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Great Fun. Remarkable Directorial Debut.
I saw this Austenland premiere at Sundance yesterday and I was thoroughly entertained. While not a completely original romcom premise, there is enough that is fresh in the storyline to keep you engaged, and at one point even with a whodunit flair.
Director Jerusha Hess (co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite) has a really remarkable debut. The movie is smart, funny and paces nicely. Keri Russell is at her girl-next-door best, but Jennifer Coolidge feels like she has been cut loose to reveal her outrageous, campy silliness in all its splendor, and Brett McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords fame) is surprisingly believable and impossible not to like as mostly a straight man. I expect this performance will catapult McKenzie's acting career. Other cast members, including J.J. Field and Jane Seymour, are solid.
Most of the cast was at the premiere and came on stage for the Q&A. Now many casts at Sundance say they enjoyed making the movie, but you could tell there was something different with this group. They sounded like the REALLY HAD FUN. McKenzie was hilarious live (something few actors are) and I only wish Coolidge had been there. Their enthusiasm was certainly buoyed by just having seen the movie for the first time and I'm sure being surprised by how well it turned out. But also, quite a credit to Hess to create an environment where good spirits flow. The positive energy definitely found its way to the screen.
I had the good fortune to run into Jerusha Hess in the parking lot afterward. She seems like a very genuine and engaging woman. I expect she will be highly sought-after from here out. A new Nora Ephron. In fact, there was something about this movie that reminded me a little of Mixed Nuts.
New York Doll (2005)
Not Your Average Epiphany
Religious conversion stories are often dreadfully boring to all but fellow believers. Too often they are tales of interesting lives of despair lifted by a higher power to lives of less-than-fascinating virtue. I don't mean to imply criticism of epiphanies in any form. But it is an axiom of sectarian movie marketing that the religiously inclined will tolerate the blandest of cinema if packaged faithfully, and that's often what they get.
I was expecting more of the same when I heard about New York Doll at Sundance last year. This is the story of Arthur "Killer" Kane, bass player for the legendary New York Dolls rock 'n roll band of the '70's. For those that didn't follow the pop music scene back then, the Dolls were one of the hardest-edged, most controversial groups of their era. Forerunners of the punk movement, they paraded in drag and set the stage for later bands such as The Sex Pistols, The B-52's and The Clash.
Like so many other punk bands, the Dolls fell victim to excesses and addiction. Kane, known for his "killer" bass lines, was sometimes too drunk to perform, and would simply stand on-stage with a bass around his neck while a roadie filled in for him. (However, since Kane was known for his wooden posture on stage, it may have been hard to tell whether he was really playing or not!) After a meteoric four years, the Dolls dissolved and Kane drifted into alcoholism and obscurity, only reclaiming his life with his 1989 conversion to Mormonism and work at the LDS Family History Center in Los Angeles.
But despite his discovered spirituality, he always harbored the desire for the band to reunite and play again. His seemingly impossible dream was realized in 2004, when Morrissey (The Smiths) engineered a reunion of the Dolls for the London Meltdown Festival.
Director Greg Whitely crafts a warm and engaging story set to this strange juxtaposition. Kane is an intriguing personalitysimple, friendly and honest, he talks wistfully of his days of drugs, sex and rock and roll ("some of my fondest memories," he says) yet never wavers from his commitment to his Mormon faith. Interspersed in the reunion story are thoughts on Kane from Mormon co-workers and religious leaders as well as punk rockers Morrissey, Sir Bob Geldof (of Boomtown Rats and then Live Aid fame), Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and others.
But the drama is the reunion itself. Two of the Dolls died in the early 90's, leaving Kane, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and singer David Johansen. Of the three, Johansen found the most success post-Dolls, both as an actor as well as singing under the alter-ego Buster Poindexter (remember "Hot, Hot, Hot"?). Kane resented Johansen for nearly three decades, and the tension is palpable when the singer arrives (over a day late) for rehearsals. While time and hard living have clearly slowed, humbled and mellowed Kane, in contrast Johansen comes across like Mick Jaggera youthful glam rocker in a craggy-faced, 50-year-old body. While Kane appears non-plussed by the experience, Johansen is still energized by the spotlight.
