Friday, May 26, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page


THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE may be the sweetest movie ever made about pornography. The camera loves Bettie, and she enjoys having her picture taken. Never mind that what Bettie calls "silly photographs" include bondage photos and nude shots for girlie magazines.

The title character, wonderfully played by Gretchen Mol with a mixture of naïveté and self-empowerment, is a vivacious southern girl who moves from Tennessee to New York in 1949 in pursuit of an acting career. While doing secretarial work and attending acting classes she finds some success competing in local beauty pageants, but her real break comes when a hobbyist photographer asks to take her picture. Their work together leads to her becoming in demand at amateur photo clubs where she puts at ease the nervous men snapping frame after frame of her shapely form.

Bettie’s popularity brings her to the studio of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor). The pornographers operate a mail-order business and set up private shoots tailored to the special tastes of their clientele. Bettie excels and becomes the reigning pin-up queen of the 50s, but the attention also ensnares her and the Klaws in a 1955 Congressional smut probe.

Although Mol hasn’t had to deal with controversy and the legal ramifications like Page did, she knows a thing or two about notoriety. To promote her film ROUNDERS the one-time It Girl appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 1998 issue. The picture may not have torpedoed her nascent career, but when ROUNDERS and her follow-ups didn’t pan out at the box office, the provocative cover made it easier for industry writers to dismiss her as a serious actress. She’s done good work, especially in Neil LaBute’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS, but the stigma remained. THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE should turn things around for her. Mol plays Bettie as a complex woman who has more than a fabulous figure. She conveys Bettie’s comfort with her choices. She’s in charge of her actions and doesn’t believe she’s doing anything wrong, but in an interesting twist, Bettie is open to the possibility that her profession is contrary to her faith. Yet as photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) remarks, "When she’s nude, she doesn’t seem naked."

Although characterized by a frothy pop sensibility, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE takes a serious view of Bettie’s Christianity. During a bondage shoot she’s asked what God thinks of her actions. Bettie replies, "I hope that if He’s unhappy with what I’m doing, He’ll let me know somehow." The response isn’t played for laughs. The unironic portrayal of her faith adds depth to the lighthearted film and builds to a touching affirmation of her beliefs. It’s fair to say that Bettie has compartmentalized her deeds and convictions, but it’s the rare film that eloquently depicts this thorny struggle.

For a film about one woman’s ascent as a pin-up queen, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE has a strong feminist undercurrent. The screenplay, co-written by Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron, suggests childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse by her first husband, and rape in her past, so for Bettie her modeling work gave her control of her life and sexuality that had been unavailable.

Like Bettie’s photos captivated those with particular tastes, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE appeals to the film fetishist. Mott Hupfel’s silky black and white cinematography, which is accented with a few scenes in sumptuous color, is a treat for those who appreciate fine grain film stock and classic Hollywood lighting. The filmic techniques, from the wipes, storytelling structure, and use of stock footage, recall a past era with admiration and adoration.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Over the Hedge

OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick, 2006)

In OVER THE HEDGE forest critters raid a well-stocked home to replenish their food supply, or at least that's what they think they're doing. They've been conned by RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis), a lone glutton who was caught stealing a bear's snack food stash and is given a week to replace the goodies. RJ's task takes him to the suburbs, the one place where he's assured of finding more than what he needs.

Amid the homes he meets several animals dwelling in the one patch of undeveloped land. Although previously content to forage, these natural diet creatures adapt overnight when RJ introduces them to the wonders of processed foods. Hooked on sugar and artificial additives, they begin hoarding snacks for the next winter.

OVER THE HEDGE makes some acute observations about overconsumption and urban sprawl. The McMansions boast lawn art adorned with animals, an ironic choice since the homes are destroying those creatures' habitats. The film's villains, our screen surrogates, are wasteful and negligent to the environment. The animals are shown to be all too willing to abandon their healthy and sustainable way of life for empty calories and overindulgence. OVER THE HEDGE makes its points, but too often these messages weigh down the film.

In one happy development, OVER THE HEDGE is free of product placement, save for a home theater joke about THX. This movie had every legitimate reason to pack in real foodstuffs, but unlike the insidious product mentions in THE WILD and CURIOUS GEORGE, it uses fictional brands.

