Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sci-fi from Russia

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has come up with a great late-summer series: Russian science fiction and fantasy movies, most seen very rarely if at all in this country up to now. They date from the 1920s right up to 2006. I hope some of the best ones will make the rounds of other art houses and repertory cinemas around the country, or at least to DVD at some point soon.

One of the films, Stalker, by master director Andrei Tarkovsky, is a sort of Waiting for Godot set in a post-apocalyptic (whether by war or ecological disaster) landscape, full of ruined buildings, polluted water, and weedy, sickly woodlands. Tarkovsky was one of the greatest of all filmmakers, but his distinctive style is too slow and too opaque for many viewers. Those of us who love his films find them hypnotic and mind-bending.

Several of the movies are basically Saturday kiddie matinees, and some were big boxoffice smashes in Russia. One, Planet of Storms (1961), was actually bought by Roger Corman, who used footage from it to make not one but two English-dubbed cheapies (with some new footage). In charge of the two American versions were future directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. In their original Russian versions, Planet of Storms and The Amphibian Man are often naïve and silly, but they have the fascination of showing us the pop entertainment of a very different culture. (Hollywood influences are there, of course, but in a bracingly unfamiliar context.)

One of the movies that fits more or less into this pulp-for-kids category is much more interesting than the others. It bears the preposterously badly translated title To the Stars by Hard Ways (perhaps Thorny Path to the Stars would be a slightly better English title; if it were up to me, I would name it after its heroine, Niya, or her home planet, Dessa). Like Stalker, it carries a warning of ecological catastrophe, and this socially conscious theme, along with the space-opera plot, brings to mind Dune and Star Trek at times. But it is very definitely not made by Americans, and it is the distinctively Russian viewpoint that gives the film its interest and charm. Produced in 1981, it’s much less primitive in both its technique and its story than Planet of Storms or The Amphibian Man. The audience the night I saw it was completely captivated. Let’s hope it is show widely enough to give others a chance to enjoy it.

For more info on the series, titled From the Tsars to the Stars:


Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is a real crowd pleaser. The afternoon I saw it, the audience was just about bursting with sheer glee. And it’s definitely the Indie Hit of the Year, like Sideways or March of the Penguins or Brokeback Mountain in previous seasons. I’m glad people are enjoying it; I had a fairly good time myself. So why do I feel a compulsion to air my rather strong misgivings about this movie? It’s not that I like to rain on a parade, but some people seem to be taking the film very seriously (for a comedy) and claiming great things for it. And I think it’s a really minor piece of work. I’ll try to explain.

First, let’s talk about the movie’s one unarguable strong point: the cast. Nearly all the performances are top notch. It’s true of many indie hits: the acting is much better than the material, and gives some charm and energy to what might otherwise be just quirky cardboard. Who would have guessed from their beginnings on TV that Steve Carrell and Greg Kinnear could give subtle character performances at feature length? Yet they keep happily surprising us. Carrell in particular steals nearly every scene by quietly underplaying – never his forte on The Daily Show (he performed a similar feat in the crude, likable 40-Year-Old Virgin). In contrast, Alan Arkin overdoes it, and couldn’t be much louder, but he is brilliant, as always. He’s enormously irritating, just as his character is supposed to be. And Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and young Abigail Breslin all have their delightful and/or touching moments.

Nonetheless, sooner or later one has to deal with the script of this movie, and it’s a mess. The plot is clumsy and unconvincing, the attitudes are all mixed up, the contrivances downright annoying. It’s difficult to describe without spoilers, so I’ll settle for a couple of examples that bothered me.

First, a certain fuzziness takes the edge off the satire. Our seven-year-old heroine has apparently watched a lot of beauty pageants on TV, and she was even runner-up in one, and we are primed to share in her excitement at being invited to the title pageant. But finally arriving at the contest with her family, she seems as appalled as everyone else by the fakery, snobbery and silliness involved, which we are now invited to ridicule – and yet of course, the pageants on TV and the one she had already been in must have been just as dumb. Of course it’s funny – is there an easier target than a beauty pageant, especially with kids as contestants accompanied by their ghastly parents? But didn’t the point get lost along the way? Or was there really a point?