What is truly touching is how they resolve their differences, rekindle their relationship and develop mutual respect. Kane tries to explain his religion to a bemused Johansen, including the Mormon principal of tithing"It's like an agent's fee," he explains. "It's only 10 percent. It's a pretty good deal." New York Doll is a well-executed and compassionate documentary that will warm the hearts of faithful and heathen alike. Whitely clearly cares deeply for Arthur Kane, who seems to have touched the lives of everyoneeven those from the Dolls' era. And it's impossible not to like Kane, who is so sincerely grateful for his good fortunehis past, his faith and his chance to once again be a New York Doll. This is a tender story with a bittersweet ending, which I won't give away. I will tell you to keep watching as the credits roll, because there's a song you won't want to miss.
Seven Times Lucky (2004)
Film noir Canadian style shot on a shoestring budget. Kevin Pollak in a rare lead role. Some interesting twists and turns. Lies and deception. Happy ending. It is refreshing to have the film set at Christmas, and creates opportunities for delightful contrasts with low-lifes and Christmas music.
I love the genre and I liked the movie. Not great by any means. But it moved along nicely and had enough subtleties and nuances that it felt fresh and not simply derivative. Oh, and Liane Balaban is fetching without working too hard at it.
Edge of America (2003)
Hoosiers on the Rez
Killer premise: Black male teacher is recruited suddenly to teach English at an Indian reservation high school and takes over as coach of the hapless girls basketball team. Chris Eyre is a talented director. (He actually reprises the reservation DJ commentary that was so funny in Smoke Signals.) This is Hoosiers on the Rez.
I love Eyre's movies because they are thoughtful, funny and compassionate, and always force us to consider people in a new light. He does an extraordinary job of exposing us to the good and the bad in Indian country, and I walk away from his films both enlightened and uplifted.
Slice and Dice
I must admit that I don't know the martial-arts movie genre very well. I think the last one I saw starred Bruce Lee. Zatoichi is about a blind old samurai warrior roaming from town to town as a masseur. Of course, he's always the toughest guy in the village, besides being one very cool samurai. Apparently director Takeshi Kitano is something of a legend in Japan, but this film strikes me as an unusual blend of classic `Seven Samurai' good vs. evil combat combined with tongue-in-cheek choreography, and somehow, it all works.
Warning: This is not for the squeamish. They drained the blood bank to film some of the scenes and there are probably at least 50 deaths----all by a single swipe of the long blade. Tarantino, eat your heart out!
A Contribution to Society
I can react to this movie on a number of levels. First of all, it is a wonderful thing that this film was made. It deals with a very real yet very troubling issue, and handles it with sensitivity and hope. This movie has the potential to really help people, and I can't think of a better legacy for a filmmaker.
Despite all that, I wish this would have been a better movie. The pacing of the story seemed wildly out of whack and there were a couple of directorial decisions that could certainly be questioned. On the other hand, Kristen Stewart's performance in the lead role of Melinda was excellent, although the rest of the acting left me flat. (Even Steve Zahn, who I normally love, seemed a bit miscast.) And while the writing didn't grab me, there were enough light-hearted moments to make Melinda's personal anguish bearable for the audience.
Beyond cinema as therapy, the film contained meaningful insights into the potential of artistic expression in healing, the general alienation of being a freshman in high school, or the critical relationship of an individual's will and determination with the healing process. People should see this movie not because of its cinematic excellence but because it has an important and optimistic message.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
A Most Memorable Film
This movie is fresh and alive with laugh-out-loud truths about growing up in general, and particularly growing up in small-town America. First-time director Jared Hess is either loony, very gutsy, or (quite probably) both. Dumb and Dumber meets The Royal Tanenbaums. Some scenes are priceless. And the sheer chutzpah of this ludicrous effort is enough to make you want to overlook the flaws. Jon Heder is outstanding as Napoleon, and Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino and Aaron Ruell manage to play their characters convincingly, crazily straight up.
