Friday, August 31, 2007
When it comes to the reviews I've read for the quirky, mild-mannered comedy Rocket Science, certain directorial influences have been diagnosed repeatedly: Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne. Yes, yes. Sure, sure. Flavor swirls from all of those talented storytellers can be detected in Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science. But it's all good, as they used to say back in the day.
A little Andersonian preciousness, a little Solondz brooding, a little Payne-esque high school angst on wry—it's all there and part of the reason this story works so well. Prior to this film, Blitz was best known for directing the incredibly entertaining documentary about spelling bees, Spellbound, and there are shades of that experience adding to the satisfaction factor here, too.
The story is of a teen with a stutter who finds himself compelled to join his high school debate team. Our anti-hero, played to utter perfection by Reece Thompson, faces absurd obstacle after absurb obstacle, but always keeps the heart of the story grounded. Anna Kendrick is also noteworthy as the cool-as-ice debating star who encourages her naive charge to take the podium. Nicholas D'Agosto overcomes his teen dream good looks and short screen time to inject even more IQ into the already brainy little film. I wish his character was real, so I could talk and walk with him on the way home from a long day of dry cleaning. Not for the doll face, but for the dialogue.
Outside of the disarming performances, the highest compliment I can pay this bittersweet comedy is that is doesn't take the well-beaten path at any point in its plot. That feat alone is as refreshing as a mint julep when the barometer reads 99.
A funny side note to this review: I saw the film in a brand spanking new art house theater. Think gourmet concessions, chic loos and cushy seating. All the films shown at this spot are of the non-blockbuster variety, but there are large theaters downstairs for the more popular picks and tiny "living room" theaters upstairs for those films drawing smaller crowds.
As I walked out of the living room theater where Rocket Science was playing, I overhead a theater usher explaining the lay of the land to a new employee.
"These little theaters up here are where they put the lame movies."
I had to almost choke back my laughter as I passed.
"Oh, honey," I thought, "You couldn't be more wrong. Actually, the rule of thumb is 'the bigger the theater, the lamer the movie.'"
But there was no point debating her on it.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
I love Lars von Trier. He is my favorite director in the whole wide world. He is a great thinker and storyteller and pushes boundaries for a living. Dear Wendy is the first von Trier project that hasn't rocked my world. On the world-rocking list, by the way, if you're looking for a challenging DVD rental: Dogville, Manderlay, The Five Obstructions (a genius documentary) and Breaking the Waves. The latter film was so incredibly challenging, I don't think I have the emotional constitution to ever revisit it again.
von Trier actually didn't direct Dear Wendy. He wrote the screenplay and let his Dogme 95 cohort, Thomas Vinterberg, man the director's chair. (Speaking of challenging DVD rentals, Vinterberg's The Celebration is an incredible family drama that's not to be missed.)
So back to Dear Wendy. Dear me, I wish it was a better movie. The teaser trailer (embedded above) was so full of promise. I remember seeing it flicker across the NuArt theater screen a few years back. I practically jumped out of my seat in anticipation.
But, for one reason or another, I just got around to watching Dear Wendy on DVD. Alas, I was disappointed. Only a fraction of the promise of that teaser came to the finished piece. The script felt sloppy. A great, snappy, funny beginning unraveled into mishmash. Such a shame, too. The cast was terrific, especially Jamie Bell in the lead role (what a natural!) and Bill Pullman as a cop who likes to wince.
The provocative premise is this: Pacifist teenage "losers" in a small town begin a secret gang called The Dandies. The Dandies find meaning in their downbeat lives by adopting firearms as emotional "partners."
To the film's credit, the art direction was gorgeous—especially The Dandies' costumes and the ghostly shell of rusted tin and bleached out wood that makes up their lonely homestead. The Zombies soundtrack was inspired—anachronistic genius. But, in the end, the story misfired. Yes, I just made a gun pun. So shoot me.
And this is neither here or there, but watching the special features interview with von Trier and Vinterberg made me realize that Vinterberg is a hunk of burning love and von Trier is secretly humble. Still, as handsome as Vinterberg is, I left the experience crushing on von Trier. Sigh. Oh, Lars.
Monday, August 20, 2007
It's been a long time since a show has sucked me in so completely as the critically acclaimed Mad Men—a moody, menacing, smart, pitch-perfect drama set in the facade-filled world of 1960 America within the framework of the advertising business.
It's tough to say what is most alluring about Mad Men. The writing is succulent. The actors are flawless. The production value and photography is incredibly lush, the period costumes and art direction are mouth-watering and the societal details fascinating.
If you've missed episodes and have On Demand on your cable system, you can catch up for free. Bet you can't watch just one.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
A year ago this August 8, I was in a hospital room almost all night long awaiting the arrival of my first nephew. Even though I'm too squeamish to even sit through an episode of ER, I helped coach my sister through the biggest night of her life.
Watching her bravery in the face of labor pains and delivery strains, I gained a whole new level of respect for her. She was a trooper that night and so was the little dude who squeezed himself out into the world and instantly made it a cuter and more loveable place to be.
As your dad would say, "Happy 1st Birthday, Squirt."
Monday, August 06, 2007
In newsstand news
I am a magazine fiend, but have to give an extra special shout-out to this sexy, stylish and sleek Vanity Fair cover. I love what they did with the type. Lurve it. Loave it. Hawt.
In DVD viewing news
Season two of the pot-y mouthed show has the sly and confident energy of a series hitting its stride, especially disc 1. The black humor is so delicious and the creators have a knack of closing each episode with a clever bang. The musical choices, especially the episode closers, are as witty as the dialogue.
John Cameron Mitchell's latest offering is nowhere near as polished and exhilarating as his brilliant musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a must-watch, if you haven't already). In fact, Shortbus feels like a first-time filmmaker at work. Hyped for featuring real, and often quite creative, sex between its mostly inexperienced cast, it feels more like a piece of performance art than satisfying cinematic storytelling. Lead actress Soon-Yin Lee deserves kudos for sheer bravery, both in shouldering her role as emotional center for the film and for shouldering the shitstorm that led up to production. She was almost fired from her day job in Canadian broadcasting for being a part of the project, until celebrities started a letter-writing campaign on her behalf. Another stand-out is handsome, sad-eyed actor Paul Dawson who has Jim Morrison-like charisma. I predict great things for that boy, once he takes a few more acting lessons.
Watching the "making of" special feature after seeing the film gave me a greater appreciation of the inspiration behind it and the effort that went into it. Despite all the voyeuristic sex appeal, it really is a tale about seeking love and connection. The "making of" piece also offers an appealing glimpse into off-screen John Cameron Mitchell, who is all gentle-hearted generosity and quiet charm. If you plan to rent Shortbus, and I do think it's worth a look, I'd recommend viewing the "making of" bit first. After all, a little foreplay never hurt.