Anymore it seems like animated films strive too hard to prove their hipness (or seriousness) to adults than to tell good stories with fun characters to entertain everyone in the family. This moderately amusing computer-animated comedy is torn between its zany, go-for-broke nature and the strictures of trying to be everything for everyone.

Although stale, references to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and CITIZEN KANE attempt to make adults feel clever for getting them. Ben Folds contributes a few songs, seemingly appealing to those between the little ones and mom and dad. The problem is most evident in voicecasting celebrities who are perceived to be valuable draws on the poster and in the trailer regardless of if they can meet the unique challenges of voice acting. Bruce Willis is bland as RJ, and Avril Lavigne delivers a few anonymous lines as a possum. But their presence brings out their fans, right? Meanwhile, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, accomplished comedians with perfect cartoon voices, barely have anything to do.

Faring better are Steve Carrell as the manic squirrel Hammy and Thomas Haden Church, who does an amusing turn as a high tech exterminator. Carrell and Haden Church succeed because they tailor their performances to the characters rather than playing off their celebrity.

The film's best scene is Hammy's freak-out when he guzzles a high caffeine drink and experiences everything slowing down. When OVER THE HEDGE stops trying to be cool or About Something and gives in to its cartoon sensibility, like in that moment, it lands some good jokes. The filmmakers tend to use their best gags too often, such as the repetition of a long shot of a mushroom cloud or big explosion signifier coming from the planet or a house, but at least in those instances they're utilizing animation's freedom.

Grade: C


POSEIDON (Wolfgang Petersen, 2006)

Having helmed DAS BOOT and THE PERFECT STORM, director Wolfgang Petersen is no stranger to trouble on the water. POSEIDON, his remake of the 1972 disaster flick THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, is lean and mean yet waterlogged by the bland characters scurrying for their lives.

Petersen wastes little time having a rogue wave tip over the eponymous cruise ship. Most of the passengers and crew are killed, but a few withstand the capsizing and look for a way out. Although Josh Lucas’ professional gambler leads the escape, there isn’t a true main character in the cast, which includes Kurt Russell as a former firefighter and New York City mayor, Emmy Rossum as his dewy-eyed daughter, and Richard Dreyfuss’ heartbroken gay architect.

As a technical exercise in finding a path through an upside-down ship, POSEIDON works reasonably well. The film wastes no time flipping the ocean liner and dispatching most of its occupants. The small band of survivors is intently focused on their escape and work toward their goal with clock-like precision. POSEIDON has no video game roots, but it’s a video game film in the sense that it’s a multi-player game focused on completing several levels.

This also means that POSEIDON is mechanical in how it chugs through the challenges presented to the characters. The people in the movie are nothing but thinly drawn archetypes. Since we don’t have any reason to get attached to them, there’s little reason to feel anything for the danger they face.

Part of the appeal of disaster films is seeing characters you dislike get their comeuppance, but with few characters fleshed out, POSEIDON doesn’t deliver there. Then again, maybe it’s for the best since reveling in mass death and destruction seems vulgar despite being nearly five years removed from 9/11. Still, I hoped Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas would get a piano dropped on her head.

Petersen has good command of the action scenes, which is what one would expect from the veteran director. POSEIDON’S relentlessness is a virtue, but he needed more depth to characters who are little more than video game avatars.

Grade: C-

Mission: Impossible III


In MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gives up field work for training new agents and intends to settle down with his fiancé Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Ethan returns to active duty when he receives word that his pupil Lindsey (Keri Russell) has been captured. The rescue mission puts him in pursuit of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an international information and weapons trader. Owen plans to sell some secret and presumably catastrophic technology referred to as "the rabbit’s foot", and it’s up to Ethan and his team to stop him. They interfere with the initial transaction, but Owen escapes and threatens to abduct and kill Julia for Ethan’s actions.

