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3/26/2009

Film & Video

FFF: Narrative Features

 

(500) Days of Summer Not screened per studio request.

Alien Trespass (1 Star) Former X-Files director R.W. Goodwin’s homage to sci-fi films of the ’50s like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Earth vs. the Flying Saucers – the ones in which a vanilla small town is invaded and the citizens’ sensibilities are thrown into chaos – is a condescending copout that hides behind the guise of parody without actually being funny. It insists on taking the material seriously without actually providing any thrills. The afterthought of a framing device – a recently unearthed print of “the greatest sci-fi film ever made” is finally brought to light – provides cover for the desperately unoriginal (“On purpose!” the filmmaker would surely claim) concept and cringe-worthy (“That’s the point!”) performances by Robert Patrick and Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack. Yes, there are wink-and-nudge jokes that mostly flop, but Goodwin’s insistence on playing it straight means that it only works on one tedious level. As the waitress/love interest, relative unknown Jenni Baird is the one bright spot, the only crew member in the picture who seems to understand what Goodwin is going for, including Goodwin himself, but she’s mostly left out to dry.

Justin Strout

The Answer Man (2 Stars) A glossy bit of populist tripe from debut writer-director John Hindman, The Answer Man stars Jeff Daniels as a reclusive author whose book about God created its own spirituality market decades ago; now the author is anti-social and lonely. Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham, playing a single mother who just opened a massage therapy storefront, is his savior, physically and otherwise. The rest of the story can be recited by anyone familiar with romantic comedies, but the limp performances don’t necessitate sticking around long enough to play that game.

Justin Strout

The Attic Door (3 Stars) UCF’s Danny Daneau makes his feature directorial debut in this haunting mood piece about a brother and sister who are left by their parents to tend to the family’s farm in the 19th-century West. Tethered to isolation by the vast mountain range before them, they discover the horrors a mind can play when left to its own devices, and the deeper disquiet of time’s passage. Daneau couldn’t have chosen a tougher platform for his first time out, asking very young actors to command the screen alone for the film’s entirety with sparse dialogue and action. As the children, Madison Davenport (Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl) and Jake Johnson are as stiff as Daneau’s technique, but nothing in the movie is devoid of promising qualities. There are moments of genuine intensity, born out of Attic’s bold silence, and Susie Bench’s mournful score is a standout. Now that he’s worked out some kinks, look for Daneau to progress even further on his next outing.

Justin Strout

The Burning Plain (2 Stars) There’s no doubt Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is one of the most interesting scribes working today, but lately it seems more and more that he’s not above the law of diminishing returns. The time-hopping character intermingling of his films that seemed so fresh in his Oscar-nominated debut, Amores Perros, has gradually grown stale over the course of 21 Grams and the divisive Babel. In his feature directing debut, The Burning Plain continues that course, following two-dimensional, small-town puppets of destiny, captive to the whims of circumstance. A mother’s affair (an unconvincing Kim Basinger) sets in motion tragic events that span generations, culminating with a mysterious, promiscuous restaurant manager (Charlize Theron) who’s suddenly faced with her own demons. Arriaga once again allows his assured grip on the storytelling of his plots to overshadow the quality of the story itself.

Justin Strout

Chronic Town (4 Stars) What do an alcoholic taxi driver, a damaged, over-the-hill stripper and a pot-dealing pervert have in common? Nothing, besides living in Alaska, which thanks to a certain Republican goof we now know is more a state of mind than an actual state. The film follows the troubled-but-charismatic chauffeur as he quits his job, loses his girlfriend and tries to kill himself – all of which happen without a hint of melodrama or false grandeur – then struggles to find his footing (or at least the slightest human connection) in a dead-end town. Director Tom Hines and outstanding rising star JR Bourne manage to hold your attention throughout languorous scenes of barroom therapy and the most casual conversation, revealing more through the gaps and pauses than through first-time writer Michael Kamsky’s natural, regional dialogue.

