Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.

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My Life in Ruins


My Life in Ruins

Is it just me or is Nia Vardalos looking like a young Kirstie Alley?

(Fox Searchlight) Nia Vardalos, Richard Dreyfus, Harland Williams, Rachel Dratch, Maria Adanez, Maria Botto, Alexis Georgoulis, Sheila Bernette, Alistair MacGowan, Bernice Stegers. Directed by Donald Petrie

Life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Too many of us find ourselves spectators in our own story. Sometimes it takes a trip to where civilization began to find out what it means to be human.

Georgia (Vardalos) is an unemployed history professor who has been reduced to being a tour guide for the low-rent Pangloss Tours in Athens – the Greek one, for my readers in the Deep South. She has no life to speak of, her romantic life is a series of miscalculations and full-on bad ideas that have left her lonely and cynical.

Her passion is history and she yearns to pass on that passion for Greek culture, history and traditions to her tourists, but in all honesty she tends to be a bit of a priggish bore and her attempts at humor are right up there with the comic stylings of Al Gore. To make matters worse, she is almost always given the worst tour groups, while her rival Nico (MacGowan) always gets the energetic Canadian group that tips like they just won the lottery.

This trip she is saddled with a couple of beer-soaked Aussies, a kleptomaniac Brit (Bernette), a pair of man-hungry Spanish divorcees (Adanez and Botto), a boorish American couple (Williams, Dratch), a snooty English family, a boring American businessman and an earnest but geeky backpacker. Oh, and there’s also Irv (Dreyfus), an American retiree who punctuates everything with a joke like a Borscht Belt comic run amok. Their tour bus is driven by a shaggy, taciturn Greek named Poupi Kakas (Georgoulis). When his name is first introduced, I just knew I was in for a yuckfest.

Things go predictably badly. The group is not enamored of Georgia’s academic approach and is more interested in shopping for trinkets, frolicking on the beach and drinking in whatever taverna they can find on the road than in poking about yet another set of ancient ruins. Georgia is beside herself. It looks like yet another low rating for her and she is absolutely miserable. She decides this tour will be her last, but a funny thing happens on the way to the unemployment line; she discovers her inner Greek. She learns to take pleasure in life. She finds the soul within Irv who becomes something of a Delphic Oracle to the group (and no, that’s not a lesbian laptop…ba dum BUMP). She will also find the romance she’s been seeking in the form of Poupi, who after a shave and a haircut is transformed from the Unabomber to the cover of a Harlequin Romance paperback.

Nia Vardalos, who was so engaging, charming and funny in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is all that here, and 40 pounds slimmer too. She looks spectacular, but all the charm in the world can’t save this script. It’s full of ethnic stereotypes (shifty Greek merchants, boozy Australians, obnoxious Americans etc.) and rote romantic comedy plot points, making it too full for a whole lot of humor. Vardalos probably should have checked director Petrie’s resume – which includes Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – before signing up for this; Petrie seems to be a competent enough director, but his movies rarely rise far above mediocrity.

The scenery is gorgeous, although you will see much the same kind of thing in the average travel video. Greece has a particular charm that casts a spell on all who have ever been there; the movie at least captures the concept of it but not the charm itself. Dreyfus gamely gives Irv the best moments in the movie, and while he really doesn’t have a whole lot to work with (like the predictable Viagra jokes – hoo haw!) he at least is a seasoned pro, enough to make a nylon purse out of a sow’s ear.

I really do like Nia Vardalos as a performer, as does Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who bankrolled this (as they did My Big Fat Greek Wedding). She can make you fall right in love with her and her Hellenic tendencies when given the right material. Unfortunately, this ain’t it. I can truthfully say it’s far better than the truly awful I Hate Valentine’s Day which was so bad I chose not to review it, but that’s not saying much at all. I can give it a mild recommendation but that’s all; there are far better tours of Greece than the one Vardalos gives here, even after her character gets her mojo back.

WHY RENT THIS: Vardalos is charming and the Greek countryside does weave a certain magic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is very paint-by-numbers and the humor is hit or miss.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of sexuality and language but for the most part is okay for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian Gomez, who plays the creepy hotel clerk, is Nia Vardalos’ real-life husband.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The featurette “Everybody Loves Poupi” re-edits some of Georgoulis’ scenes to give him romantic interest in, well, everybody.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

W.


W

The easy crack would be of Dubya conversing with intellectual equals, but that would be TOO easy.

(Lionsgate) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfus, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffud, Thandie Newton, Jesse Bradford, Toby Jones. Directed by Oliver Stone

When all is said and done, one of the most fascinating political figures of the last fifty years is George W. Bush. Love him or hate him, there is simply no in-between.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone is known for his liberal viewpoint and he’s no stranger to making movies about chief executives (Nixon). He is also known for playing fast and loose with facts in order to get his point across.

He doesn’t do that here. This is a remarkable movie in that sense, what appears to be a sincere attempt to understand a president who has been, in many ways, a complete mystery. It’s not the facts of his life that are in dispute; it’s just that people can’t figure out how this guy became president and then once he became president, why he made the decisions he did.

Josh Brolin is in the title role and he plays the President starting from his frat years at Yale all the way to his last year as President. He gets his mannerisms down pat, just nails them and yet refrains from making his performance a Saturday Night Live caricature. If you ever doubted that Josh Brolin is a fine actor, one glimpse of his performance here will dissuade any notion of that.

The story is not told chronologically for a reason. Stone’s intent is not to tell the story of Bush’s presidency but to examine the man in the office. It looks at his daddy issues, as his father George H.W. Bush (Cromwell) seems to favor his brother Jeb over him, and it’s certainly understandable. George drinks heavily, parties like a fiend and is generally successful at nothing.

His father is skeptical when George runs for Governor of Texas and surprised when he wins. It does serve to change his opinion of his son somewhat, to the point where he asks him to run his campaign (which he loses to Clinton).

His relationship with Laura (Banks) is central to the movie and we can see her influence on him and how much her support helped him grow. There is no doubt that he is a family man and that he has a spiritual side that is strong and sincere.

The actors for the most part capture their roles perfectly. Dreyfus and Wright do wonderful jobs as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, respectively. We don’t get much insight into them as people other than as they relate to Dubyah, but then this is HIS movie.

How accurate is this? Surprisingly, quite a bit. Obviously there’s no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors or what precisely was said by whom. Still, what is said and done is consistent with published accounts of the Bush presidency. I’m sure that this isn’t a 100% accurate biography of George W. Bush (his family has gone on record as saying that it is not), but then is anything? At least it seems somewhat fair-minded.

I have gone on record with my opinions of the Bush presidency on my other blog and there’s no need to rehash it here. In many ways, this movie is apolitical; the argument is that Bush was the poster boy for the Peter Principle. He was ill-prepared for the job; clearly he wasn’t capable. He had advisors that for better or worse essentially set policy. Whatever you stand is politically, you don’t need to love George W. Bush to love this movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Remarkably apolitical despite the filmmakers known political leanings, this is more an attempt to understand Bush rather than to form an opinion about him. Extremely well-cast, the actors all resemble their famous roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like many Oliver Stone films, it runs a bit longer than it probably should have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, depictions of drinking and smoking, a bit of sexuality and some disturbing war images; definitely this is for more mature viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Josh Brolin’s dad James played another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in the TV mini-series “The Reagans.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a documentary on the Bush family directed by Sean Stone, Oliver’s son.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Transporter 3