Director and co-writer J.J. Abrams is co-creator and executive producer of ALIAS and LOST. With MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III he has essentially designed the most expensive episode of ALIAS ever made. Those familiar with the show will recognize his spy series’ style at work from the beginning. The pre-credits cliffhanger finds Ethan in a terrible jam that won’t be revisited until three-quarters through the film. Abrams uses genre to dress up character-based stories, so what he adds is some humanity to Ethan. The super-spy may be saving the world, but he’s also trying to save his world, one in which love of and trust in a woman are the only secure things in his life.

Abrams is also well versed in detailing complicated spy missions. In M:i:III he whisks Ethan to Berlin, Vatican City, and Shanghai and has him attempt such seemingly impossible stunts as infiltrating the Pope’s residence, using a fulcrum to swing from one skyscraper to the top of its highly guarded neighbor, and surviving missiles fired at him on a bridge. M:i:III is swiftly paced. It zips from one action setpiece to the next, which tops what we’ve just seen.

Abrams also injects a nice dose of humor into the film. Simon Pegg of SHAUN OF THE DEAD adds comic relief as the office tech expert not unlike ALIAS' Marshall Flinkman, and Laurence Fishburne’s crusty IMF director contributes some laughs too.

Cruise is a man possessed in the public eye, but it’s a quality that serves him well in this role. M:i:III goes at a breakneck pace, so there’s no time for him to waste. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is the first out of the gates for the summer movie season, and it's an entertaining ride that delivers the thrills and outrageous stunts that are the hallmarks of this time of year at the multiplex.

Grade: B-

Saturday, May 20, 2006

See No Evil

SEE NO EVIL (Gregory Dark, 2006)

Assuming there are no other credit cookies, the final image in SEE NO EVIL is a dog urinating in an eye socket. There couldn't be a better way to describe the experience of watching this film.

WWE wrestler Kane stars as the ostensibly mute hulk who plucks eyeballs from his murder victims. (The Internet Movie Database page lists the character's name as Jacob Goodnight, although I don't recall any name being used in the film.) Fresh flesh is delivered to his doorstep when a group of juvenile delinquents are brought to the boarded-up Blackwell Hotel. The teens will get a month knocked off their sentences for three days spent cleaning the dingy historic building. They are accompanied by two corrections officers, one of whom lost a forearm to the ax-wielding brute four years ago but has no idea that the killer resides in the hotel.

A paint-in-blood-by-numbers horror film, SEE NO EVIL is genre filmmaking at its laziest. The hotel, which is to be locked at night (of course), has numerous secret passageways among the maze of rooms. With no visual layout provided to the audience, it's an easy shortcut to permit the villain to be anywhere without having to explain it. The youthful troublemakers are given a lot of freedom for supposedly hardened criminals. (Note the shots of razor wire and high walls at the detention facility.) The officers are remarkably lax in overseeing them and even knock back some shots while on duty, which makes it more convenient for the teens to wander, get separated, and meet their demises. Obviously realism isn't valued or required here--the blonde shoplifter struts around in high heels, hardly standard-issue incarceration footwear--but is it too much to ask for a little effort to make this believable?

The eight juvenile offenders, four boys and four girls, are introduced with freeze frames that give their names and their crimes. Since who they are is insignificant, they might as well have been referred to by gender and numeral ("Boy 1", "Girl 3"). They're meat for the beast and nothing more. While it's logical to expect at least one will withstand the ordeal, SEE NO EVIL lacks point of view and a rooting interest in the survival of any of the teenagers. The narrative tactic makes it more difficult to guess the pecking order for death, but with no vested interest in any of the characters, the urgency of their plight evaporates. Even though the appeal of SEE NO EVIL is to witness gruesome acts, the audience has nothing to fear, just a bunch of butchery to observe, without an on-screen surrogate. The characters don't seem all that frightened either. Upon entering a room with bloody hundreds glued to the wall, one teen marvels at all the money, overlooking that it's caked in blood and, oh yeah, there's a table with jars of eyeballs in there too.

As a way of extending the WWE brand, SEE NO EVIL seems like an lackluster way of doing so. Kane's anti-hero is the strong, silent type who displays zero personality. The film's grimy look and violence and the killer's abusive, fundamentalist religion-based backstory are cribbed from several other lousy movies. The main thing, though, is that it isn't scary in the least. It lacks even the cheap jump moments accompanied by musical stingers. There's no sense of dread other than realizing the time and money wasted to see this shoddy film.