Justin Strout

Em (2 Stars) How is it that troubled women always seem to attract the perfect men to serve their needs? That’s the case with Amanda, an effervescent, highly literate beauty who meets eyes with Josh at an airport; then they fall into bed; then they end up living together. As a couple, the two are self-involved to the point of madness, and the film, with its rich, meditative shots of inanimate objects posing as poetry, matches their absurd emptiness. At least Amanda has a reason: She’s severely bipolar, a fact that lands her in the hospital after a harsh time cut. Josh’s blank personality becomes her tabula rasa; he’s supportive without asserting himself. So desperate is he for their brief moments of conversational non sequiturs that he makes the mistake of riding her waves of lucidity in the passenger seat. It’s a shame that the plot is so middling, because director Tony Barbieri’s cinematic sensibilities are almost always dead-on; hints of Bergman’s Persona permeate Em. As Amanda, newcomer Stef Willen is hypnotizing.

Justin Strout

Idiots and Angels (3 Stars) Poetic, grotesque and lyrical without the need for dialogue, Idiots and Angels is admirable more for its style than its substance. Animator Bill Plympton is an icon in his genre, largely thanks to his impeccable ability to infuse basic plots with a world of bursting emotion and allegorical messages. In this, the Oscar nominee’s fifth feature-length film, an angry jerk begins to sprout angel wings that make him perform good deeds, a concept that grows tiresome even at a brisk 73 minutes. Even so, Plympton’s overwhelming talents carry the film through to its violent ending.

Justin Strout

Leaving Barstow (2 Stars) Andrew is one of those kids who give their life-weary high-school teachers reason to hope for the future generation. He’s not a head-of-the-class nerd or a star quarterback, but he carries a charisma that opens doors in the real world and a conversational ability that allows college admissions people to overlook his small-town upbringing. Possibly afraid of his own success, Andrew’s ready to throw it all away to stay close to his flighty mother, who wants to be his best friend – oh yes, Oedipus is present and accounted for – and is growing more and more resigned to his station every day. As Andrew, 27-year-old Kevin Sheridan has created a character of natural likability and pensive moodiness who’s captivating to watch, but the film that surrounds him (Sheridan also produced and wrote the screenplay) is too smug and self-aware ever to take flight. Sheridan’s a fine new arrival as an actor, however.

Justin Strout

Lightbulb (3 Stars) Long before someone like Billy Mays gets his hands on whatever new product he’s pushing this week, there is the story of disappointment, torn relationships and the constant humiliation of bottom-rung invention. Matt and Sam are hanging on to that rung by their fingernails. They’re pushing an animated-dog watch that plenty of people would want if only they could afford to produce it in multiple breeds. Add a gambling problem to the mix and they’ve opened the door to a DIY marketing bloodsucker (Spin City’s Richard Kind). Matt and Sam’s emotional roller coaster is a mirror for director Jeff Balsmeyer’s erratic storytelling, a liability that was also on display with Balsmeyer’s last film, Danny Deckchair. At times a cordial buddy comedy, at other times melodramatic to nearly self-parodic levels, the film can’t land on a singular tone despite a solid premise and quirky performances from leads Dallas Roberts and Jeremy Renner.

Justin Strout

Lymelife (1 Star) Shrill and insincere, Lymelife is a tale of two households that come apart over the course of one boy’s crawl toward the end of adolescence. Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) is the younger son of real estate man Mickey (a sleepwalking Alec Baldwin) and has loved Adrianna Bragg (Nickelodeon’s Emma Roberts) since they were children. Adrianna’s father is suffering from Lyme disease, and her mother is having an affair with Mickey. The two families descend in a whirlpool of shame and regret and we’re meant to find it all touching and quirky, but the tone-deaf performances are made worse by paint-by-numbers oversight from writer-director Derick Martini, who prances along as if he’s just skimmed an instruction manual called How to Make a Dysfunctional Family Dramedy That’s Simple Enough for a Mass Audience but Offbeat Enough to Fool Festivalgoers.

Justin Strout

The Merry Gentleman Not screened per studio request.

