Friday, October 17, 2008


Tom McCarthy made a great, small film back in 2003 called THE STATION AGENT. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it immediately. He's made an even better film in his sophomore outing, THE VISITOR (****). Career character actor Richard Jenkins, who you will recognize from everything from THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY to THE KINGDOM, gets his first shot at a leading role and he nails it. If there’s any justice he'll be nominated for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards. He's tremendous. Playing an emotionally tired college professor named Walter who still hasn't fully recovered from the death of his wife a few years back, he gets asked by his boss to head to NYC to be a presenter/speaker at some sort of academic conference, for which one of his essays is being honored. He's been living a sheltered existence in Connecticut and at first, he's not interested in going into the city. He relents and heads to the big apple; it helps that he has an old apartment in the city where he can crash. What he doesn't expect to find when he gets there are two illegal immigrants squatting in his place; they've been swindled by someone into thinking that the apartment was vacated. At first extremely afraid and surprised (who wouldn't be?), he asks the two people (one a Senegalese woman named Zainab, the other a male, Syrian musician named Tarek) to leave his place. After realizing that they probably have no where to go, Walter invites them back into this place and tells them that they can stay there for a while. What develops is an unlikely but heartwarming friendship that does wonders for Walter's spirit and reminds Zainab and Tarek that there are still some good people left in the city. When Tarek is arrested, everything changes, and the film takes a critical look at the post 9/11 illegal immigrant experience in our country. Without patronizing the audience, McCarthy has created a quiet, emotionally charged drama that asks many questions about loyalty, trust, and dependence. Walter is a troubled, wounded soul, and his new friendships help rekindle his interior fire; it's a slow burn performance from Jenkins that's the best I've seen all year thus far. This is a small gem, a film that was met with excellent reviews and did some surprisingly strong box office in the art-house circuit. It's the kind of film that most viewers will discover on DVD and it's the kind of film that all too frequently gets left out of the year end awards derby. I hope that's not the case. THE VISITOR, like YOUNG @ HEART, has all the right ingredients: heart, smarts, humor, sadness, and finally, grace. It's one of the best films I have seen this year.
YOUNG @ HEART (****) is also one of the best films of the year. Director Stephen Walker has made a documentary that is everything great cinema should be: moving, funny, sad, hopeful, and finally, emotionally resonant. Centering on the old-timer choir Young @ Heart Chorus, Walker follows the various 80-year-old-plus singers inside the recital hall and outside into their daily lives and routines. Based out of Northampton, MA, the group is led by conductor and organizer Bob Cilman (a great mixture of sass and class) who preps his singers as if he's entering combat. Just because they're old doesn't mean he's going to slack on their training. All of the members of the group are interesting and lovable, and as you might imagine, some of them don't make it to the final concert; heartbreak occurs along the way in this film. The kicker of the production is that Cilman has the group learning pop-rock and classic rock songs from the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Killers, Sonic Youth, and James Brown, just to name a few. While the film hits a few sad moments and more cynical viewers might find it to be too depressing to be entertaining, I found YOUNG @ HEART to be one of the most uplifting films of the year. It's a movie that reminds you never to lose sight of what you love and to never give up on your passions, no matter how old or how healthy you are. I laughed, I cried, and most importantly, I cheered for these people. Just imagine your grandparents up there singing with the group and it'll be impossible for you not to be moved by this fantastic piece of work. Or to remove the well-earned lump in your throat.

Chris Bell's insightful and thought provoking documentary BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (****) takes a critical and even handed look at our nation's abuse of steroids, and actually makes a solid case for the use of them, and for their banishment. I learned a lot of new stuff about steroids in this film, and I came away with a balanced set of views after watching this entertaining yet scary film. Focusing on his family (Bell's brothers are power-lifters who have been using steroids for years) and on society in general (action movie stars like Stallone and Arnold are brought up, as well as the many baseball players who were accused of steroid use), Bell presents all the facts (good and bad) in a straight forward manner and lets the viewer come away with an informed opinion of the situation. We're a nation built upon the idea that we need to be the best we can possibly be at everything we set out to do, and for some people, that means that steroids are the only way to success. Mixing heartfelt footage of his family and excellently researched archival footage, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER is as entertaining as it is informative. This is an important documentary for many reasons, and I feel that it should be required viewing in high school health classes across our country.

Bharat Nalluri's MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (***) is a sweet natured romantic dramedy with a sparkling performance from the effervescent Amy Adams and a solid-as-usual turn from Frances McDormand. Light as air and always watchable, the film is a tad predictable but that doesn't take away from its ability to entertain and please its audience. McDormand is the titular character, a poor woman, going from one job to the other (she's a housekeeper of sorts) who lies her way into a job as a maid to Adams, a spoiled, trophy-girlfriend living a lavish lifestyle. Adams juggles a bunch of suitors throughout the movie, including Lee Pace from this year's masterful THE FALL, and it’s fun seeing her playing the role of a classy tramp who smiles her way into everything she wants. McDormand sets her eyes on a rich designer played by the always welcome Ciaran Hinds, but she has her work cut out for her as he's involved with a spiteful rival designer who knows Pettigrew's true identity. The film moves along briskly (it's 90 minutes on the nostril) and while there is never any doubt about the final outcome, MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY has great production values, a witty script (David Magee and Simon Beaufoy are the co-writers), and spirited performances from its game ensemble. It's a fun piece of light entertainment that will put a smile on your face.

HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (**1/2) is a far cry from the stonerific original. It has its moments of weed-induced hilarity to be sure, but it's just not in the same league as the first entry. The writers of the original, John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, are not only back as the writers for this outing, but also serve as co-directors. Their abilities in the director’s chair are limited. Horribly shot and edited with bad pacing and many scenes that should have had their ends snipped, their technical deficiencies are made up for by their ability to generate a lot of laughs. Now, whether or not you find bodily function humor funny is one thing. I do. So I laughed. The plot is useless to describe but here goes. The stoner duo board a plane for Amsterdam but are thrown off when an old, racist white lady mistakes Kumar for a terrorist; she sees him lighting a homemade bong in the bathroom and thinks it's a bomb. They are snagged by a ridiculously incompetent homeland security agent played by Rob Corddry who throws them into Guantanamo. They escape and are chased throughout the south by the feds and all of the whack jobs that they encounter along the way. Yes, Doogie is back, and he's still pricelessly funny. But for a movie about two guys who love to toke up, it takes a long time for them to finally get blazed; there wasn't enough toking in this film. However, there is a TON of full female frontal nudity, so if you like that sort of thing, make sure you rent the unrated cut as I did. At one point in the film, the two guys end up at a "bottomless party." I will leave the rest of that to your imagination. One scene, late in the film, involves H&K getting lit with President Bush, who not only is a reefer addict, but enjoys dipping his joints in cocaine. There are a lot of funny sequences, John Cho and Kal Penn still have great chemistry, but the film overall is hit-and-miss to the point where I wished the narrative wasn't as jumbled. Some sly, satirical barbs are weaved into the script, the film clearly holds a fair amount of disdain for the U.S. government, and Hurwitz and Schlossberg are definitely in love with their characters. But what this film is lacking that its predecessor had a ton of is genuine interest in its characters, and a greater sense of the ganja. For a movie about two pot-loving dudes, the film is weirdly short on actual puffing. Still, it's worth a rental if you're in the mood for some disposable laughs.

M. Night Shymalan has hit rock bottom with THE HAPPENING (ZERO STARS), which is easily the worst film of the year, and easily one of the worst films of the decade. This is Ed Wood-style bad. Horribly incompetent writing, flaccid direction, and two beyond terrible performances from Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschanel (who have both been great in the past so not sure who to blame for this travesty) all combine to make a laughably bad eco-horror thriller. The idea is actually pretty cool: Mother Nature has had enough of humans ruining her world and she’s pissed off. One random day, people start walking backwards, speaking gibberish, and killing themselves, if not before killing someone else before they commit suicide. People jump from buildings, plunge sharp items in their necks, shot themselves in the head, hang themselves from trees. But why? Who is behind this? Did terrorists release poison gas? Is it a government experiment gone awry? That's what Whalberg's character, a high school science teacher, is trying to figure out. He somehow deduces that plants and grass and trees are emitting a toxic, invisible gas that makes people go crazy. A cool idea, no? But wow, Shymalan butchers every single moment in this film. Working with his first R rating, he's not even up to the task of creating some memorable death sequences. Why go all out with an R rating if the gruesome moments are going to be played as after thoughts? There is one good shot -- count it -- one good shot in the entire production. And that shot was shown in every single trailer. The dialogue is puerile; I can't remember hearing a more awkward sounding film. And coming after his horrendous LADY IN THE WATER, this is another nail in the coffin for this once promising filmmaker. Full disclosure: I enjoyed THE SIXTH SENSE, I think UNBREAKABLE is his best work, I had fun with SIGNS, and I seem to be the only person in the world that enjoyed THE VILLAGE. But on his last two outings, Shymalan has really struck out. His next film is a kid’s movie based on a popular Nickelodeon property. It's bound to be a hit (one would assume…) and at this stage of his career, that's what he needs…another blockbuster. But his rep as a creator of cerebral and stylish thrillers is in the toilet at the moment. He needs to rebound and direct something that he didn't write because truthfully, he's become a shitty writer. And as I stated above, he's not helped by his cast; everyone gives an awful performance. And not just the leads -- the secondary stars, the extras, the bit players -- everyone is awful in this piece of junk. Shymalan made some comments around the time of the film's release that he set out to make the best B-movie ever made. Well, his concept is ripe with B-movie possibilities. But his execution is more like an F minus. I hated this film. It's pure trash. And the most insulting part of it is -- it has no ending. I mean literally -- no ending. I dare you to rent this film and try and make it the whole way through. I doubt you'll make it.

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