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The Convincer (2011)
A Great Con Movie - Done Midwestern Style
The swindle, the bamboozle, the big Con. A favorite subject for filmmakers for nearly a century now. The game is basically always the same, but the players are what makes for a great con movie. "Thin Ice" (previously titled at Sundance 2011 as "The Convincer") goes white-collar crime, the legal kind, just look in your phone book and you might find your own convincer, the local Insurance salesman.
"Thin Ice" directed by Jill Sprecher, is Sprecher's return to feature films after her well received "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing". Alan Arkin, returns to team up again with Sprecher and is joined on screen with "Little Miss Sunshine" cohort Greg Kinnear to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale of Midwestern simplicity and the everyday Con man with a silver tongue. An old man with an unfathomably rare violin crosses paths with an insurance salesman at the end of his rope, what unfolds across the frozen terrain of Wisconsin is a wonderful bit of storytelling The film has a solid cast of players, alongside Kinnear and Arkin, Billy Cudrup has a solid little role. David Harbour delivers a gem of a performance and the fantastic Bob Balaban is always a welcome addition to any movie.
Much of the effectiveness of the movie, which could easily have been a rehash of all the movies before it, is in its Midwestern point of view and ability take your average insurance man and peel away the layers to observe how the art of lying creates a life of constant deceit that will eventually take it's toll. Mickey the insurance man(Kinnear) trolls 24/7 for a mark to give his sales pitch, but when he crosses paths with the simple farmer Gorvy the amount of deceit he will need to get the big payday pushes him to cross even lines he never dreamt of going.
A unusual relationship forms between the insurance man and the farmer, as Mickey is forced into a role of caregiver as he circles the rare violin in hopes of selling it for big money. "Thin Ice" unfolds through these series of encounters between Mickey and Gorvey and tension builds at a detailed pace towards Mickey's eventual ultimate deceit. Mickey's life is falling apart around him, ultimately their is no back-up plan, at any and all costs his existence is tied to the old man and the violin.
The film maintains a steady pace, each detail is thoroughly absorbed and clearly never losing sight that its all building up to, not if, but when Mickey will cross the line from white-collar liar to criminal. Although "Thin Ice" is a fascinating take on the relationship between a simple Midwest farmer and convincing insurance man, it is foremost a story of the consequences of lying and when those lies will come back to haunt you.
Thus the story takes a dramatic turn as Mickey unwillingly teams with a local ex-convict locksmith(Billy Cudrup) to break into Gorvy's home to get his prize violin. Things don't go at all as planned and soon Mickey is dealing with a whole nother type of crime. The killing kind. What unfolds through the second half of the movie is a masterful touch of high tension and bumbling amateur criminal misbehaving.
Though the film will undoubtedly be compared to a few other con movies, Fargo comes to mind though that's primarily just scenery correlation, "Thin Ice" is very much original. The strength of this film is the wonderfully acted script that is sharp and nearly without flaw. The movie could not have had better pieces then Kinnear and Arkin who are brilliantly matched and thoughtfully reminiscent of their real life counterparts.
This thoroughly engaging and captivating little tale works from beginning to end. If one were to focus on possible weaknesses it would only be that true to it's Midwestern stylings its not overly flashy Nor particularly gritty compared to slicker studio productions. That being said "Thin Ice" is completely its own film and gives very little to dislike.
The Details (2011)
Great Performances Can't Save The Details
The Details begins with a pleasant enough introduction and promises of a humorously dark spin on suburbia . With a stellar cast that offers up top notch performances the movie moves along with a theme-park roller-coaster like flow between comedy and tragedy. Certainly humorous and at times truthful, the movie has a Jekyll & Hyde flow that creates a whole lesser then its pieces.
A seemingly perfect couple, Jeff the Doctor (Tobey Maguire) and the beautiful Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) are in a rough patch in their stale marriage. Two ill advised home improvement ventures lead Jeff to a run in with some pesky raccoons and a even more pesky encounter with a crazy cat lady neighbor(Laura Linney). Doctor Jeff's life begins to unravel as he tries to navigate his way through bribery, blackmail and his urge to feel some sort of spark that is missing from his marriage. A woeful tale of infidelity gone bad unfolds that leads the Doc down a slippery slope. He tries to cure his woes with a few doses of philanthropy, but no good deed goes unpunished, its the details that always gets you in the end.