Poundcake (2 Stars) How did Buffalo, N.Y., look and sound in 1987? Pretty much like everywhere else circa 1983, based on the soundtrack and costuming of this sloppily recalled period dramedy. The problems are more than skin-deep, though. As a family of five simultaneously splinters and comes together in all the wrong ways, the movie they’re in makes alternating lunges for rubbernecking mockery and maudlin sympathy. Coming closest to a satisfactory middle ground are Kathleen Quinlan (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), as the family’s long-suffering matriarch, and co-writer Troy Hall, whose tender portrayal of one of the sons transcends hair extensions that would look equally at home on Joe Dirt or in Battlefield Earth.

— Steve Schneider

Prince of Broadway (4 Stars) Dropping a baby into the life of a street hustler is an easy solution for a character arc, but writer-director Sean Baker (Greg the Bunny) doesn’t use it as an excuse to get lazy. Lucky is a knockoff-brand salesman in NYC who suddenly gets a baby shoved into his arms (literally) by a confused, irresponsible young mother whom he slept with a couple of years ago. Winner of Best Dramatic Feature at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, this vérité-style feature follows his struggles to cope with the gigantic change he must face and yes, it’s gritty, but more than that, Prince of Broadway never flinches from the reality of the situation: Taking care of a kid that might not be yours isn’t something people (especially young men in the country illegally) always accept happily. The ending is a cheat, but so powerful is the preceding hour and 20 minutes that the film is still fully satisfying.

Justin Strout

Sita Sings the Blues (4 Stars) Two women’s stories are intertwined in this charming animated film, and both of their men done them seriously wrong. Ignoring the he’s-just-not-that-into-you-anymore warning signs, a smitten cartoonist follows her husband to India, where he has relocated for a tech job. While there she reads the Hindu religious epic the Ramayana, becoming fascinated by the trials of the goddess Sita, whose husband Rama deserts her. In director-writer-animator Nina Paley’s half-autobiographical debut, the cartoonist conflates her own story with that of the goddess and the result is Sita Sings the Blues: careening jazzily through disparate animation styles (one moment Wigglevision, the next Max Fleischer), the film melds Tin Pan Alley songs, scholarly deconstruction of the Sita tale, Betty Boop vamping and kung-fu dialogue. It succeeds as a post-feminist retelling of the Ramayana, but clearly grew out of Paley’s own broken heart. Would that every breakup story could be processed into a bubbly, warmhearted confection like this.

Jessica Bryce Young

Trucker (3 Stars) The problem with this low-key indie drama about a truck-driving hottie forced to care for her son while his father dies in a hospital can be found in the credits: executive producer Michelle Monaghan. Trucker screams “vanity project” in every frame. The film’s star, the beautiful but still-under-the-radar Monaghan, emotes a tough, grimy exterior that’s gradually worn down by the no-nonsense kid. But she’s not believable as a damaged rig driver, and first-time writer-director James Mottern sets clunky, obvious hallmarks for his characters, apparently based on what’s won Oscars in the past for dirtied-up stars (see Charlize Theron in Monster). Co-star Nathan Fillion, however, gives another wonderful performance as the most supportive kind of supporting actor, ceding to Monaghan every great moment, just as he did for Keri Russell in Waitress. Monaghan, however, can’t quite seize them.

Justin Strout

True Adolescents (3 Stars) Appearing on Conan O’Brien to promote Role Models last year, Paul Rudd assured his host, “The funny thing is, in this movie, you’ll never guess who learns from whom,” before letting loose with a mimed retching gesture. The funny thing is, with this movie, that’s pretty much the case, as 30-something manchild Mark Duplass is forced to take his nephew camping in the woods of Washington state. True Adolescents may have fewer laughs and thicker sentiment than Rudd’s film, but Duplass sells us more on his slacker in a few moments with a mirror than several minutes of juvenile banter.

— William Goss

We Are the Mods (3 Stars) A tender, nonjudgmental look at a couple of high-school girls going through a British Mod/French New Wave/photography/bisexual phase, We Are the Mods avoids the temptation to showcase their story by matching their style. Instead, promising newcomer E.E. Cassidy directs without flair, rooted in the lo-tech celluloid of the late-’80s Go Fish Sundance era. Although stiff acting and a couple of whiffed scenes keep it from classic status, Mods is designed as the kind of quietly discovered movie that used to be passed between friends on worn VHS tapes.

Justin Strout

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