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Monthly Archives: October 2007

The best part of seeing Reservation Road was partaking in the experience of seeing two amazing trailers. The previews were for Funny Games, a shot-by-shot remake of the brilliant Austrian original (and directed by the same director ten years later), and Atonement, whose plot I am not completely sure of, but I am under the movie’s spell and cannot wait for its December 7 release. “And now,” as the members of Monty Python say, “for something completely different,” something not entrancing, awe-striking, or even entertaining…

Reservation Road is about two men whom we are supposed to perceive as equal (thanks to clever editing). Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) is the usual suburban dad with the usual suburban wife (Jennifer Connelly) with the usual 2.5 (okay, 2) kids, one of which is musically talented. While the four of them return home from the son’s recital, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is returning his son from a Red Sox game to Dwight’s ex-wife’s (Mira Sorvino’s) home.

In the meantime, Ethan and company pull over for a bathroom break. Because of a combination of Dwight rushing to reach his destination and not paying attention to the road, he hits Ethan’s son (who stepped out the car for a moment). Dwight, scared, responds by driving off. Ethan is heartbroken now that his son is dead, and Dwight is afraid of the consequences of his actions.

In the first ten minutes, even a Douglas Sirk film can’t handle this much drama. However, while the movie should be holding our attention for the following hour-and-a-half, Reservation Road loses much gas after take-off and comes back down for a landing, but I wouldn’t say that it crash-lands.

Instead of really investigating issues that would come up during such a situation, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) instead focuses on creating more “drama,” meaning plenty of contrivances that would only take place in a universe occupied by an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters. Rather than have faith in the inherent drama of the story, George elevates the story to soapy melodrama, leaving us distant from characters that don’t feel all that real despite the tragedy they have all gone through.

The performances are intense (Phoenix, Ruffalo, Sorvino, and Connelly like to yell a lot), but does that mean they’re any good? I don’t think the actors provided much depth to the characters other than that they’re either really sad or really angry. Honestly, I think the Academy will fall for the old trick that if an actor/actress does a lot of screaming in a movie, it’s the performance of the century. As a matter of fact, Reservation Road may even win for best picture at the Oscars, falling in line with a series of syrupy, bad films that shouldn’t have been nominated for such an honor in the first place (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, et al). Do I see a pattern?

Reservation Road isn’t awful, but after seeing the rest of the movie following the opening scene or two, we realize the movie is a scam. George pulls a switch-a-roo on us, giving us a forced storyline with puppets, instead of actors, performing at the whim of the script. By the time the movie reaches its “climax,” we don’t care, and we’re just checking the time to see when it’s going to wrap up already.

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[Until I have more time to gather my thoughts on the movies I saw at the New Orleans Film Festival, I will return to reviewing other movies.] 

To you, Fellow Film Lover,

You like Steve Carell; I like Steve Carell. You like Dane Cook and don’t think he’s overrated; I… agree to disagree.

So who is going to like Dan in Real Life? Not anyone who likes an intriguing story, because this movie is lacking one greatly. Certainly not loyal fans of Carell: they tend to have good taste. Even if you are a fan of Dane Cook, you’ll be disappointed that he doesn’t do stuff in a very Dane-Cook fashion. So, if no one is going to like this movie, why was it made?

I’m not really sure why some studio boss decided to green-light this movie. Other than the cast, there’s nothing appetizing about Dan in Real Life. Any movie with Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dianne Wiest, and John Mahoney should be a hit. Right? Unfortunately, no. The characters are boring, and… that’s about all I can say. I stopped taking notes because there was nothing to say about the movie except that it was boring.

I hate seeing boring movies because there’s nothing to discuss. My least favorite film at the film festival, Alan Cumming’s Suffering Man’s Charity, garnered two pages of notes, but at least it was bizarre. Yet during Dan in Real Life, boredom transferred from the screen to my notes. As I read my scribblings before writing this review, I realized I just wrote the same thing over and over again.