Here's the thing-somehow, through all their flaws, their handicaps and their pathological weirdness, these characters manage to rise above the fray with a nobility that we want to embrace. There is a bedrock morality to each one. They know something about friendship on an intuitive level, because they have lived their lives often without friends. These characters are simple, but extraordinarily deep, and to me, that is the genius of this movie.
I wasn't overwhelmed by the comedy. Friends of mine who were more familiar with rural Western small towns thought it was hilariously on target. Plus, I think there's some generational humor that I didn't appreciate. (I had a discussion about this with a friend. He thought that Napoleon getting hit in the face by a thrown steak was hilarious. I didn't.) An older crowd might miss the humor entirely. But one thing is certain: this movie isn't like anything you've ever seen before. Napoleon Dynamite is an American original.
Little Good in This Movie
YOU'LL PROBABLY NEVER SEE THIS MOVIE BUT IF BY CHANCE YOU MIGHT THEN YOU SHOULDN'T READ THIS BECAUSE IT GIVES AWAY THE PLOT-LINE, BUT YOU PROBABLY WOULDN'T BELIEVE IT ANYWAY.
If I was going to look for an actor to play a sympathetic lead role of a dwarf for a straight-up drama about `little people,' naturally I would turn to Gary Oldman. Yes, that Gary Oldman. Dracula. The Devil. Pontius Pilate. Maybe 5'11'. I guess Al Pacino wasn't available.
This is a bizarre movie. Matthew McConaughey plays Oldman's brother (not a dwarf), so this Schwarzeneggar and Devito as Twins straight up. Both McConaughey and Kate Beckinsale turn in reasonable performances, as does Peter Dinklage. (As an aside, I think this guy is a terrific actor. In both this and Station Agent, soon into the movie I quit thinking about him as a dwarf.) However, I was most enchanted by the acting of the little people in the supporting cast. They brought me inside an inaccessible subculture and often made it very comfortable and believable.
However, Bogie, Bacall and the entire cast of the Wizard of Oz couldn't rescue this movie. This is an ambitious project with an intriguing premise. And apparently, Oldman is the one that drove the project, and he wanted to play a dwarf. (The kid that has the football gets to be quarterback?) But everything else about the movie is bad. There were times when the Sundance crowd laughed at loud at some of the directing/editing. And the script seemed to be pieced together.
More Weirdness: At the premiere at Sundance, writer-director Matthew Bright scathingly denounced the film. He didn't watch the movie and said he never will. (`It's like making love to your ex-wife.') Bright apparently got into an argument with the financier of the film over creative differences. I think what I heard is that Bright wanted to close with a love scene between Oldman (playing a dwarf) and Kate Beckinsale. I guess the money-guy just didn't think the American public was ready for this. Anyway, according to Bright, he was fired from the movie and a bunch of inexperienced hacks who know nothing about the movie business finished the film. Bright said neither he nor none of the artists were paid a dime and that they didn't support the movie. Maybe this explains why this was such a disappointing film.
I Like Killing Flies (2004)
A Very Entertaining Movie
What a great idea: a documentary that just wants to entertain. Killing Flies is a restaurant-sized slice of life about Kenny Shopsin and his diner in Greenwich Village. The place is one of a kind and Shopsin's ad lib rants are as entertaining as any screenwriter could contrive. Watch this film and you will go out of your way to visit this restaurant when in New York, not just because of the eccentric owner, but because the food has the same eclectic appeal. Directed by Matt Mahurin, who got the idea as a regular Shopsin customer, Killing Flies is fun and captivating entertainment without the usual documentary pedagogy. (OK, I did learn a few things: You can put about anything into pancakes. And DON'T bring a party of five into Shopsin's!)
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
I flat-out loved this movie. It was my favorite film at Sundance this year, although I didn't see a few movies that got great buzz. Good-bye Lenin is a fresh, comedic look at impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on an East German family. The movie is funny, warm and insightful. I learned more about Soviet Bloc folks might have perceived their countries and their government than I have in all the stuff I've read in the past 20 years.
This is a light-hearted film that moves quickly and manages to not take itself too seriously. Acting is excellent throughout---particularly by Daniel Bruhl and Katherine Sass as his mother. But it is the gentle political commentary the carries the day here, along with some hilarious scenes and images throughout.