The performances by the cast are top notch, Toby Maguire as Dr. Jeff gives a complex performance that is humorous, emotional and sympathetic. Elizabeth Banks has flashes of brilliance, the last 10 minutes give glimpses of what more her character could have offered had the filmmakers seen the opportunity. Lauara Linney is comic genius in a turn that is right up there with her best. Dennis Haysbert and Ray Liotta give very pure performances. This movie couldn't have asked for better side players which only makes it more disappointing that the filmmakers didn't create a better landscape.
The Details has brilliant moments of humor, but its see-saw approach between gags and edge of darkness stuff keep it in a gray area which can only be successful in the most polished of hands (e.g. American Beauty). Ironically its in the details, where the Details fails. There are numerous moments in the film where just a few tweaks could have kept it from flying off the tracks. The lasting impression is an attempt at modern story telling that wastes excellent performances by not keeping a tighter grip on the story.
I expect some buzz about the film after its initial premiere. Tobey Maguire gives a fabulous performance and gives all that he could, however once this sort of film is removed from the gloomy shadows of the downer films that typically makes up most of Sundance it probably won't fair very well. Shame really, this could have been a more significant film.
The Romantics (2010)
The Romantics is a Charmer
At first glance The Romantics gives the impression that it might be one of those trendy new value packed romantic comedies laced with bits and pieces of top talent aimed at getting fans in the seats but offers little in the way of good story telling. A good example being the dull "He's Just Not That Into You" or the recent "Valentine's Day". Luckily the Romantics is not one of those types of films, in contrast it's a true ensemble piece where the actors work stronger as a unit then alone. The casting by long time producer, first time feature length Director Galt Niederhoffer is near pitch perfect and the players work together seamlessly to create a smart story about the unpredictability of love and how we may get older and wander but some things just never change.
The Romantics are a crew of preppy (former J.Crew models from the looks of their cloths) late 20 somethings that come together on a Hamptonish Long Island estate for their friend Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom's (Josh Duhamel) wedding. Lila has asked her old college roommate and friend Laura (Katie Holmes) to be her maid of honor. This a rather devious gesture by Lila because Laura has a long standing history with the groom Tom. Of course with the old gang getting together again Laura must push through the torment and do her part at the wedding. The friends are all well aware of the tension between Lila, Tom and Laura and expect fireworks to fly before the the wedding bells ring. Tensions begin to build at the wedding rehearsal dinner before kicking off a wild night that finds old lovers reuniting and old friends rediscovering themselves.
The Romantics asks the question is the nostalgia of our past love just a sugar coated flashback or is that first true love the most pure and most enduring love? From what we can gather here, there is no clear answer only a process of trying to understand ones true feelings. The Romantics stays true to the process, allowing the events of the movie to unfold in a very honest and rewarding manner . Where other lesser films might try to force the jokes and push forward to a obviously predictable ending the Romantics is at its best when it focuses simply on people's feelings and the raw emotion of the moment.
What is abundantly clear after viewing this movie is that Katie Holmes is a really great actress, not good, great . Believable, honest and fragile, in the role of Laura she elevates the material here and there leaves little doubt that she deserves consideration on her own merits sans her TomKat status. Additionally Josh Duhamel delivers a very rewarding performance , he brings a lot of charm and honesty to the performance. His chemistry here with Katie works incredibly well.
The entire cast all have there moments in the Romantics, however its hard not to see that many of the players here deserved more screen time and more chance for developmet. Elijah Wood in particular needed more face time, he is an absolute riot fest here. To add to that Dianna Agron of Glee fame turns out a great little performance as Anna Paquin's sister in the movie. Strikingly gorgeous and infatuating on screen Dianna is a star in the making, her moments with Anna were gems. Fans of Malin Ackerman, Anna Paquin and Adam Brody will probably feel let down that each star didn't receive a bit better treatment, however there are still little treats in each of the their performances which should satisfy most fans.