I really disliked the movie, but I can’t even call it a train-wreck because it doesn’t have any ambition. The characters, setting, and conflicts have no flavor to them whatsoever. Therefore, I don’t even want to say what the movie is about, because it may actually entice you the see the movie. The main conflict had comedic potential, but it’s handled seriously (and much better) in Louis Malle’s Damage (also starring Juliette Binoche).

I was incredibly stumped when I had to write a review for Dan in Real Life. I decided to then write a letter, a firm warning to you that you’ll be sorry if you see this movie, disappointed that you wasted your time and hard-earned money. My quote for the movie was, “The movie has a sweet heart and a good message, but, aside from its title, it has no life.” What an understatement. The movie is a decapitated zombie: it was dead, but now it’s really, really dead.

So be daring this weekend. Instead of playing it safe and going to the multiplex, travel to your local video store and rent an old movie (something before you were born). Venture to the library’s foreign film section and pick out something you usually wouldn’t care to watch (it’s free!) Expand your mind instead of feeling it contract while watching a pile of trash like Dan in Real Life.

Sincerely,

Joey Laura

I’ve seen Alan Cumming in a few film roles, and I like the eccentricity he brings to the screen. He did a Q&A after the showing of this movie at the film festival, and he’s a very kind, intelligent, funny man. I have nothing against Cumming.

However, I found Suffering Man’s Charity to be completely ridiculous. This movie is bizarre, eccentric, and inappropriate, and not in a gloriously John-Waters sense. I wondered sometimes if screenwriter Tom Gallagher just tried to make the story as weird as possible.

Cumming plays John Vandermark, a classical music teacher who, throughout his life, has housed men with potential and turned them into sophisticated members of society. He feels that his most recent pick-up, Sebastian (David Boreanaz), is abusing John’s charity. After a fight, John holds Sebastian hostage, and after a subplot develops involving Sebastian’s novel, (supposedly) hilarity ensues.

I was a loner in the theater, as most of the audience loved it and was in fits of laughter throughout the film. I love dark comedy, but this is beyond black and off the color wheel. At that point, the movie is no longer a comedy: it’s just dark. There’s also some campy moments speckled throughout the movie that don’t really help one take the movie even a tad seriously. I tried to just lay back and appreciate the movie for what it was, but that’s why I took the other road and tried to look at it differently: I didn’t like the movie for what it was.

I predict, based on the audience’s reaction, that once it hits theaters and DVD, this movie will become a cult classic. I can surely see this being a favorite among “indie” fans looking for something eccentric for the sake of being eccentric. Not my kind of movie, but I think there is definitely an audience for Suffering Man’s Charity out there.

 

John Cusack turns in a magnificent performance in Grace is Gone.

Grace is Gone is about Stan (John Cusack), a husband and father of two girls who strongly supports his wife fighting in Iraq. One day, he gets news at his doorstep from men in uniform. We’ve seen a lot of war movies, and the image hits us almost as immediatley as it does Stan.

He is told that Grace, his wife, is dead. He doesn’t know how to register this, and when his kids return home from school, he has to decide how to break the news. Instead, he creates a diversion, for both himself and his kids, by taking them on a road trip.

The movie isn’t particularly arty: there’s no eye-catching mise-en-scene or revealing montage or triple-speaking lines of dialogue. It’s not even very layered. The movie is so enjoyable, even though it’s about a depressing subject, because of the performances from Cusack, who has a phenomenal filmography like few others his age, and Shélan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, whom are both in their first film roles as the two girls playing Cusack’s daughters Heidi (the elder) and Dawn (the younger), respectively.

At one point, the movie jokes in a non-deprecating manner about the great differences we have with each other, even with family members, about the conflict in Iraq. Stan and his brother (who I didn’t recognize as Alessandro Nivola, the husband in Junebug) differ on political issues, and the movie is sweet in the way it shows faults with both idealogies. In one scene, Stan’s brother is trying to explain to his nieces not to believe everything their dad tells them, because they need to make their own opinions “based on fact, but sometimes those facts or wrong.” Heidi simply states, “Uncle, that doesn’t make any sense.” She’s right. It doesn’t.