Grade: F

Monday, May 15, 2006

Hard Candy

HARD CANDY (David Slade, 2005)

Online chats between 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) and 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) have gone well enough that they agree to meet face to face in a local coffee shop. In HARD CANDY it doesn’t take long for the conversation to lead to talk of going to his place. Jeff entices her with a live Goldfrapp CD that she might like. Haley, who fancies herself more mature for her age, doesn’t see anything wrong with slipping off to his home. It doesn't take years of watching sensational television news reports to know that this can't end well; however, HARD CANDY twists our expectations of the ugly outcome.

The red hoodie-wearing Hayley has some lessons in store for the big, bad wolf. Hayley believes Jeff is responsible for the disappearance of a local girl, and her experiences with him give her no reason to change her mind. HARD CANDY establishes an uncomfortable tone from the outset, but when Hayley turns the tables on the presumed pedophile, that uneasiness soars to a seat-squirming level.

As unpleasant as HARD CANDY can be to watch, director David Slade often favors implied violence. The film is told mostly through compelling close-ups of the two main characters. The technique creates an intimacy between Hayley and Jeff and the characters and the audience, which is why it is so deeply unsettling.

Page is astonishing as Hayley. As Alison Lohman believably passed for a 14-year-old in MATCHSTICK MEN—an actress with whom Page shares more than a passing resemblance—the now 19-year-old Page is equally convincing as a young adolescent, here as both a naïve schoolgirl and terrorizer of internet predators.

The same can’t be said of HARD CANDY’S screenplay, which stretches suspension of disbelief past the breaking point yet clamps one’s attention with horror. In the end HARD CANDY doesn’t have as much to say about online stalkers and the cultural sexualization of kids, teenage girls in particular, as it appears it might. It also runs out of steam after a long sequence that is one of the most unnerving things I’ve ever seen in a film. HARD CANDY is most assuredly not for all viewers, but those willing to subject themselves to it are in for a noteworthy performance and one of the most terrifying films to come down the pike in awhile.

Grade: B-

Stick It

STICK IT (Jessica Bendinger, 2006)

With the recent success of musician biopics, it would be understandable if STICK IT were mistaken for the mistitled life story of Johnny Paycheck. (Somebody get on that, though. I like the idea of a movie called SHOVE IT. Come to think of it, though, that's the unspoken title of every audience-insulting film the studios release.) Here the it that is supposed to be stuck refers to gymnastics, not jobs to be placed where the sun doesn't shine.

In STICK IT rebellious Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym) has a brush with the law after her stunt on a bike causes extensive damage to a home being remodeled. The former elite gymnast is given two options: go to a juvenile detention facility or a top-flight gymnastics school. A few years earlier Haley walked out of the world championships, a rash decision that blew the competition for her team and upset her since-divorced parents. She reluctantly accepts her sentence and goes to the academy., but to Haley, following the judge’s orders doesn’t mean she must heed coach Burt Vickerman’s (Jeff Bridges) instructions.

STICK IT writer-director Jessica Bendinger also penned BRING IT ON. The cheerleading comedy took the activity seriously but had a playful attitude. STICK IT overreaches in trying to affirm the gymnasts’ skill and the sport’s difficulty. Without a doubt, the routines require great strength and poise, but the film’s overstating things when Haley observes that the tricks they perform are tougher than what Navy SEALs must do.

The film as a whole is trying too hard, whether in the eye-popping red and white gym that looks like a 70s interior design nightmare or the repetition of Busby Berkeley-like training sessions. It’s especially true when it comes to proving Haley’s street cred. She wears Bad Brains and Black Flag t-shirts and has a Deerhoof sticker in her bedroom. The costumer and production designer knew what they were doing even if it’s a stretch that the character is really into these bands.

True to its title, the film sticks it to the gymnastics establishment which, like figure skating, often gives the impression of having predetermined winners who gain favor because of reputation and body type. As Hayley, Peregrym has a more athletic build than the sprites that dominate the sport. She helps illustrate the film’s point that her size shouldn’t automatically hold her back in the judges’ minds. STICK IT also attacks a scoring system in need of transparency.

