Friday, July 28, 2006

"Sunshine," other small films brighten mid-summer blues


directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin

I have to admit it: I rolled my eyes the first time I read about “Little Miss Sunshine.” An independent movie about a quirkily dysfunctional family on a road trip, it sold for a record $10.5 million at Sundance—a sure sign of inflated expectations—despite the incontrovertible fact that if there’s anything the indie film industry doesn’t need more of, it’s road trip movies and movies about quirkily dysfunctional families. It didn't help my skepticism that Sundance darlings often find themselves in a tough spot once the glow of festival fever has faded: success at Sundance only occasionally translates into box office sleeper-dom, and doesn’t always translate into adulation from the critics, either.

I’m therefore pleased to report that “Little Miss Sunshine” actually lives up to the hype. On paper, and in the trailers, it seems unprepossessing enough—the kind of indie script that strains for originality by presenting a gallery of stylized freaks and geeks, each with his or her own set of tics and requisite twisted back story. The gallery in this case includes a smarmy wannabe self-help guru, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear); his harried, put-upon wife Sheryl (Toni Collette); their nearsighted, gaptoothed little 7-year-old daughter and aspiring beauty queen, Olive (Abigail Breslin); Sheryl’s adolescent son from a previous marriage, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who’s taken a Nietzchean vow of silence; Richard’s potty-mouthed, heroin-ingesting, lecherous father (Alan Arkin); and, finally, Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s gay brother, a preeminent Proust scholar who’s the last to join the Hoover family ménage in Albuquerque after a failed suicide attempt. When the Hoovers receive word that a spot’s opened up for Olive to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, they fuss and bustle for about five minutes, then pile pell-mell into a mustard-yellow Volkswagon bus and set off for California.

Despite the glaring contrivances of this setup, what’s surprising about the end product is how effortlessly enjoyable it turns out to be. Written by newcomer Michael Arndt and directed by husband-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Sunshine” transcends its quirks thanks to two things. First, it’s genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny in a way this genre of film rarely is. The humor is zany without being crude (well, except for a few moments involving Grandpa’s dirty mind and predilection for porn); it’s also surprisingly sweet-natured and sensitive to the Hoovers’ varied attempts to inject meaning into their lives. Each family member, it turns out, has been clinging to a personal dream that’s been shattered or is on the brink of being shattered. That these dreams are frequently comical—partly because the dreamers take them so seriously—somehow enhances, rather than diminishes, the bitterness of their disappointment. We feel their pain, even as we may laugh at its source. It takes a little while for this motley crew to find its rhythm, but before long they’ve all registered indelibly on our sympathies, both individually and collectively, even as we’re cracking up at their all-too-human (and only slightly exaggerated) follies.

Which brings me to the second reason “Sunshine” works: the acting is, without exception, outstanding. No one character rises head and shoulders above the rest—an indicator, in this case, of first-rate ensemble acting—but Steve Carell shows perhaps the best comic timing, especially for someone who’s supposed to be clinically depressed. Breslin, too, is a winsome presence and that rarest of rare finds in American cinema, a child actor who actually acts like a child; the film, to its credit, plays against her natural cuteness rather than manipulating it, while at the same time making it clear that Olive is the fulcrum of the entire family. The character most likely to grow on you unawares, however, is that of Olive’s insufferable dad. Gratingly irritating at first, he acquires a certain poignancy as we see the desperation creeping up around the edges of Kinnear’s slightly plastic good looks, and the unexpectedly fierce devotion to a family who has as little use for his hollow motivational maxims as we do. It’s a small measure of victory for Richard that the clan comes together for a few fleeting, unforgettably hilarious moments, before climbing back onto the yellow bus and driving away. Some may find that ending too abrupt; but in fact it’s in keeping with the whole motivating force behind the trip: this unlikely moving unit came together for one purpose, and one purpose alone; that purpose being fulfilled, it’s time to go home. One thing you have to hand to the Hoovers: they know better than to overstay their welcome.


