Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland

What a cast! Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson for starters. Bill Pullman - ever wonder where he went after Independence Day and Twister? And young Elle Fanning, about which we've heard so much. But the cast doesn't assure success, and Phoebe in Wonderland is a lot of angst in a balloon that can't hold it.

Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is a 9-year-old girl who can't seem to follow the rules. We're not sure if it's willful or not, simply because she's so smart and full of imagination. Suddenly, something lifts her out of her anxiety-ridden young life and the traps she finds herself in at home with her writing mother (Felicity Huffman) and at school with kids who pick on her: Drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) is looking for kids to fill the roles in her play, 'Alice in Wonderland.' And Phoebe has her heart set on getting Alice.

I'm sorry to say that I just got tired of watching Phoebe mired in her patterns, literally and figuratively, as well as Huffman carry on about her older daughter: It was almost as if Phoebe was the key to saving her. And father (Bill Pullman) was unable to help in the family situation or cure his wife's insecurities about being a professional writer and/or a suburban mother.

Clarkson, on the extreme other end, is a pleasure to watch, and brings something new to what would at first look like a one-dimensional character, the drama teacher. She's wildly exciting, you're not quite sure what she's thinking or what she requires of her students -- and all those students who are applying for the roles they covet don't know what to make of her. Neither does the principal of the school. But Phoebe sees everything she needs to connect and gain confidence. Still, Clarkson's tour-de-force isn't enough to save us from inanity and insanity in the family and school drama of Phoebe in Wonderland.

The drama doesn't lead us to the psychological reasons for this behavior the screenwriter/director wants us to conclude from the action. I found the screenplay, and the acting out of it, frustrating and inept.

Thumb's down.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Everything Is Illuminated

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Everything Is Illuminated came out exactly four years ago in 2005. Two things attracted me to it: Liev Screiber wrote the screenplay and directed it, and Frodo starred in it.

When I started watching this film a few nights ago, I suddenly realized I had seen it before. Well, sort of. I had seen the first one-fourth of the film or so, and had been so bored I stopped watching. That goes to show you that sometimes the best films have slow beginnings.

Upon first glance, Elijah Wood is the star of the movie, but he just gets things going. He's obviously an American in a foreign land, a stuffed shirt (literally) among easy-going Ukrainians, journeying to a faraway place to try to find out who rescued his grandfather from the Nazis. His search leads him to a fly-by-night travel outfit, a young Ukrainian man (actor Eugene Hutz) who dreams of being a cool dude in a country and family that doesn't appreciate cool, and a driver who is the young man's grandfather. They go on a journey that has surprising but connected endings for all three.

I say with no hesitation that this is the best film I've seen all year. Its impact is so compelling that I've thought about this film on-and-off for a week now, and I am still amazed at its thrilling denouement. Hopefully I've learned my lesson about not judging a movie by its first few minutes.

Thumb's up. If you want to read a much better review of what the film accomplishes, read Ruth's take at her Jewish film website.

(500) Days of Summer

Summer, the one mentioned in the title of (500) Days of Summer, is a woman who enters into a relationship with Tom. Tom believes in true love, maybe even love-at-first-sight. Summer doesn't. We know from the very beginning of this film that the affair will end badly, and end after 500 days.

Actually, we see this film through Tom's lovelorn eyes. We watch their passion blossom, we watch it bloom further, and then we see it slowly disintegrate as their communication wanes and she floats away. We see this, however, not in a lucid, chronological way but in Memorex kind of way, his memories, not terribly in order. It's not confusing, because each day is labeled Day 150, or somesuch, and we know exactly where we are by the look on Tom's face.

I found this movie terribly compelling even though it's got to end terribly. I mean, don't you want to know how a loving relationship falls apart? How such different people find each other, and the differences force them apart after time. And it's funny. One humorous moment is when Tom recalls how beautiful Summer was the first time he saw her: her hair, her perfect skin, etc. And then, a few minutes later, obviously later in the relationship, he tells us how ugly she is, her hair in an old hippie haircut, and on and on, almost as if he's trying to talk himself out of the relationship. She's already gone on, moved on, so he'd better.