Bendinger makes valid arguments about silly rules and the undue sway of judges, but for a film whose characters value authenticity and natural talent, it's ironic that STICK IT'S rebellious nature is more of a fashion statement than state of mind and its showstopping physical feats, like a headspin on a balance beam, are computer-aided. The actresses didn't need to be exceptional gymnasts, but the film sells the athletes short by not letting the simple power and beauty of their characters' skills be enough.

Grade: C+


RV (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2006)

In an effort to keep his job Bob Munro (Robin Williams) cancels his family’s Hawaiian vacation and rents an RV for a road trip. His daughter Cassie (JoJo) and son Carl (Josh Hutcherson) can't think of a worse punishment than being cooped up with their parents, and his wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines) isn't crazy about giving up the beach. In RV Bob disguises the plan as a family bonding experience, not letting on that their destination just happens to be near where he and his mysophobic boss Todd Mallory (Will Arnett) have a business meeting.

Williams’ manic improvising has been his calling card for years. If his shtick wasn’t played out before RV, it is now. Whether mugging through the inevitable motor home sewer line clog or a mock gangsta speech to scare off some young toughs, Williams’ routine is a pale imitation of his better days. On top of that, the film’s family-friendly PG rating restrains him from uncorking a signature blue streak that might have freed him to be more creative.

Underlying RV is suburban guilt regarding consuming too much and working excessively to maintain the lifestyle. Unfortunately, like most of the films wrestling with prioritizing between family and finances—FUN WITH DICK AND JANE is a recent example—the message ultimately is that you can have your cake and eat it too.

RV travels the comic highways similar to those driven by NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION’S Griswolds, but the insufferable Munros leave us wishing they’d befall a fate more like that of the stranded family in THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

Grade: D

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Silent Hill

SILENT HILL (Christophe Gans, 2006)

A coal fire has been burning for thirty years under the ghost town Silent Hill, West Virginia. The road to it has been blocked off, but Rose (Radha Mitchell) believes she must take her little girl there. In SILENT HILL Rose’s adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) is prone to sleepwalking to the edge of cliffs and uttering the name of the abandoned place. In search of an answer, Rose takes her to Silent Hill. Sharon runs away. Rose must look for her while not being sure if she can trust what she sees.

As a nightmarish vision of hell on earth, SILENT HILL is a triumph of production and art design. As a coherent story, it’s little more than a string of video game scenarios, which comes as no surprise since the film is based on a game. Director Christophe Gans skillfully creates the eerie atmosphere in the decrepit town and allows it to envelope the characters. Gans favors wide shots that show the scope of ruin, isolation, and space surrounding them. Vertiginous overhead shots peer down the sharp edges of drop-offs. In tight spaces Gans ratchets up the tension through longer takes than are standard in most of today’s frightfests.

At issue, though, is whether SILENT HILL is going somewhere or merely wandering among a crumbling landscape. The defiant lack of explanation intrigues for quite awhile, but the answers, or what can be determined from the bewildering story, don’t seem worth the wait. Still, there’s a lot to be admired in how SILENT HILL looks and how it spooks.

Grade: C+

American Dreamz

AMERICAN DREAMZ (Paul Weitz, 2006)

An amateur singing competition is the biggest show on television, and the newly reelected President of the United States abstains from reading newspapers. This reflection of real life is the set-up for AMERICAN DREAMZ, a satire from Paul Weitz, the director of ABOUT A BOY and IN GOOD COMPANY.

Dennis Quaid is the uncurious President Staton. Willem Dafoe is his Dick Cheney-like Chief of Staff, who becomes concerned when the President holes up in his bedroom with stacks of newspapers. The media begins questioning the President’s public absence, so to boost his image he’s booked as a guest judge on AMERICAN DREAMZ. Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), who is equal parts Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell, hosts and produces the AMERICAN IDOL-like show. He’s looking to take the program’s astronomical ratings even higher.

Martin already has a fame-hungry heartland sweetheart in Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). He then casts an Arab contestant and an Israeli singer. What he doesn’t know is that the Arab has trained as a terrorist and is instructed to get to the finals so he can assassinate the President.