I saw “Little Miss Sunshine” quite a while ago, as part of a screening series a friend of mine got me into. Here are a few other films I saw from that series, all of which are out and playing in limited release:


written and directed by Chris Paine

Some may suspect, not without reason, that this documentary is a flaming piece of liberal environmentalist propaganda. But you don’t have to be a liberal or an environmentalist to find it compelling, or to be convinced that the oil and auto industries, as well as various other social and political forces, moved to stem off and eventually to kill the initiative that created, for a brief shining moment, the emissions-free electric car. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” has a brisk, forceful yet surprisingly light-handed persuasiveness, even if—or perhaps because—it sometimes plays like electric car-porn as it lingers lovingly over the sleek, cute-as-a-button EV-1’s that were created, leased, and ultimately rounded up and destroyed by GM, among others, during the mid to late 1990s. What’s most intriguing, in some ways, about the movie is its attention to the small cadre of electric car devotees who followed their dearly beloved cars to the bitter end. These include several B-grade celebrities, yet the most memorable advocate is an unknown, a bright, fresh-faced young woman named Chelsea Sexton, who worked at GM during the EV development years, and who still has the spark in her eye and the ring in her voice of a True Believer. Some are likely to find Chelsea intensely annoying; others, inspiring. How you to react to her, and to her fellow EV acolytes, is likely to reflect how you react to the movie’s bottom line. I’ll confess I was sold. I yearn for the electric cars I never knew. And now I feel merely sad, not puzzled, whenever I pass one of the innumerable signs for “electric vehicle charging stations” that still dot the southern California driving landscape. Some day, perhaps, we’ll find a use for them again. Here’s hoping, anyway. GRADE: B+

ONLY HUMAN (Seres Queridos)

written and directed by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri
starring Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, Norma Aleandro

Another quirkily dysfunctional family movie, but this one takes place in Spain. The premise: independent-minded Jewish girl brings home Palestinian fiancé to meet her family, whom she hasn’t yet told about his ethnic background. The roster of eccentric family members this time includes a nymphomaniac belly-dancing older sister; a younger brother who’s recently gone super-observant, much to the annoyance of the rest of his family; an ancient grandfather and ex-Israeli army man who doesn’t let his blindness get in the way of wielding shotguns in the house; an absent father who may or may not be having an affair; and a mother who’s just plain eccentric. The strenuously madcap “Only Human” plays like a Neil Simon comedy on speed, and seems to be trying a bit too hard to keep the laughs coming. Nor does it have anything particularly insightful to offer on the theme of Jewish-Palestinian rapprochement. Still, at its best moments it’s really quite funny, and overall succeeds in rising above its “guess who’s coming to dinner” formula. GRADE: B/B-


written and directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
starring Chalo González, Jesse Garcia, “and introducing” Emily Rios

I never thought I’d see a movie that managed to be about both gentrification and immaculate conception, but here it is. “Quinceañera” follows the coming-of-age of Magdalena (Rios), a teenager growing up in the Hispanic community of Echo Park, Los Angeles, in the year leading up to her fifteenth birthday. In short order, Magdalena discovers she’s pregnant despite the fact that she’s technically a virgin, faces down the wrathful disbelief of her devoutly religious father, and moves in with her saintly great-uncle Tomas (González). Tío Tomas’s quarters are small, and he’s already taken in another family refugee—Magdalena’s cousin Carlos (Garcia), banished by his father for his budding homosexuality—but no matter; Tomas’s heart has room for all. Meanwhile, Tomas’s landlords—a well-heeled thirtysomething male couple—move into the upstairs unit and paper it over in Westside designer-chic. They take a shine to Carlos and make him their boy toy, but the three-way affair soon turns into a precarious love-triangle. Ultimately, Carlos’s sexual awakening exacts a high price, one that’s tied in with the film’s other pervading theme: the hip-ifying, yuppifying, and whitewashing of a neighborhood that was once an impregnable stronghold of Latino immigrant culture.

This all sounds rather serious, even gritty, but in fact “Quinceañera” is as sentimental and feel-good a dramedy as you’re likely to see this year. Perhaps too much so; one senses that its cozy picture of the Latino community is drawn by outsiders who share more in common with the interloping landlords than the homegrown tenants they’re crowding out. Still, the cast is warmly appealing (Rios in particular turns in a remarkably nuanced debut performance), and the filmmakers deserve props for their thoughtful depiction of a neighborhood in cultural transition, and for spotlighting a vibrant area of L.A. that Hollywood routinely overlooks. GRADE: B/B-

Monday, July 10, 2006

Through a "Scanner," Trippily; "Pirates" takes no prisoners


directed by Richard Linklater
starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick just may be my favorite author I’ve never actually read. No question he’s one of Hollywood’s favorites. Any time a futuristic sci-fi film plays with the idea that one’s existence and memories may be an illusion, created and manipulated by an outside power, chances are it’s either based on a Dick novel or heavily steeped in Dickian influences. The results aren’t always particularly outstanding cinema (“Paycheck,” anyone?), but a movie containing even a trace of Dick’s core insight, no matter how altered, garbled, or diluted, is pretty much guaranteed to make you think—and that’s no small accomplishment.

