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Front Cover (2015)
Small-budget "Front Cover" deserves more mainstream distribution backing.
One of the best and most successfully diverse indie films in years. You needn't be gay nor Chinese to be captivated by it. One of the surprising issues explored here is independent of sexual orientation: the rarely-dealt-with comparison between American-born Chinese (ABC) and native-born Chinese (NBC) mindsets and lifestyles. And so it's the initially homophobic Beijing actor on the rise and the U.S. immigrant parents of his second-generation out stylist that resonate with each other in surprising ways.
As in too many films dealing with an American gay protagonist, "Front Cover" includes initially clichéd scenes (here, computer sex and dance-bar clubs). But ultimately, each include twists that advance character development and story-line.
The script also subtly wades into aspects of China-U.S. political relations through both comic and dramatic conversations that explore global economic and human rights issues in personal rather than polemic fashion. The lack of a score adds to the realism; but a poorly-chosen handful of scene-transitional songs seem even more out of place as a result.
Thanks to inspired cinematography, NYC's Chinatown has rarely looked both welcoming yet set-apart. Thanks to careful casting, directorial and editing choices, the performances reveal characters both leading and supporting that are all well-delineated and worth caring about.
I didn't see the film on any festival screen. I bought a ticket at a Los Angeles multiplex where paying customers, on exit, discussed how far off-base its critics have been, and how they intend to challenge that with must-see word-of-mouth. Any film that creates a community out of its audience of strangers as this does is a rare gem.
The surprise success of a non-blockbuster is well deserved..
"42" is more than this year's "The Help." It deftly combines the biopic and baseball film with feel-good/manipulative and "message" movie genres into a beautifully acted and directed crowd-pleaser on its own terms. The cast is replete with familiar TV faces in supporting roles, whose names may not click with you until the end credits: yet each performance is as indelible as those of its 3 leads. You don't have to be a fan of baseball, Brooklyn or "based on a true story" films to find yourself in its cheering section. Must viewing whether you lived through the civil rights movement or are too young to remember it. As for the critics who didn't get behind this one, I think they owe "42" a second viewing -- this time in a real theater with the rest of us, rather than in a plush screening room whose seat-mates' reactions rarely reflect the emotional impact of the ticket-buying public.
The Guard (2011)
Making fun of the crooks without losing the suspense factor
This "crime-ody" proves you can mix international police drama with place-specific humor and produce an emerald of a film. Too bad this solid production saw such a short stay in and received such limited word of mouth from Hollywood. Comparisons to an Irish "Fargo" are not misplaced -- this could become a cult classic once it hits DVD and cable. All three of the bad guys have individually quirky personalities that make the trio both threatening and hilarious. Their pursuit by a worldly black FBI agent and small-town bachelor cop ("guard" in Gaelic) provide perfect foils with on-target foibles of their own. Some audiences may find the location's dialect hard to get at times, but the low-keyed levity and big laughs are worth the effort. At first, the best-known songs on the soundtrack seem randomly selected, but like most other choices this film makes, they add much to the story and character development. From starring to supporting roles, these are indeed characters only great direction and understated acting can pull off. Both are ever-present, with the occasional apparent misstep always a clue worth investigating. You never quite know where this plot is going, but it takes the viewer on a ride once known as an "E-ticket." This film will not turn the Irish economy around by itself, but it's worth several times the price of a trans-Atlantic flight. First class dark comedy all the way.
Elle s'appelait Sarah (2010)
Not a holocaust film...An extended family mystery based on untold history
I just couldn't get through the best-selling book of the same name. So I'm surprised to be brought to tears by its engrossing and passionate film adaptation. Here's hoping the novel's fans can appreciate everything on the screen as opposed to griping about what may have been left out (a rare occurrence).
Calling this a "holocaust film" ignores its two major themes: (1) family secrets prove no match for a journalist's desire to connect the dots to reveal the "mystery history" behind them; (2) when an entire country buries its past (in this case, France), it silences the stories of unlikely heroes in the process -- but rarely forever.
"Sarah's Key" deserves more than the limited release it has gotten so far, perhaps due to the "holocaust film assumption" and some lukewarm reviews. This cinematic gem is as flawlessly cast, directed, scripted and paced as the Weinstein Company's triumph of last year "The King's Speech" -- and just as deserving of Oscar attention.