To Weitz’s credit, AMERICAN DREAMZ is an ambitious attempt to unmask the manufactured images presented to society, be it in the form of a prefab pop singer who’s anything but sweet and modest or the country’s leader who is operated like a puppet. There’s the seed of a good satire in AMERICAN DREAMZ, but the film flops spectacularly due to a poorly written screenplay.

There’s the problem of scale with the AMERICAN DREAMZ TV show. As over the top as it might seem, it’s a much smaller and watered down version of AMERICAN IDOL. It’s hard to mock something when the real thing is more outrageous than the film’s concept of it. IDOL is a highly produced and polished show, but its AMERICAN DREAMZ cousin feels like it’s made up on the spot. For as much as the film’s movement is supposed to come from the competition’s progress, most of the show is advanced through montage.

Weitz floats plenty of ideas in AMERICAN DREAMZ, too many ideas in fact. None are dealt with completely or satisfactorily. The limp political jabs fail to draw blood, although Dafoe’s uncanny Cheney impersonation is amusing at times. Unfortunately, AMERICAN DREAMZ is mostly a comedy dead zone.

Grade: D+

Scary Movie 4

SCARY MOVIE 4 (David Zucker, 2006)

Three years of horror movies have piled up, which means it must be time for another SCARY MOVIE. Anna Faris returns for more parodies and bodily function jokes. SCARY MOVIE 4 combines the main threads of THE GRUDGE and WAR OF THE WORLDS to advance the action, not that storyline is of any concern for these films. While caring for an old woman in a haunted home, Faris’ Cindy Campbell falls for dock worker Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko). They’re separated when the planet is attacked and a bunch of lame jokes break out.

The SCARY MOVIE franchise continues to lumber along like a zombie. On cue one likely target after another is trotted out to be laughed at. The humor is supposed to come from the recognition that another movie or entertainment world incident from the pages of Us Weekly is having fun poked at it. Isn’t it hilarious that SCARY MOVIE 4 makes such biting comic observations that Shaquille O’Neal can’t shoot free throws, that some people think Dr. Phil is a loud mouth phony, and that Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch? SCARY MOVIE 4 doesn’t even hold to its genre, including a needless BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN parody.

Director David Zucker’s career has been nothing but diminishing returns since the NAKED GUN films from the late 80s and early 90s. One senses that he could cobble together these sting-free jokes in his sleep. What made Zucker’s earlier films funnier was that the parody material wasn’t depended on for all of the laughs. There are some moments in SCARY MOVIE 4 where that isn’t the case, but too much of it is about duplicating other movies rather than creating funny characters and situations.

Puns are considered the lowest form of comedy, but limp film parodies like this are making a bid for the title. To Zucker's credit, unlike DATE MOVIE and other entries in the SCARY MOVIE series, SCARY MOVIE 4 passes its time reasonably well because at least it has a basic storyline and draws a few laughs. There will be a never-ending supply of horror flicks to keep SCARY MOVIES coming for years, but just because they can be made doesn't mean they should.

Grade: C-

Friends with Money

FRIENDS WITH MONEY (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)

Tired of being teased by her wealthy students, Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) gives up teaching for life as a housekeeper in FRIENDS WITH MONEY. Olivia is the only single woman in her circle of friends. She’s also the only one struggling financially, but the others have their own problems. Fashion designer Jane (Frances McDormand) seems to have an undiagnosed clinical depression. Screenwriter Christine (Catherine Keener) trades barbs with her increasingly hostile husband. Franny (Joan Cusack) uses her wealth as power when Olivia goes to her for help.

FRIENDS WITH MONEY is an observant slice of Los Angeles life that relishes the day-to-day dealings with friends and life’s struggles. Although these four friends, even Olivia, carry on lives more glamorous or extravagant than the average woman, they’re real and relatable, an all too rare commodity in today’s cinematic depictions of adult females.

With the burden of compensating for the portrayal of most other women in film, it's inevitable that FRIENDS WITH MONEY sometimes slips up. Although she's adrift personally and professionally, Olivia comes across like a male screenwriter's fantasy. Holofcener finds a nice dramatic resolution for Olivia's arc, but it seems highly unlikely in real life.

