else. Mitch, as written, is a bit of a doormat so at times the character seems to be dragged about by whatever current is taking him. That makes it hard for an audience to get behind him and certainly to remember him. Easily it will be Meyrink and Kilmer who most will remember about this movie.

While the film is a bit dated in places (anything about technology will look dated 20 and 30 years on), the science is surprisingly sound (with the exception of the final prank which was recently debunked by Mythbusters). To this day, a laser as powerful as the one depicted here has yet to be invented although by the standards of the time the theory was apparently sound.

While this isn’t my favorite film or even my favorite comedy from the era, it remains one of those pleasures I’ve seen dozens of times and never get tired of. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, Coolidge has a decent story to work with that she tells flawlessly and the performances are spot on. While some young whippersnappers have complained about the soundtrack, it is evocative of its times and any movie that spotlights Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is okay in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Light and fun, not to mention funny. Kilmer is a fine comic actor. The science is also surprisingly sound.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few bad words, some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where a procession of cars is arranged for a test firing of the laser, the cars are set up to mirror the motorcade of President Kennedy when he was assassinated.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weird Science

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lie

Blood Creek (Town Creek)


Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Henry Cavill, Dominic Purcell, Michael Fassbender, Emma Booth, Rainer Winkelvoss, Laszlo Matray, Joy McBrinn, Shea Whigham, Tony Barger, Douglas Roger, Michael Ntumba, Razvan Oprea, Ana Popescu, Florin Piersic Jr., Gerald McSorley, Vlad Voda, Albert Gherasim, Wentworth Miller, Lynn Collins.  Directed by Joel Schumacher

Some horror movies one must admire for their ambition but criticize for their execution. Some are just the opposite. Most fall in between.

In West Virginia circa 1936 a family of German émigrés working on a farm receive a letter asking them to host a German occultist doing research on a Viking runestone that they found in their barn. As they are barely making ends meet in the Depression-era rural South, the $150 a month they would receive for hosting the professor would be a Godsend.

At first Dr, Richard Wirth (Fassbender) seems like a harmless academic but soon it becomes clear that Dr. Wirth has a far more sinister motive in mind. The family is forced to set a spell trapping Wirth in their barn and the family is also caught up in the spell, not becoming immortal as Wirth did but certainly not aging normally.

Cut to modern times. Farmer Evan Marshall (Cavill) receives a visit one night from his brother Victor (Purcell). This wouldn’t ordinarily arouse comment except that Victor has been missing for months and when he shows up he is hideously scarred and looks like a cross between one of the Deliverance hillbillies and Frankenstein’s monster. He ropes Evan into taking him back to the farm where he had been held captive and getting his revenge on the family that kept him there.

You can guess which farm and which family he’s talking about. What you couldn’t guess – or maybe you could if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies – is that Wirth has mutated into a kind of Nazi vampire zombie master with terrifying powers. Although the comely farmer’s daughter Liese (Booth) tries to persuade Evan that they’re actually the good guys keeping the monster at Bay for well over three quarters of a century, Victor is having none of it with predictable consequences.

Lionsgate had at one time in the studio’s history released a glut of horror movies onto the market and in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century began to be a little pickier about what they put their distribution behind. Therefore nifty little movies like this and Midnight Meat Train got microscopic releases, in Blood Creek‘s case a mere 25 theaters nationwide, mostly of the dollar variety.

I think this deserved better. Certainly it’s flawed but there are some pretty nifty elements that I’d certainly recommend. For one thing Fassbender, on the eve of his breakthrough as an actor, makes a thoroughly compelling and hissable villain. Cavill and Purcell both did competent jobs as the heroic leads and while Booth wasn’t given a whole lot to do is at least easy to look at.

There is an awful lot of hand-held camera work in the movie to its own detriment. At times it’s really difficult to make out what’s going on and some important plot elements become confusing and for those of us who are sensitive to shaky cam, the movie can be painful at times. While the movie builds up to its conclusion well, the actual ending is a bit of a letdown.

But then again as much as I would have liked more spectacle, you (and I as well) have to realize that this is a pretty low-budget affair – how tight a budget do you have to have when West Virginia is too expensive a location to shoot in? For the record, Romania stands in for West Virginia which makes perfect sense and quite frankly, it looks a lot of the West Virginia I’ve seen on the Internet.

Anyway, as low budget horror movies go this isn’t half bad. There are some genuine scares, plenty of gore and some nifty ideas. There are also some lapses in logic which is often a bugaboo in horror movies. If you like a good scare and want to try something out you haven’t seen before, you could certainly do worse than this. Not a hidden gem so much as a surprisingly good but flawed grindhouse flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Really nice concept. Fassbender rocks the villain. Smartly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of hand-held “shaky” cams. Ending lacked punch.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore as well as some pretty crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse Metcalf was originally set to star but had to drop out of the production for undisclosed reasons. Cavill was brought in to take the lead role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Snow

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

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