Dramas based on historical events are frequently budgeted and filmed as already-familiar sweeping sagas told on a grand scale. By trusting in its characters rather than its big events to move the plot and the audience, "Sarah's Key" gives us a new cinematic template with which to examine and portray the past and why it organically enthralls us today.
The Invention of Lying (2009)
Better Than a Comedy For Its Wit and Concept
Here's a film that creatively comments on our era of fact-free news and opinions by inventing a time when there was only truth -- telling the tale as a comedic fantasy where, quite literally, no one could ever think of lying. No one that is until our anti-hero stumbles upon the art by accident. Far more entertaining than non-stop punchlines and slapstick, the mirth flows naturally from the script's concept and plot. The wit missing from most of today's "laffers" abounds as a result. It's a film truly "about something" -- a story that opens your mind to looking at the world in a different way. Like great literature, each re-visit offers new insight into the human condition from the viewpoints of psychology, sociology and philosophy. Yet it's never so deep that it befuddles the viewer; eschewing a documentary or academic approach, it simply and genuinely amuses the audience on a higher human plane. One of the most thoughtful movies of our millennium -- a rare example of a film you can think of highly and often, always with a smile that's never painted on.
Undertow: Undeservedly Under The Radar
In early 2010, the first Peruvian film ever nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar -- "Milk Of Sorrow" (2009) -- got a U.S. 2-screen release that grossed all of 10K. Clearly UNDERTOW has no Peruvian coattails to ride in on. Despite Sundance kudos and buzz, it's already being ghettoized as a gay film. Yet it clearly is so much more. UNDERTOW doubly violates that genre's political correctness: the lead is both closeted and heroic while the captivating tale constantly eschews white/urbane predictability. We watch two more curve balls being thrown at us as well: next-world fantasy and 3rd world folklore. So this is definitely not "'Brokeback Mountain' meets 'Ghost'" as several critics have written it off in facile reviewer shorthand. But UNDERTOW may well have the power to connect with portions of the mainstream audiences for both of those films -- via word of mouth, curiosity-building press and guerrilla marketing. Our unexpected attraction to a real-life subsistence-poor fishing village and its close-knit, tradition-bound "primitive" citizens are seamlessly woven into the film's cast as well as fabric. Breath-taking cinematography, a script illuminating characters rather than telescoping plot, understated yet powerful performances and a hypnotic world music soundtrack take UNDERTOW far beyond the shorelines of dry-docked movie-making. Many high-concept films have dealt with men forced to choose between family and lovers. Others have pitted unlikely heroes against the mores of society. Nor is a quest to carry out the final wishes of the dearly departed at all innovative. But UNDERTOW combines these themes in a way no writer- director has done before. First-timer Javier Fuentes-León does so with fearless honesty and sublime-on-a-shoestring craft. No surprise then that it's this year's Foreign Language entry from Peru.
A Marine Story (2010)
Not just another GLBT film
"Don't Ask Don't Tell" is only part of the nitty gritty here. Being a woman in the armed forces -- and in any male-dominated society -- comes at us from several angles. So just as DADT isn't merely of interest to the gay community, neither is this compelling, powerful film. This is a deeply experienced personal story with several fascinating characters, not a film-maker on a soapbox. It's beautifully framed, acted and directed...if a bit slow in places. But any "downtime" ultimately increases the desperate angst beneath the surface: a reluctant and rejected hero, cut off from the only career and life she's ever known for reasons that are more complicated than we initially assume, gets an unexpected and unwarranted homecoming. At a time of two wars that are barely on the public's radar, here's the reality of those who've fought and lived through them: all's quiet on the home front because few civilians care to know the many truths on the ground halfway around the world. The genius of MARINE STORY is that even without special effects and battle scenes, regardless of the viewer's personal politics, we are made to pay attention to our women and men in uniform through this impeccably-focused lens. Some huge stories are best told on a smaller budget. If this is independent film-making for the 2nd decade of our century, we have much to admire and care about for years to come.
Get Low (2009)
A Surprising Life Examined: The Angry Old Man
While Hollywood has consistently examined the "angry young man," his older counterpart is normally portrayed by a character actor in a minor role. Robert Duvall is no stranger to portraying off-beat, aging male leads, but here he accepts the ultimate challenge -- drawing an audience in to examine the life of a self-made hermit with a widely reviled yet barely explained past.
Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, a dream team supporting cast, also portray vintage folk with secrets of their own. This partly frontier western, largely psychological mystery unravels slowly in scenes with little or no dialog. What dialog there is offers several levels of potential meaning through pregnant pauses, ill-defined sentence fragments and questions with no immediate answers.
The viewer either chooses to fill in the blanks by closely observing peripheral elements in each scene, or simply awaits a climax that ultimately explains everything. That scene never quite tells all, but intentionally and inventively so. It's the former viewer for whom this film has been so meticulously well-crafted to side-step the clearly declarative and ultimately obvious.
The score is a particularly captivating mix of period Americana and original music that resonates with the time and place -- even when performed by a Polish orchestra or under-appreciated U.S. folk/country performers of our own era.
In short, GET LOW is a niche film that quietly rewards a cinema-loving audience for investing its full attention. Leave your smart phone at home for the best multi-tasking experiences are built into the work itself. The 2009 copyright date indicates Sony Classics, after due deliberation, acquired a "hard sell" that other studios overlooked.
An early October Oscar season screening of this December U.S. release ended with much applause, atypical for guild audiences. Almost half even stayed through the credits, an indication that many involved in the film on all levels are worthy of name-recognition "for your consideration.
Tamara Drewe (2010)
British small-town life goes digital
"Tamara Drewe" could be this year's "Sideways" sleeper with a British accent and wider demographic appeal. Key to the story arc is a pair of digitally-savvy teens with a crush on an oddly-charismatic indie band drummer. His eye is on a "suddenly attractive" blogger-journalist, wooed as well by a hunk-of-all-trades and a serially-unfaithful middle-aged novelist whose forgiving wife quietly orchestrates his success. The action is set on the couple's small organic animal farm which doubles as a writer's retreat for true characters at a loss to create any on a page. The plot easily accommodates a love pentangle, social networking, domestic strife, celebrity culture and teen rebellion while staying true to its droll heart. Far from Hollywood's romantic/bromantic comedies, the humor here comes from dry wit and subtle class friction, instead of gross punch lines and pratfalls. What bathroom humor there is here actually requires a water-closet. The relatively unknown, multi-generational and perfect-pitch cast creates an unlikely ensemble without a hint of over-acting or scene-stealing. If the film strove for significance or belly laughs, it would widely miss the mark on both scores. Beautifully shot, invisibly directed and edited, the only thing lacking might be a snappier title for non-British audiences. But true to its source material -- the Posy Simmonds-penned, Guardian-run comic strip turned graphic novel of the same name -- "Tamara Drewe' totally fills the big screen without trying to be anything but its quirky self.
For Anglophiles, Allen fans and the disappointed 2010 film-goer
Anthony Hopkins is always a joy to behold on screen. If you're further into things British and your "Masterpiece Theater" memory is long, you will recognize wife #1 as the incredible "Duchess Of Duke Street" Gemma Jones, making a rare appearance on America's big screen. Like Allen's more recent films, save for the British accents, you could be in any city of urban sophisticates and wannabes. The London settings ultimately don't give the film a deep sense of any place in particular. But as Anglophiles have not been well-served of late Stateside, this release will have to do until some grand historic costume epic sweeps us back into a dark theater. All new Woody Allen comedies are also for those who don't dwell on the director's personal life and still enjoy him as a film-maker of thoughtful,lighter fare. Sure, his earliest films were more ground-breaking and side-splitting, but we've accepted that for eons now. Not an obvious Oscar contender as a whole, many of its performances are indeed worthy of consideration. Sony Pictures Classics' marketing is a good fit for American audiences who see the imprint of a studio's "for select audiences" arm as a modern-day film lovers' "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval -- proclaiming here is a work of cinema, several cuts above the mindless teen romp, action-adventure or horror rampage. Film comedy choices for 40-somethings on up have been bleak of late. As the Oscar race moves into its final quarter lap, a visit with this "Stranger" will brighten things up a bit. My 6 rating is relative to the quality of 2010's domestic crop. It could just as well have been a 5 if there had been more comedies worth $14 since January. But especially for Allen devotees, all is relative, in that sense at least.