Despite the characters' problems, it's pleasant to spend time with them in this funny film. Aniston finally finds a good showcase for her talents and has some of the funniest scenes with a loutish fitness instructor played by Scott Caan. McDormand humorously expresses the simmering rage that boils up at the smallest slight in the parking lot or the Old Navy checkout line.

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a small but strong body of work about modern women and how they interact. FRIENDS WITH MONEY is a solid addition to a filmography that includes WALKING AND TALKING and LOVELY & AMAZING.

Grade: B

Friday, May 12, 2006

Site update

Film festival attendance and keeping up with work has caused the pipeline to get clogged here the last couple weeks. I have several reviews that I've been waiting to post until I got my daily Deep Focus Film Festival done, but rather than sit on the nine new reviews I've completed, I'll parcel them out over the next few days.

In other news, Whit Stillman is a regular chatterbox these days. In this column he even drops some details on what his next project might be.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Deep Focus Film Festival: Opening Night

Home of the Deep Focus Film Festival (Mark Pfeiffer/May 4, 2006)

The Deep Focus Film Festival is back for a second year, and I couldn’t be happier. Granted, as one of the programmers, you expect that I’d say as much. Nevertheless, I think this year’s festival has something for everyone, and a few of the films are unlikely to come to town again. Columbus has needed a film festival (and can support one), so I’m excited to see how the public responds to this year’s lineup.

One of the festival’s aims is to showcase shorts by local filmmakers. Mike Olenick’s FOR A BLONDE… FOR A BRUNETTE… FOR SOMEONE… FOR HER… FOR YOU… was selected to precede the opening night film. The audience participation short places Olenick in the role Jimmy Stewart played in VERTIGO and asks the viewers to read Kim Novak’s lines from the scene in which Scottie first approaches Judy Barton. In other words, it’s Hitchcock karaoke.

Olenick’s interactive art would lose its effect (and humor) if the audience doesn’t play along. Once the opening night crowd got over its initial shyness, FOR A BLONDE… got rolling. Standing in an empty black space and dressed in an old suit, Olenick looks like he’s fixated on the audience like Scottie was on Judy. His timing and facial expressions are a large part of the pleasure in this minimalist film.

The opening night feature, BRICK, also appropriates something from the past to fashion something new. There’s a correlation in today’s music. Desktop audio tools have allowed music fans to make something fresh by combining seemingly incongruous songs. Mashing-up The Strokes and Christina Aguilera sounds like a potential disaster, but the end result is surprisingly catchy. Likewise, BRICK, a cinematic mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective stories with a contemporary high school drama, seems like a better idea as a stylistic stunt, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s film works quite well. This isn’t an exercise in playing dress-up. The characters inhabit a place where disappointment and pain lurk around every corner, something all too familiar to teenagers.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a note and a phone call from his distraught ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in a jam but can’t bring herself to disclose the details of her situation to him. Two days later she turns up face down in a culvert. Still smarting from their break-up two months prior, Brendan sets out to get to the bottom of Emily’s death and expose the unsavory characters with whom she had been spending her time.

Brendan’s investigation leads him to the local drug dealer The Pin (Lukas Haas), a cane-wielding 26 year-old; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), the short-fused muscle who stomps around like an ape; and Laura (Nora Zehetner), a kimono-clad femme fatale first glimpsed singing and tickling the ivories at a private party.

BRICK’S language is anachronistic and its tone irony-free as the teenagers strike their world-weary postures. Think of it as the flip side of VERONICA MARS, which uses hip patter and an ironic tone in following the adventures of Kristen Bell’s teenage gumshoe. Neither approach is more correct than the other—BRICK and VERONICA MARS do what they do well—but Johnson’s film is refreshing in its lack of winking. BRICK has a sharp sense of humor, but it’s filtered through the hard-boiled lingo and the occasional dissonance of noir and suburbia rather than postmodernism.

It takes time to develop an ear for the jargon-laced dialogue, but Johnson doles out enough clues, often through the all-seeing The Brain (Matt O’Leary), to keep viewers from getting lost in the argot. This specialized language is a good fit for teens, who create slang some adults find nearly impenetrable. It also gives BRICK verbal texture that differentiates it from just about every other film made today.