Cyrus Loves His Mother and the Duplass Brothers Get Even Better
If you have followed the fantastic rise of the brothers Duplass from their early no budget shorts film days to their breakout low budget Sundance hit Puffy Chair and the equally good follow-up Baghead then you likely had to wonder what kind of movie they were making in Cyrus; which in contrast to the other movies appears to have considerable industry financial backing and bona fide Hollywood stars. The main concern here is that the brothers other movies are distinctly low budget and free wheeling (AKA "Mumblecore" indie movement), thats what makes them great in many ways and lets be honest the expectations for those first two movies were nil. When you aren't expecting a lot and get something pretty good back in return its going to seem really great. In Cyrus their are expectations, one only needs to see their prime opening Saturday night premier at Sundance to see just how far these guys have come. That works out pretty well though for the brothers, because they deliver a great film. Cyrus is distinctly indie and personal but isn't so much so that it scares off the mainstream.
Cyrus is the story of a lonely divorcée John (John C. Reilly), who upon finding about his ex-wife's (Catherine Keener) impending nuptials has the unlikely fortune of getting caught with his pants down in a drunken act of buffoonery by the enchanting Molly (Marisa Tomei). Strangely enough Molly isn't frigthened off by John's drunken antics and heartfelt lonely ramblings which she finds endearing and honest. A bit of romance ensues and as John pursues further he eventually comes to find out that Molly has a 21 year old son who lives at home with her and has an oddly close relationship with his mother. John being the good guy that he is tries to make the best of the situation before Cyrus makes life a complete living hell for John and a bizarre rivalry ensues that will try the relationship of boyfriend, mother and son.
John C Reilly has always had a great gift at humor and that is no different here, him and Jonah Hill have a brilliant comedic dynamic that at times is beautifully subtle and other times in your face. What might be the Duplass trademark is the way they bring out real honesty in the performances by all three stars. Reilly gives one of his best performances and Jonah Hill has easily his best here. It is hard to say underrated but has Marisa Tomei ever not been stellar in the last few years? . Her performance is the glue that holds together the movie, with the insanity revolving around her character is believably sweet and endearing.
Cyrus undoubtedly will be compared to the works of Judd Apatow, this isn't unwarranted but in truth the Apatow films feel much bigger and less personal then Cyrus and maybe have a bit less heart. We will have to wait and see if the mainstream audiences is eager to give the Duplass brand of comedy a shot, but regardless this looks like the beginning of something much bigger.
Not Much Beauty Found in this Chaos
The movie Hesher arrives at Sundance with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's star on the rise and heightened anticipation post- 500 Days of Summer to see just how far he can go. One would think that with accomplished starlet Natalie Portman co-piloting this dramedy that Hesher would be a potent indie. Unfortunately, while JGL literally burns up the screen, the rest of the movies chaotic fire only dimly flickers.
The movie tells a tale of a grieving boy, TJ (Devin Brochu), whose mother recently passed away in a car accident and is struggling to deal with a rather nasty high school bully. During his travels TJ comes across a rather unlikable sort who goes by the name of Hesher (JGL). As the name would hint, Hesher is all balls out and heavy metal. Obnoxious, uninhibited and straight out dangerous Hesher brings a strange mix to TJ's family dynamic that includes his equally grief ridden father (Rainn Wilson) and his salt of earth Grandmother. Strangely enough Hesher offers the family an unlikely distraction that fascinates them all. As TJ stumbles along with the devil (Hesher) sitting on his shoulder he finds a kindred spirit in the form of Nicole the local grocery check out gal (Natalie Portman).Through a strange set of events TJ,Hesher and Nicole create a weird little triumvirate. With building intensity Hesher's brand of chaos begins to spark a flame in TJ that will transform his grief into a powerful force for good and also bad. Much like a wildfire everything must burn down to the ground in order to be rebuilt again.