But what also doesn’t make any sense, which the movie attacks, is how real-life children of soldiers in Iraq are forced to deal with the death and, in addition, make an opinion of the war: either they look at their parent as a hero or one who died in vain. A young child should not have to contemplate such heavy decisions, and we can see such pressure take it’s toll on Heidi, who sleeps in class because she can’t sleep at night as she thinks about her mom.

Some picky filmgoers may have a problem with the movie’s use of some indie clichés like trips in cars, kids being cute, and family bonding, especially through a tragedy. Grace is Gone, however, rises above these elements, using them in a new way to communicate a diferent message.

In addition, there’re a couple of movie references (either subtle or not necessarily even intentional), including the endings of Say Anything and The 400 Blows. They don’t make us feel ripped off, though. As a matter of fact, it moved me a little more as the scenes dug into my subconscious and brought out the emotion that I felt during those movies. This shows that James C. Strouse, the film’s writer/director, has learned from the masters how to handle these important scenes, and he pulls them off wonderfully.

I really can’t find much, if any, fault with Grace is Gone. Consider it highly recommended among this year’s three-and-a-half-stars movies.

NOTE: To those worrying about whether the movie bad-mouths soldiers in Iraq, you can be assured that it’s very respectful of the troops. I would be hard pressed to think of a single moment that I found to be in bad taste in reference to the families of soldiers who have died. The movie kindly asks us to set politics aside and to remember these soldiers and what they have done in the name of our country.

“How much would you give me to pass my course?”

One would think, what teacher in her right mind would say something like this? In an instant, she would be fired and never seen in a classroom again. Well, one would think. A student being interviewed for the movie Left Behind: the Story of the New Orleans Public Schools, a title that explains it all, says that his teacher asked him that very question. And it’s not that unusual.

New Orleans is notorious for having the worst public school system in the country. It’s ranked below Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, yet it’s also a part of the richest country in the world. What’s wrong? Why is it so disastrous?

There is not one clear answer. We’ve read about some of these problems in the newspaper: the valedictorian who couldn’t pass a tenth grade-level exam, students who fail the LEAP test five times and struggle to graduate, crooked School Board members, and the list goes on.

New Orleans is also known for its crooked politics, and these politicians seem even more monstrous when you realize it isn’t just about them stealing funds from the state. Those pocketing money that should be going to education don’t seem to understand that, in the long run, the city (and not just the children) are being hurt and have to deal with the unfortunate consequences. Because of poor education, fewer businesses wish to come down to New Orleans, Louisiana is ranked as the poorest state, and we incarcerate more people per capita than anyone else, and we’re one of the most violent cities, in the industrialized nation.

The teachers are also thoroughly blamed. One student says that he has no textbooks for any of his classes. Another tells of how less than half the students in his class has books. The same student smuggles a camera into his classroom to show how the class operates, and the teacher roughhouses with one of the students when he should be instructing them on something that they can use later in life.

One scene shows a ceremony that swears in a new members of the school board, giving the citizens some hope as they applaud. However, like in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, this year’s film about the fight for Ireland’s freedom, we see that ceremony does not solve the issue at hand: it only blinds us to it for a little while.

Even though the ending is supposed to leave us feeling upbeat (which it does), I can’t help but remember all the damning information that comes before it. I was instantly reminded of the ending of John Sayles’ City of Hope, which is about a city run by corruption and ulterior motives. At the end of the movie, two people in need scream for help, and the only one who can hear them is a crazy guy who always stand on the street corner. In one long take, he begins running around in circles, screaming, “Help! Help! Help!” and nobody comes.

It’s a disturbing scene but beautiful in the way it shows a certain level of helplessness when, in the end, all the decisions are being made by people whose number-one interest is not the people they are supposed to be serving.