Jolene


Jolene

Jessica Chastain looks pretty in too much make-up said no-one ever.

(2008) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Jessica Chastain, Frances Farmer, Dermot Mulroney, Zeb Newman, Chazz Palminteri, Denise Richards, Theresa Russell, Michael Vartan, Shannon Whirry, Drea Pruseau, Rupert Friend, Sherry Leigh, Amy Landers. Directed by Dan Ireland

 

Most people are fully aware of the Biblical story of Job. You remember, the guy who had all sorts of things thrown at him on a bet between God and the Devil. They wanted to see how long he’d remain faithful to the Lord and Good Old Job stayed faithful despite losing everything. Good Job, Job.

The truth is that when real people are beset by numerous catastrophes of Biblical proportions, they tend to grow cynical and bitter. They lose faith in everything and everyone. They become hardened and often their outlook makes them difficult to be around. Of course there are exceptions.

Jolene (Chastain) is an orphan who gets married far too young to Mickey (Newman) who means well but is weak. The young couple move in with Mickey’s Uncle Phil (Mulroney) who takes a liking to Jolene and she to him. The two take to fornicatin’ and are sadly discovered by Aunt Kay (Russell) who as a conservative Christian woman doesn’t cotton much to infidelity and throws the young girl out on her ear, which eventually leads to tragedy. The vengeful Kay sees to it that Jolene ends up in juvenile detention where a counselor named Cindy (Farmer) who happens to be a lesbian, also succumbs to Jolene’s charms and helps her escape.

Jolene makes her way to Arizona where she takes up with a tattoo artist with the unlikely name of Coco Leger (Friend) who is also a drug dealer. To nobody’s surprise that ends up badly so Jolene makes her way to Las Vegas and finds work as an exotic dancer. She catches the eye of Sal (Palminteri), a Vegas businessman who falls head over heels for Jolene and looks to be the one to treat her nicely and with respect. Sadly, Sal’s got problems with the mob. So long, Sal.

Next stop, Tulsa where Jolene hooks up with Brad (Vartan) who is a millionaire. He’s also a religious nutcase and an abuser of women. Can Jolene break out of this pattern of bad choices or is it just a matter of bad luck?

This tale of woe is based on a short story by noted author E.L. Doctorow (who also penned Ragtime and The Book of Daniel among other) which was in turn inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” In all fairness the story is basically a means of explaining how the red-haired seductress of Parton’s song got to be that way but the movie really isn’t into making excuses for Jolene. She is where she is because she makes some hideously bad choices and doesn’t learn from them. Which, also to be honest, is true of most of us.

The movie is notable as being Jessica Chastain’s debut and she is quite frankly the reason to see it at all. Her performance here is electric and mesmerizing; yes you can see that Jolene is a train wreck but Chastain makes her a sympathetic train wreck. She makes Jolene a memorable woman, feisty and artistically talented but simply lacking in sense.

While there are some pretty strong performers here for the most part the performances are surprisingly vapid outside of Chastain. Mulroney and Farmer are usually pretty reliable as is the handsome Michael Vartan; they don’t disgrace themselves but they don’t really distinguish themselves either.

Part of the problem is that the script reads as melodrama. You half expect Snidely Whiplash to come leaping out with a “Nyah ah ah,” fingering his moustache as he prepares to tie poor Jolene to the train tracks. I get that Jolene had a really hard life. I get that as a woman, she suffered terrible exploitation. I also get that she made choices that screwed her over. But does it have to be hammered into the viewer repeatedly? It isn’t a plot point so much as an assault.

This is a movie that sat two years on the shelf before making the festival circuit and another two years before hitting its theatrical release. That usually bodes ill for a movie, even at the independent level. Other than Chastain who is almost in another, better movie (and very clearly carries this one) there isn’t a lot to recommend this film for but certainly if you’re into mesmerizing performances from young actresses, this one fits that bill.

WHY RENT THIS: Chastain’s first movie and she’s amazing in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly melodramatic. Perhaps a little too much is thrown Jolene’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality here is very rampant with lots of frank discussion, graphic nudity and of course sex scenes. There’s also some bad language and a bit of drug use, not to mention a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolene debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival which director Dan Ireland is co-founder of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A gag reel is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Lincoln

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Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Julianne Hough prepares for her next scene in the Broadway version of “There’s Something About Mary.”