By the way, for those of you who hate depressing movies, I found the ending quite inspiring and very pleasing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It's hard to tell you anything you don't know about them, just that they're two of the most talented actors in present day. In (500) Days of Summer, they each effectively showed, as the film jumped around from day to day, where each character was in the relationship, the awkwardness of first getting together, and then the awkwardness of being at different places in the relationship as it's ending. I'm finding that I can't miss anything Gordon-Levitt has or will do, he's that good. And Deschanel has been in some terrible products (think the TV version of The Wizard of Oz), but she has always risen above. Here's hoping both of them will appear together in future projects.

Thumb's up.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


No one plays the modern nerd as well as Michael Cera. Until now. We have a new champion: Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland.

While this is a good thing, and Eisenberg is very good as the guy who quotes Shakespeare but doesn't know his way around a group of normal guys, Adventureland is a mixed bag. It's an interesting movie, especially concerning that age group where nothing is guaranteed, most hope is lost, and while they're just beginning their adult lives, they don't know what the future holds. You know, that age. And the acting is very good by Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart (lately of the Twilight series), and a large cast.

There's some humor here, certainly, especially when Eisenberg delivers a line. But in a movie where most of the characters are bored, we're bored. Shitless. Unfortunately, that's the way it is.

Adventureland is the name of a local Pittsburgh amusement park where those kids who have nowhere else to go work for the summer. They might be going to college in the fall. They might be working because their fathers lost their jobs. Or they might be working there just to get away from their disconnected parents.

Kristen Stewart continues to amaze, portraying a young woman whose family didn't understand her, couldn't connect in any way, but whose problems weren't visible to anyone else. She starts dating Eisenberg's character just because he listens and is a nice guy. In the meantime, though, she's carrying on with the town lothario, the mechanic at the amusement park, portrayed by rising star Ryan Reynolds in a rather smallish but important role.

This one's a little tough to call, thumbsup or down. I would say Thumb's Up, but you have to get through the malaise to uncover the pain of that time in their lives. And it will be worth it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Kissing Jessica Stein

Jessica Stein is an intense journalist who seems never happy with others' work, let alone her own. To complicate matters, her boss is her old boyfriend from college. She's from a Jewish family, with whom she's close, but who are constantly asking her about her love life and trying to match her up. She suddenly sees a personal ad and answers it only because it's worded just right and includes a literary quote. The problem is: the personal ad is from another woman, Helen. Most of the rest of the movie is about Jessica and Helen trying to make a relationship out of this meeting.

It's a comedy, it's a romance, it's a different romance, and this is just a different movie. I was completely surprised by how things played out in this movie; I've never seen anything like it.

I really liked the way the script (written by the two female leads, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen) dealt with an interfaith relationship, a lesbian relationship, and particularly the fact that one of them is from a Jewish family. These are all background for a very witty script that doesn't hide from issues each of these present. And it's always wonderful to see Tovah Feldshuh, as Jessica's very Jewish mother. If I had a problem at all with the movie, it's dissatisfying to see women who are obviously not lesbian "play" at a relationship. But, you know, the movie even deals with this question, and not in a heavy-handed way at all. I just found the whole movie delightful.

This is definitely a thumb's up. For Ruth's take on Kissing Jessica Stein, look at her Jewish Film website.

Sunshine Cleaning

The family's a bit of a mess. Rose, the older responsible sister, starts a biohazard cleaning service on the advice of her boyfriend, a married cop, her high school sweetheart. But she doesn't know anything about the business, which doesn't stop her. She enlists her ne'er-do-well sister, Norah, to help her clean up some of the most godawful messes you've ever seen, often in the middle of a crime scene. Rose's son, Oscar, was thrown out of grammar school for odd behavior, and she needs money for private school. Her father is involved in daily buy-low, sell-high to local markets commercial ventures, often without thinking the idea through. And in the meantime, she's got a high school reunion-type wedding shower looming, women who have done so much better materially than she has.

This movie has all the look of a small, independent film -- filmed in New Mexico, not a lot of money put on the screen. Except for the cast, which is wonderful. Amy Adams fits this one in between Doubt and Julie and Julia, and made an interesting choice as Rose, the woman who doesn't seem to be able to control anything in her life. Emily Blunt, the British secretary in The Devil Wears Prada, plays her sister, a sister whose growth seems stunted by the suicide of their mother. And Alan Arkin plays the father with both comic and dramatic sensibility as only he can.

It's a nice little movie, no car crashes mind you, but enough going on with these characters that makes you wonder how things are going to work out. And they do, somehow. Amidst Rorschach-like blood splatters, the sisters find out a lot about each other, and their own lives.

Thumb's up.