The character Hesher is mesmerizing and at times extremely funny. Surely Joseph Gordon-Levitt saw a complex character that he could really have fun with, and indeed the end results show just that. Let it be clear that in terms of quality this is another great turn by JGL and another stepping stone on his way to becoming one of the best actors of his generation. That being said Hesher the movie feels disjointed, at times the movie's is too ugly and it leaves a bad taste that makes it hard to rebound for the laughs. To that end, while lurid the movie's strongest parts are its humorous ones which unfortunately are far too short lived. Speaking of short lived, Natalie Portman sees very little screen time and is dreadfully under used. Rainn Wilson as the depressed father turns out a great performance, after seeing this it seems that the Office dweeb has a lot more to offer then Dwightisms. Additionally, Devin Brochu as the young TJ is no slouch and really gives a powerful performance at his tender age, his rage is believable and at times tough to watch.
While there are good performances here the story simply does not allow for attachment or a truly rewarding pay off. The end results feel like JGL highlights with little else that really makes a lasting impression.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
They said this movie wasn't going to be a love story, but that's simply not true cause I feel all warm and fuzzy after watching this flick. I think it's Love. How could you not love this movie, this a story about a guy named Tom who wants to be an architect but ends up working a meaningless job at a greeting card company creating romantical propaganda on paper. Luckily for him the most perfect girl in the world, Summer, just started working at his office and wouldn't you know it, she loves The Smiths, too. It's a match made in Ikea Heaven, but wait there is a twist here! This goddess of all things shabby chic doesn't believe in love, furthermore she doesn't want to be held down by a relationship. Oh No! Poor Tom. Those ocean blue eyes, that voice, that smile, those eyes.... oh those eyes, how could Tom not fall deeply in love with Summer. So begins the season of love, the 500 Days of Summer. In 500 amazing days Tom will learn about relationships, reconciliations (a good Ex never dies), Love, Lose and most importantly about moving forward.
Now talk about great performances, this ones got two. You want Zooey, you got Zooey. She's all over this one, easily one of her top performances to date. She is simply truth in this movie, she'll make you love her and then she'll slowly break your heart but you'll just want to love her more until all you see are those glowing blue eyes in your loneliest nightmares. Joseph Gordon Levitt is so prime here, the chemistry between he and Zooey clicks perfectly and not only that but since every woman,man and child is in love with the knee bending powers of Ms. Deschanel it must be said that JGL gives such a strong performance that he clearly owns this movie all the way till the very end. You might come on down to the cinema looking for Zooey but you'll be rushing home to hit up the IMDb to see what the 3rd' Rock kids been up to over the last 8 ( hint... see 2005's Brick). While watching JGL's performance it's pleasantly reminiscent of a pre-Brokeback Heath. He has such a charm about him that glows and an easy smile that jumps off the screen, plus much like Heath he has the chops to take it dark and lonesome with sincerity if the flick requires. The rest of the cast rounds out nicely with a few supporting folks like Clark Gregg who plays Tom's square Boss and Geoffrey Arend who is good for a few good sidekick chuckles. By the way special shout out to Ian Reed Kesler who played the "Douche" (IMDBs words not mine) with perfection. That must have been an interesting audition call.. looking for 30-something dude to play the "Douche". Well Played Sir!
Now the dynamic duo aside, Marc Webb the Director has got a little something-something going on. Past sins aside (directing Jesse McCartney videos, WTF?), it seems that his music video hipness lends a freshness and style to the overall appearance of this flick. The movie very rarely missed its mark and by golly its got real DEPTH!. Needless to say this makes it quite a bit more interesting then the latest McConaughey (dude what happened, you were so cool in Dazed) and Kate Hudson needs a paycheck mindless studio romance. You'll have lots to talk about and feelings to relive long after this ones stopped rolling the credits. Additional strong points here are a visual aesthetic that has a modern meets Capraesque remix, which felt very much built around Zooey Deschanel's fabulous style. The colors and landscape are all complimentary to the movie, downtown LA never looked so nice! The other thing we got going on here is a killer soundtrack, built around some Smiths, Doves, and a few others, not mention the fact that once again we get a chance to hear Zooey Deschanel do a little karaoke in the movie which is a tasty little treat.