There are eye-rolling coincidences, too: Carrell’s gay Proust scholar just happens to end up at the same gas station at the same moment as the other two members of the love triangle that drove him to attempt suicide, hundreds of miles away. And the revelation of another character’s crucial color-blindness could be used as a counterexample in writing class: How Not To Handle a Big Plot Point.

The film is full of this sort of silly, shallow stuff. Screenwriter Michael Arndt has provided some funny and touching situations, and he has some sort of interesting idea in mind about people being able to move happily on despite each and every one of their dreams turning out to be unattainable, or worthless, or both. But it’s also his job to connect the situations and the theme together, and this he hasn’t done.

And yet – the actors make it work most of the time. In addition, music-video veterans Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris provide bouncy, entertaining direction. They keep all the plates spinning, and they get their laughs and their tears.

None of this is seriously objectionable. But compare it to a genuinely great movie, like Sideways, and its relative worth is a lot clearer. In Sideways, the serious character study and the cascading farce each strengthened the other. It was brilliant writing. It was also edgy in a way that Little Miss Sunshine, with all its dabbling in death and despair, studiously avoids. It basically wants to be a nice little movie, and, for better or worse, that’s just what it is.

Half Nelson

The performances by Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps are among the finest you’ll see this year, and they absolutely make this a movie not to be missed. I believe the script has some very deep flaws – political material is bluntly and crudely shoved into a few scenes that interrupt the emotional flow and seem actually to come from a completely different film. (Some critics find these agitprop interludes a strength rather than a flaw, notably Mahnola Dargis in the New York Times and Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly.)

But whatever your reaction to the film’s politics, Gosling and Epps will grab you and they won’t let go. Gosling is a junior high school teacher, an excellent one, with a dangerous secret: he’s addicted to crack. Epps, one of his students, stumbles in on him when he is getting high, and nonetheless ends up becoming his close friend.

This is the first role since The Believer that has given Ryan Gosling a chance to show just how good he is – which is to say, phenomenally good, one of the best young actors now working. He conveys both the charisma and the scariness in the character, makes us like him but never lets us forget what a screw-up he is.

Shareeka Epps is amazingly believable, a natural performer without an ounce of fakery in her work. If she can continue to develop, she will be a very great actress. But even if she doesn’t pursue a show-business career, her accomplishment here is indelible.

My misgivings about the movie itself have more to do with the limitations of the basic material and structure than with the filmmaking per se. The direction and pacing are very skillful, but the plot has a cobbled-together feel, like an improvisation that is still in process. Still, Ryan Fleck, who directed and co-wrote, is a talent to watch, and he no doubt deserves credit for the consistently strong work of the whole cast, including Anthony Mackie as a dealer who is also the Epps character’s protective relative.

See this one as soon as you can – there is no better acting in any current movie.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Two fall TV pilots: a first look

NBC has taken the somewhat unusual step of releasing two of its fall pilots a month ahead on a new DVD (apparently for rental only). Both are well worth seeing and, we can hope, could get even better as the season progresses.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has a few problems, starting with the title – not exactly as catchy, succinct, easy to remember as ER or The West Wing, eh? It marks Aaron Sorkin’s return to weekly TV after his forced exit from The West Wing a few seasons ago. Comparisons to his previous series, which was certainly one of the best things ever on weekly commercial television, are inevitable. There is good news and bad news here. Sorkin's characteristic fast-paced dialogue and wit are present, to be sure, and the show is entertaining. The plots in The West Wing were almost always McGuffins – the missile crisis or the scandalous Congressional hearing or the Supreme Court nomination were just frameworks for the snappy repartee and dazzling performances. But this is a TV show about a TV show, and it is in danger of becoming a glib portrait of glibness.

The setting is a Saturday Night Live-style weekly series that goes into crisis when a producer has a shocking reaction to a censor’s request to cut a sketch about religion. The previous writer and director of the show (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) are called back in to save it – even though, not unlike Aaron Sorkin, they had been asked to leave the same series a few years before.

Whitford is not bad, but surprisingly a bit bland compared to his memorable work on The West Wing. Perry is good, and surprisingly sharp. Amanda Peet is wonderful as a new executive who masterminds bringing the pair back on board. And Steven Weber makes a bracingly good asshole as her boss at the network (no friend, shall we say, of our two heroes).