“A Scanner Darkly” is no exception in this regard, though as directed by Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”), it’s memorable less for what it makes you think than what it makes you see. Like “Waking Life,” Linklater’s previous foray into animation, “Scanner” uses a technique called rotoscoping, whereby a film is first shot on digital video and then painstakingly “colored over” by the animators. The end product looks startlingly lifelike, almost “real.”—because it is real—but not quite. As such, it’s perfectly suited to a story that presents much of its fictional universe through the phantasmagoric haze of substance abuse.

For “A Scanner Darkly” operates not just as a paranoiac’s view of urban dystopia (though it’s certainly that), but as a dirge for the victims of the nightmarish end-game of drug addiction. Set “seven years from now,” the narrative takes place in a society in which everyone seems hooked on various cocktails of drugs—the most lethally addictive of which goes by the moniker “Substance D”—and everyone seems to be spying or snitching on everyone else. Government surveillance is shown rather casually to be the norm, though there are also broad hints that the real powers behind the scenes are of the global-corporate variety.

We see all this through the eyes of an undercover cop known as Fred, who doubles as an Everyguy named Bob Arctor. Anonymous to his fellow cops and even his superior officer, whose identities are all hidden from one another through the brilliant device of “scramble suits” (cloaks that reduce the wearer to a blur of constantly shifting identities, to escape detection), Fred/Bob is assigned to monitor...himself, along with his friends and fellow junkies, any of whom might have connections to someone higher up in the Substance D trafficking chain. These include Parris (Robert Downey, Jr.), a devious, fast-talking encyclopedia of misinformation, the permanently stoned Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), the furthest gone in addiction, who opens the movie with delusions of bus crawling all over him. Also floating in and out is Donna (Winona), their dealer, who’s supposed to be Bob’s girlfriend but who shows a peculiar aversion to being touched. As Fred/Bob tries to negotiate between his two lives, and as his mind begins to buckle under the destructive force of Substance D, his split identity/consciousness begins to show signs of becoming all too real. But then, what is “real” in Dick's world?

Linklater steps back and lets the story do its own work. His familiarity with rotoscoping and druggies aside, he’s not the most obvious match for the material. As a director, he taps deeply into the warmth of human connection, which one might think less than compatible with the essential chilliness of Dick’s ideas. Still, as anyone who’s seen “Waking Life” knows, Linklater has his own penchant for questioning reality, even if his dream-vision is less bleak. That said, “Scanner” is plenty bleak, and ultimately offers little hope for salvation or anything but a Pyrrhic victory for those fighting against the forces that bind them. It’s also rather bleakly funny, especially in the scenes driven by Parris’ urgent need to hear himself talk. The inconsequential, directionless conversations have a flavor vaguely reminiscent of Waiting for Godot : these are the condemned, making the time pass until something, anything happens to free them from the uncertainty of their existence. The punchline to this joke, and it’s a grim one, is that there is no escape—no certainty—except in the dissolution of one’s very being. Heavy stuff, but it’s Dickian to a D.




directed by Gore Verbinski
starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgard, others

Make no mistake: this is one silly movie. But that’s part of its charm. The same could be said of the first installment; #2 is just bigger, though not necessarily better, stuffed with even more effects and swashbuckling-for-the-sake-of-swashbuckling, and somewhat tripped up by an amazingly brash political incorrectness (involving cannibals and voodoo priestesses) and a plot that tries to be even more complicated and only ends up feeling rather rudderless and slightly muddled. Something about Davy Jones having struck a deal with Capt. Jack Sparrow years ago, under which he now lays claim to Jack’s soul, and Jack’s attempts to wiggle out of the contract by using, among others, those sweethearts of the seven seas, Will and Elizabeth. Be forewarned: it ends in a cliffhanger, obviously a shameless setup for Pirates 3. Oh yes, and you might want to steer clear of this movie if you don’t like creatures with tentacles, as they make up the majority of the baddies in “Dead Man’s Chest.”