Bottom line 500 Days is going to be on your mind in 2009 and chances are that like a good EX it will always pop back in your life and you'll dust if off and pop it in the player and go down memory lane remembering all good stuff, then like a swift punch in the gut like only a good EX can, it'll break your heart all over again.
See it, believe it.
In the Loop (2009)
Get In the Loop
Is it a work of fictional farce or an insightful view of the members of the governmental bureaucracy? Probably in truth, In The Loop is a little bit of both, but more so its a whole lot of fun at the governments expense. There have been numerous films over the years giving us insight into how our government works, at times it sure looks bleak and unjust, but we sure haven't seen it in such a ridiculous view. In The Loop aims at making sure they scrutinize the bureaucratic desk jocks for all their worth. The film follows the Minister of International Development (Tom Hollander) after he has put his foot in his mouth, unintentionally announcing that war is unforeseeable. Back tracking and word-smith manipulations prove mute, fortunately for the Minister he's got big fans in the US who would like nothing more then to use the naive Brit in their political posturing. The hawks begin circling and before the Minister knows what game he's playing he's into deep and merely a puppet in the political theater.
There is a hint of a serious political thriller in the plot here, but In The Loop knows we've seen all that before so why not have a little fun, actually why not have a whole lot of fun and throw in lots of scalding four letter words and absolute British wit. Tom Hollander as the Minister of I.D. is dumb-foundingly perfect in his role and is well complemented by his bungling assistant Oliver (played exceptionally by Chris Addison). As the Director of Communications, Peter Capaldi steals the show with his relentlessly scathing superhuman vulgarity ridden wit. Those with a distaste for such colorful language should look elsewhere as their ears will certainly be on fire if they can last through a third of the film. Personally the language was not a problem for me, I appreciate a master of the finer words, and Capaldi has shown himself to deliver his lines with such craftsmanship that sailors around the world will be put to shame.
The Brits are a fantastic mess, but of course what international mess would be complete without the United States Govt.. And so comes the behemoth know as James Gandolifini, the Don Capo hasn't lost any of his on-screen presence. As the ol' war vet Pentagon General, Gandolfini is gruff and verbally abusive in a really mean spirited way, which is glorious. Those with a keen sense of cinema will notice how well the film shifts humor as the Brits come across the pond to the the dry humor of America. Gandolfini makes the most of his screen time, but on the American side the majority of the ridiculousness comes from Mimi Kennedy, as the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy and her bickering 20 something Capital Hill brown nosing assistants. Director Armando Ianucci's delivers such a cynical sharp witted look at all things politically ridiculous and it works on so many levels. Fans of British humor will love this, its pureness to the form is perfectly meshed into the political platform that moves the comedy along with merely a few small bumps in the road. On the other side of the coin, those who enjoy making fun of those of the diplomatic persuasion will delight in the roasting of our governmental members.
The Winning Season (2009)
It's a Winner!
Just got back from seeing the premiere of The Winning Season at Sundance 09' and couldn't be more thrilled to report back that we have a winner.
The basic elements of the story are familiar; down in out coach finds a second chance with a bunch of scrubs and you know the rest. The Winning Season isn't groundbreakingly different from its ancestors, but just enough in all the right places to make this "dramedy" a very rewarding viewing. Audiences familiar with typical indie fare, will find that The Winning Season is indeed cut from an indie mold. The Winning Season does not gloss over the coach's failures, his abusiveness or the realities of the steep obstacles he faces. This is a good thing though, because being able to see the dark nature of the human condition makes the successes all that much more enjoyable. The strength of the The Winning Season is in its balances and ultimately the director/writers decision to allow humor and healing to be the driving force as the movie plays out. Far too often indie films allow their depressive themes to run rampant in what appears to be an effort to increase anti-depressant sales. There a lot of folks who think of any movie labeled as a "dramedy" to be fluff or mainstream box office disguising itself as an indie movie, but I would beg to differ. There is always room for reality and laughter to co-exist in a uniquely indie vision, and in the end movies should be allowed to make the viewer feel rewarded. The Winning Season aims to do that, and it's pretty much hit that mark.