The show is well done, but the question remains whether and how the backstage occurrences will provide strong enough material to keep us watching. The political and social issues occasionally brought grandiosity and pretentiousness to The West Wing, but only rarely, and the seriousness of the underlying premise was often a satisfying contrast to the fast, funny talk front and center. Studio 60 will have to work harder to find that kind of dynamic. Still, I’ll be tuning in to see how Sorkin and company do.

I started to skip Kidnapped, the second pilot on the disc…but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a crackerjack thriller about the abduction of the teenage son of a wealthy Manhattan family. It’s definitely a show of the post-24 era, lightning-paced and often close to being over-the-top. But the superb acting, writing and direction keep it from veering into the campy silliness that some fans (myself included) of 24 have come to relish. Kidnapped may turn out to be a little too solemn and grim in the long run, but this first episode is smashing.

Delroy Lindo is marvelous as an FBI agent, about to retire but pulled back in by this case. It’s also good to see Jeremy Sisto as something other than a creepy psycho (as in Six Feet Under and Broadway’s recent Festen). Playing a private detective who specializes in rescuing kidnap victims, he is merely a brooding loner this time out, and quite good at it. The home of the victim’s family is a chilly one indeed, with Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton excellent as the snobby, neurotic parents, who apparently have a secret or two of their own. (Film fans may be taken aback that Hutton’s character is named Conrad, as he was in Ordinary People, his breakthrough movie; coincidence, in-joke or homage?)

I don’t know whether the plan is to follow this one storyline through the entire season. This would seem a bit daring and difficult to carry off…but I’ll be watching to find out.

Studio 60 is off the schedule as of February...not sure if there are other episodes still to be aired, but it seems unlikely to return for a second season. This is too bad, but it's true that it never really caught fire.

Kidnapped met a much more unkind fate: it was yanked after only half a dozen airings, and the remaining episodes were relegated to NBC's web site, where their visual excellence was completely trashed. Audiences have rejected many new dramatic serials this season, but this was the most unfairly treated of them all. Maybe the producers should aim for HBO or Showtime next...Kidnapped might have done well there.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

I’m not a big fan of the comedy genre sometimes called the “fratboy slob” movie (or alternatively, the “former SNL cast member cheap and stupid” movie). Even the “classics” like Animal House and There’s Something About Mary leave me irritated or yawning or both. But I laughed out loud, several times, at the trailer for this new Will Ferrell opus, and when it got better-than-expected reviews, I decided to check it out one hot afternoon. And, happy surprise, it really is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen lately.

It won’t win any awards for gentility, grace, or a beautifully shaped plot. But it has more belly laughs per minute than practically anything in recent memory (maybe the best 45 minutes from The Devil Wears Prada would beat it, but the other half of that movie is fairly dreary). And there is one scene in particular – an amazingly extended, probably mostly improvised number in which our hero, NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, says grace before a meal with his, shall we say, boisterous family – that I’m tempted to call a masterpiece, if the word didn’t seem out of place in this context.

Will Ferrell is just fine as Ricky Bobby, but two supporting turns are even better: John C. Reilly as Ricky’s best pal Cal, and Sacha Baron Cohen as his archrival Jean Girard. Reilly really lets fly in the first out and out farce I’ve ever seen him in. His riffs on Southern good ole boydom have to be seen and heard to be believed – just brilliant. Cohen, whose Ali G and Borat have already amply illustrated his ability to turn PC attitudes inside-out and make you squirm and laugh simultaneously, has a potentially offensive and unpleasant role here: Girard is not only French, he’s gay, and is given mountains of negative stereotypes to work with. But Cohen manages to make him superbad (a nearly invincible opponent), totally ridiculous, and lovable, all at once. He could read the phone book with his preposterous accent and have you rolling on the floor. Yet despite the uninhibited dialogue, there’s really not a mean bone in this movie, and we should be grateful. (As Ricky Bobby might say, we should thank the cute little Lord Baby Jesus.)

The script is a messy hodgepodge, with dead spots and plenty of dud gags, but like the first Airplane! it just keeps throwing hundreds of jokes at you continuously until something sticks, and Adam McKay’s direction is admirably steady and speedy amid the chaos. Talladega Nights is sheer summer-movie bliss. Don’t sit around thinking you’re too good for it. Just go.