(2012) Musical (New Line) Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige, Will Forte, T.J. Miller, Kevin Nash, Jeff Chase, Celina Beach, Dan Finnerty, Angelo Donato Valderrama. Directed by Adam Shankman

 

Maybe I’m a bit of a music snob – all right, there’s no “maybe” about it – but my idea of fun isn’t watching a cover band butcher the hits of classic rock. However, someone had to convince a Broadway producer and then a Hollywood studio that people would love to see it. Thus began a musical that has been a huge success on the Great White Way but would that success translate to the big screen?

Sherrie Christian (Hough) is a bright-eyed blonde travelling from Tulsa on a bus to make it to the bright lights and big city dreams of L.A. And of course the first thing that happens is she gets her suitcase stolen – the one with all her record albums in it, autographed of course. Sherrie is a rocker chick, a lacquer haired blonde who dreams of Night Ranger, Poison, Whitesnake and Journey. She lives for the hard stuff.

Her mugging is witnessed by Drew Boley (Boneta), a barback with dreams of rock stardom. He is a good-hearted sort and when he hears her story, he arranges with his boss Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the world famous Bourbon Club on the Strip, to give her a job as a cocktail waitress. She comes at a critical juncture for the Bourbon. The club is in financial chaos, owing a sizable tax bill. However, help is on the way – Stacee Jaxx (Cruise), the superstar front man of Arsenal, has brought his band to play their last show ever at the Bourbon before Stacee heads out on his own solo career.

Stacee’s oily manager Paul Gill (Giamatti) tells Stacee that he will be interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter, one Constance Sack (Akerman), one who might have a bit of an agenda and one who isn’t overly awed by Stacee’s sexual attraction. In the meantime, the new mayor (Cranston) and his shrill wife (Jones) who may have a personal vendetta, are taking aim at the Bourbon and are out to shut it down so that the Strip can be cleaned up for rich developers to make a mint on.

Of course things don’t go as planned, everybody kind of goes their separate ways including Sherrie and Drew who have become a couple, but a misunderstanding tears them apart. Of course, this being a musical, we know that a happy ending is in sight and rock and roll will save the day.

I have a thing about Broadway musicals that take pre-written songs and plug them into a cookie cutter plot. Mamma Mia kinda got away with it because it was all the music of a single band and as such meshed together well. Hear, there are a bunch of different acts (with a lot of Poison songs, but also from such bands as the ones previously named as well as Starship, Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi.

The problem is that the songs are played pretty much without any passion. Rock requires it, and this has all the energy and passion of canned elevator music. It’s just loud guitars instead of soft strings. Most of the cast do their own singing and it’s probably better than we have a right to expect. In fact, the acting is pretty solid to but with two notable – and fatal – exceptions.

Hough is best known for her stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and she also has a surprisingly sweet voice (she’s done a country album to this point). However, her acting is not quite up to the same standards. Her Sherrie is kind of annoying, to be honest but at least that’s better than Boneta, veteran of Mexican telenovelas who is simply bland. His character isn’t particularly well-defined to begin with but Boneta adds nothing to him. His voice is pleasant enough but lacks the power to really deliver on his songs.

This is really a mess. It’s not the fault of Cruise who gives a performance that reminds me of his work in Tropical Thunder but without the clever dialogue. The leads are attractive but don’t really deliver any personality, something this project desperately needed. The plot is forgettable and while the songs are good, there really isn’t anything that distinguishes them in the musical numbers from the dancing to the settings. Hough, who is indeed a talented dancer, is even given a turn as an exotic dancer – and yet she almost never dances here. Talk about a wasted opportunity – in fact this whole movie really can be counted as one.

REASONS TO GO: Ummm…you like bar cover bands?

REASONS TO STAY: Some really wooden performances. Uninspiring musical performances. Just a mess in every sense.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of sexual innuendo including some fairly graphic kisses and making out. Lots of drinking – LOTS of it – and some implied drug use. Then there’s the foul language…not a ton but enough to be noticeable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set below the Hollywood sign were actually filmed in Pompano Beach, Florida in a landfill. The real Hollywood sign is fenced out and no public access is permitted.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are unaccountably mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mamma Mia!

’80s ROCK LOVERS: Several stars of rock in the 80s make appearances in the protesters-rockers confrontation near the end of the scene. Among those singing “We Built This City” are Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Debbie Gibson (yes, that one), Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, and Joel Hoekstra of Night Ranger.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Lola Versus

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.