On to the cast, Sam Rockwell (always underrated) is right on the money with his performance that never waivers from the lead characters self destructive nature as well as delivering such wonderfully dry humor that you keep thinking to yourself why isn't this guy getting more credit for being such a great actor. The young women in the film who make up the team are terrific and give such a sweetness to each of their roles, Emma Roberts in particular is fantastically clever in her role. Also, what a bonus to have Rob Coddry of Daily Show fame, as the goofy principle he just adds the right comedic touches to the scenes between he and Rockwell. Finally James Strouse, coming off two other well received Sundance films, ups his game here and brings a very strong effort. He should have very little problem getting more gigs with this type of quality output.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
Gael & Diego Entertain But The Story Telling Is Average
I just screened this new flick out of Mexico at the Sundance 09' Premiere. I went into the movie very pleased to see the two ultra talents Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna reunited on screen with the filmmakers that brought us the classic Y tu Mama Tambien. Luna and Bernal are tremendous actors and their chemistry on screen is evident from the start, and throughout the movie they bring life to the two main characters Beto (Luna) and Toto (Bernal). Beto is rough, tough, and determined, Toto is unassuming, curious and also determined though in a more naive way. The story follows the two brothers lives as they go from "hick" banana farmers to professional futbol stars. The strength of the movie is in the diversity of the two brothers transition from nobodies to somebodies and how one brother embraces the fame and all its opportunities while the other is unable to leave behind his reckless habits. The background to the brotherly chaos is the insanity of the Mexican futbol league that is corrupt,cutting and beautiful at the same time. The rise to fame is glorious, but what must go up must come down. The weakness of the film is ultimately the sudden downturn which may be, as the director later told the audience, true to the Mexican way, but this truth hurts the film when it needs a golden ball to lift its spirits. In this day and time, why not give a little hope, a little success to those who would hope to succeed even though they can't help but screw it up? To each his own, but the pay off is not nearly as sweet, and not nearly as meaningful as one would hope for the two brothers.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
Surprisingly Great Comedy - Elisabeth Shue is Marvelous!
Screened this surprise comedy gem at Sundance 2008, and judging from the reaction of festival goers this is the best of the fest. The story is about Dana Marschz (Coogan) who is a complete and utter failure as an actor. As such the only gig he can get is teaching drama at a low funded Tuscon, Az high school. His wife (Keener) isn't too happy with the living conditions which includes little money and a random roomie (Arquette) to help pay the bills. As luck would have it though Dana's life is about to change. His drama class unexpectedly inherits a bunch of misfit kids who need more then a little motivation, then Dana has a chance encounter with the goddess that is Elisabeth Shue who now lives in Tuscon and works as a nurse because she is sick of Hollywood. To top things off Dana has just one last chance at creating a masterpiece before the curtain comes down for the final time. By shear will and a good bit of madness Dana creates Hamlet 2, which very well could be the most horrible play in human existence. Short on talent but strong on enthusiasm the group of misfit students come together to bring to life Dana's opus. With both disastrous and beautiful results Dana's masterpiece thrills and amazes in what can only be called a very interesting movie going experience.
I don't want to over hype the film, its certainly not Little Miss Sunshine, but it can hold its own with the smart and hip comedies that we've come to expect from the indie circuit. Steven Coogan finally has his vehicle to break through to the American cinema and it should definitely increase all our awareness of his comedic genius. More unexpectedly though the best part of the show is Elisabeth Shue who is so fantastic playing a parody of herself. Certainly one of my favorite on screen performances in a long while. Aside from the actors, you can expect a nifty little group of musical sequences that are both funny and actually performed quite well by the talented young folks in the flick. Movie should work on all levels, there is some questionable material, but if you don't take risks in comedy you aren't going anywhere new which is exactly why this is a comedy worth watching.