I enjoyed Pirates round 2, even though—or perhaps because—it felt even more like a theme-park ride than the original. No one does physical comedy better than Depp, and there’s nothing like watching three men swordfighting while trying to maintain balance on a rolling waterwheel to make one realize that entertainment and realism bear an inverse ratio to one another...and thank Davy Jones for that. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride—and kids, don’t try this at home.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Looks kill in "Prada"; Kryptonite tries in "Superman"


directed by David Frankel
starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker

Hats off, ladies and gentlemen: you are in the presence of the most feared and revered woman to grace the profession she has come to dominate. Oh, I'm not talking about Miranda Priestly, the thinly veiled stand-in for Vogue editor Anna Wintour in Lauren Weisberger's bestselling screed The Devil Wears Prada. I'm actually referring to Meryl Streep.

All right, so "feared" may not be exactly the best word to describe Streep, though Anthony Lane did once say that Meryl Streep's perfectionism scared him. "Formidable" is a better word, and perhaps more suggestive of why the role of the Devil fits her to a T. That aristocratic, faintly imperious profile looks here like it was carved from glass, or rather from ice – the same ice as her impeccably coiffed hair. But that's because Streep imbues the character's entire presence with just the right combination of heavy-lidded hauteur and underlying intensity that can turn vicious at a moment's notice.

Notwithstanding Streep's diamantine brilliance, "The Devil Wears Prada" is really the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of Anne Hathaway's character, Andrea Sachs. Andrea, called Andy by everyone except, of course, Miranda Priestly, begins as a fashion innocent, newly graduated from journalism school and newly arrived in New York with plenty of ambition but no money or job prospects. Somehow she stumbles into the position of assistant to the aptly named Priestly, high priestess of haute couture and editor of the fictional fashion magazine Runway. Andy becomes, to put it delicately, Miranda's bitch, dispatched on pain of extreme terror to fulfill her every need, from the mundane (such as delivering coffee) to the impossible (such as finding her a flight home from Florida in the middle of a hurricane, or the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter).

Predictably, after a rough start and abundant abuse not just from Miranda but from the rest of the Runway staff, Andy finds her footing and begins to adapt, with a little help in the wardrobe department from Miranda's second-in-command, Nigel (an excellent Stanley Tucci). Equally predictably, as she thrives and wins Miranda's double-edged approval, she allows herself to become increasingly swept up and seduced by the world of high fashion and glamour—the world she once observed with the bafflement reserved for an alien society—and the world-view of the ice queen perched at its summit. Will she succumb to its glittering allure, or will she return to the more down-to-earth values embodied by her Midwestern background (a change from the novel), her friends and her patient-but-only-to-a-point boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier)?

Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Still, the inevitability of the movie’s resolution doesn’t diminish the pleasures to be had along the way. "Prada" is an enjoyable little sweet tart of a chick flick, without being particularly deep or subtle—apart from Streep's wonderfully nuanced performance, which shows glimpses of something resembling humanity only to snatch it back and show an even colder capacity for calculation than Miranda's harshest critics could imagine. Insofar as it focuses on Andy, the movie of course tries to have it both ways, operating simultaneously as an ugly duckling/Pygmalion fantasy and a morality tale about retaining one's integrity in the face of material temptations. But no one goes to see "The Devil Wears Prada" without those same mixed motives: we want to see Andy get transformed by fabulous clothes and shoes, attend the most exclusive fashion shows in New York and Paris, and get laid (excuse me, wooed) by the charming writer (Simon Baker) who seems to have his foot in both the fashion world and the world of "real" journalism to which Andy aspires. At the same time we want to see her realize, in due course, what is truly important to her and return to it. We get it all—to have our cake and eat it, too—and that's the fun of this movie.

Moreover, any inherent tension between these two story arcs is effectively countered by the casting of Hathaway as the film's moral center. Her acting isn't especially remarkable, but she's done the ugly duckling thing before and has the word "ingénue" practically stamped on her forehead; although her Andy loses her initial, almost painful awkwardness as she learns to dress the part, that inquisitive-deer look never really leaves those huge, bright dark eyes. This might have been a problem in another movie, and can look a little untutored next to the far defter and finer-tuned performances of veterans like Streep and Tucci, but it's in tune with Andy's persistent innocence and belief in such touching things as compassion, loyalty, and trust. Leave it to Streep to yank the rug out from under such outmoded concepts. It's the devil's prerogative.


Also saw:


directed by Bryan Singer
starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, James Marsden, Frank Langella, others


I haven't decided yet whether to write a full review. There's been a great backroom discussion of the movie among my fellow Cinemarati members, which is perhaps more interesting than anything I could offer. The discussion is now viewable at where else but Cinemarati, of course.