Elevated emotions are a hallmark of adolescence, so the film handles romantic splits and hallway betrayals like the matters of life and death that kids feel they are. Except for an assistant vice-principal (SHAFT’S Richard Roundtree) and an oblivious, doting mother, adults are absent from BRICK’S world. Their non-presence is crucial to sustaining youthful misperception that they are alone in their experience of intense feelings.

Johnson’s visual acuity turns BRICK’S southern California suburb into a gray sky wasteland of concrete and asphalt. The landscape speaks of loneliness. Large, foreboding spaces swallow up the few people inhabiting them. The rare bright blue sky is visible before Brendan falls from innocence, before Emily ends their relationship. It’s also in this flashback that his forehead is able to be seen. Once Emily has left his life, the emotional turmoil is manifested in the tousled bangs drooping just above his glasses.

It’s worth noting BRICK’S soundtrack and sound design. Composer Nathan Johnson, the director’s cousin, includes a few standard noir cues but favors rusty lounge music not far removed from Tom Waits. The spare music extends to the frequently quiet natural sound, all the better for bringing to the fore essential aural information. A schoolyard chase scene gains its urgency from two distinct sets of clopping feet. One character removes his shoes to elude the pursuer and trips him, sending him headfirst into a pole that rings like a bell from the impact.

With his performances in MYSTERIOUS SKIN and BRICK, Gordon-Levitt has grown into an actor worth following. I had tarred him for being on the sitcom 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, a show I didn’t care for at all, but his shift from the TV comedy series to more serious roles proves that he is a versatile and serious performer. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the good kid who has been wounded and let the trauma darken his perspective and toughen his skin. Now he hits hard and hits fast and isn’t afraid to be on the receiving end any longer.

Similar to Gordon-Levitt’s transformation away from sitcom kid, Haas shakes up his screen persona. Typically not one to cut an imposing figure, he brings a frightening quality to The Pin. As the mysterious Laura, Zehetner is seductive and forthcoming, assuming that one of those qualities doesn’t cancel out the other. Her wide eyes make her look innocent and in need of protection, but if the genre’s demands are any indication, that appearance is anything but true.

Johnson’s sources of inspiration for BRICK put forth tough dicks and dames in a cold, uncaring universe. Glum teens are a clever and natural evolution for the genre.

The after-party at Red Star Tavern (Mark Pfeiffer/May 4, 2006)

Upon the film’s conclusion the opening night festivities shifted to the after-party at Red Star Tavern. (In the photo above, note that my NOW PLAYING co-host Paul Markoff can be glimpsed in the distance in the buffet line.) There’s not really much to report, just some good chatting with other local film critics and basking in the glow of a successful start to the festival.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

One festival leads to another

With the 7:00 p.m. screening of BRICK at the Arena Grand and the after-party at Red Star Tavern, the second Deep Focus Film Festival will be underway in Columbus. Like last year I plan to blog the event.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I haven't posted my promised reports from the just-completed Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival or the wrap-up of my experiences at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Is it any consolation if I tell you that those things are mostly written in my head, so it's just a matter of finding the time? They'll make it here eventually.

But enough of my excuses/explanations for why I haven't written. You don't care, and I get tired of writing it.

I've been quoted about the festival in interviews with The Columbus Dispatch and The Lantern. The Dispatch piece will go behind subscriber-only walls in a few days, so I won't bother sending you there. (I also thought that my quotes made me sound like an idiot.) Today's Lantern has this festival preview, although if you want to read the second page, you'll have to do like I did and register on the site. (There's a whole other issue to be explored of newspapers partitioning themselves from readers on the net with free registration or paid subscriptions, but this isn't the time and place for that.)

For what it's worth, here's my coverage of last year's Deep Focus Film Fest:

-Opening Night
-Day 2
-Day 3
-Day 4 (which is really just a couple photographs and an unfulfilled promise to write the recap, although I did get reviews for two of the films up at a later date)

So, come to the Deep Focus Film Festival tonight and stay for the weekend.