POWr Hit Counter

"Sweeny Todd (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)" ** 1/2

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp: together again for film #6 as they team for the perfect Christmas movie. This one is getting great advance reviews. Unfortunately, I kept looking at my watch for it’s nearly 2 hour running time. The production values are typical Burtonesque and, in that vein, top notch. It kind of reminded me of his "Nightmare Before Christmas" with humans: perpetually dark (the only vivid color is blood red, of course) and the 19th century English sets are wonderful-existing somewhere between a stage and real life. The music, is, well, plentiful (it seems that only about 10% is spoken word). And while the gore is just as plentiful (I keep squeezing my neck trying to stop the flow of blood from squirting out) as Sweeney gleefully cuts the throat of patron after patron sitting in his barber chair, the corresponding action throughout is surprisingly listless. Depp is in his usual element, playing the intense demon barber to the nth degree as he goes about trying to avenge the wrong done by the corrupt judge, the smarmy Alan Rickman, who sent him into exile while simultaneously stealing his beautiful wife and child. And Helena Bonham-Carter (Burton's love in real life) does a nice turn in the Angela Lansbury role as Depp's longing lover who turns the barber's victims into meat pies. Although both actors do not have the operatic voices one usually associates with the roles, both are more than capable in this adaptation. And, newcomer child actor Edward Sanders will probably get a best supporting actor nod as he is wonderful as a helper in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie establishment. Alas, something about it left me, pardon the pun, cold-and bored.

"The Savages" ****

After a 9 year hiatus, writer/director Tamara Jenkins ("Slums Of Beverly Hills") tackles the heady topics of dysfunctional family and dementia and delivers one of the best, if not THE best, film I've seen in 2007! Proving once again that Oscar is clearly on his horizon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, so pitch perfect in the current "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead", shows once again why he is one of the best thespians around. Along with the always wonderful Laura Linney, they portray distant siblings who suddenly, together, must deal with the placement of their abusive mentally disintegrating father (wonderfully played by Philip Bosco) in a nursing home. The film succeeds in the reality of its script and acting where so many such films fail ("Away From Her" comes immediately to mind). Although many people might avoid it thinking that it hits too close to home and would be too painful to watch, the script is surprisingly humorous and human in its dealing with family dynamics and circumstances that are all too real in today's society. Tremendous!!!

"Juno" * 1/2

I sincerely wanted to love this movie-I mean, as of this writing, it had gotten 19 out of 20 positive Rotten Tomatoes (RT) reviews. A writer to Roger Ebert's answer man column even mentioned that it received a long standing ovation at the end at the Toronto Film Festival screening. So, the only negative review so far on RT is by a "cream-of-the-crop" reviewer Kyle Smith (film critic for The New York Post). After screening it last night, I was extremely curious as to what he had to say, because, I absolutely HATED THIS MOVIE-and for all the reasons he, Christian, and EB (who posted comments to Kyle's review-as did I) have expounded. Their points are totally, excuse the archaic expression, right-on. And, to mention this film in the same breath as "Knocked-up" is ludicrous beyond words. Wow, I didn't know that the subject of a 16 year old pregnant girl could be so light and frivolous! Besides that, nothing in this film is real or funny. I've never seen so many annoying characters in one film. I was literally cringing when it appeared that the 30ish Jason Bateman character was possibly making a play for the very pregnant and very young Juno. Oh, and how about ditching Jennifer Garner to live out his dream of being a comic loving rock star? PULLEEESE!!! A very disappointing 2nd film by Jason Reitman, after his brilliant debut with "Thank You For Smoking". Also, another annoying aspect of this mess is the promotional tactic dreamed up by Fox Searchlight. In order to drum up support they are offering a contest to all who attended the screening by offering additional free screenings and the person who obtains the most "points" receives their own private screening with cast members and a free guitar. They even gave away free t-shirts to everyone (different collector t-shirts given away at each screening). I asked one of the helpers there why the promotion was so ambitious and I was told the studio wanted to create another "Napoleon Dynamite". Good luck! That film at least made it on its own without the in-your-face promotion this one is attempting. I can't imagine sitting through this one again. I want those 96 minutes back!!!

"The Walker" **

Writer/director Paul Schrader's tackles Washington DC intrigue with this mess of a story involving a gay Southern gentleman (Woody Harrelson?!) whose main task in life is to occupy the time of wives of well-to-to political bigwigs while they themselves are doing the business of whatever they do in that perpetual lurid town. Add to this strange mix a murder, and Woody's desire to help cover up for one of his ladies (Kristin Scott Thomas)-a desire which ends up implicating him as the prime suspect. What could have been a success in the hands of a Hitchcock, turns into a lame attempt at mystery by the usually interesting Schrader. Nice turns by the distinguished case including Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, and William Defoe, however, fail to save the lame script and premise.

"P.S. I Love You" ***

I screened the latest entry by writer/director Richard LaGravenese (screenwriter for the awful "Monster-In-Law" and the uncredited screenwriter for "Erin Brockovich") and it appears he is back on track with this better than average 100% bona fide chick flick (yes-even I can appreciate this genre as long as the script, acting, and direction are worthy). Based on the best-selling Cecelia Ahern novel, the movie opens with Hillary Swank and her Irish husband, played by Gerard Butler, in the midst of a typical spousal spat. And, before you can even settle into your chair, you are present at his wake. (I think the movie holds the record for the longest time it takes for the opening credits to roll after the start of the movie-probably about 15 minutes). Then, you are presented with the premise: Gerard had time to prepare for his demise and, from the grave, he helps direct his wife to better prepare for the rest of her life. How? Well, if you aren't aware of the plot, it's better to go into this one cold to see how he leads Hillary out of her depression and transform her from being a depressed widow to a hopeful person. Although it is bit predictable, and a tad too long in some scenes, the film delivers with an outstanding script and acting by the terrific ensemble cast comprising of Lisa Kudrow (who gets to deliver the majority of the one-liners-of which there are many), Gina Gershon, Harry Connick, Jr., and, the always wonderful, Kathy Bates. You might end up booking your next trip to Ireland after witnessing the gorgeous cinematography. Bring multiple hankies!

"Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" *** 1/2

Got a chance to see another masterpiece Sunday by The Master, Sidney Lumet ("The Pawnbroker", "Network", "Serpico", "Dog Day Afternoon, etc. etc. etc.!). The story of one very dysfunctional family and how the perfect crime turns horribly wrong is an amazing achievement for the elder director and first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson. The story and its technique (think "Pulp Fiction" without the timeframe confusions) will hold you spellbound and the acting by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei are top notch. Not surprisingly, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" is receiving GREAT reviews (88% and 92% on RT). Seeing this, "Lars & The Real Girl, "American Gangster", and "Michael Clayton" within the last couple of weeks is almost too much to ask! I'm in true cinema heaven. Only the 25th anniversary of "Blade Runner" awaits!!

"No Country For Old Men" ***

I screened the latest from the Coen Brothers Wednesday night (currently getting a whooping 95/85% on Rotten Tomatoes). Let's call this one "Blood Simple" on steroids! Javier Bardem enters cinema legend as one of the biggest badasses ever portrayed on the silver screen. However, I'm not prepared to give it the "best movie of the year" tag a lot of critics are handing out. Suspenseful, humorous (in the classic Coen Brothers tradition), and utterly gory, the film will have you gripping the handles of your seat (or the hand of the person next to you)-especially when Bardem is around. However, ultimately, the ending left me baffled. Definitely worth seeing-but not if violence is not your cup of tea. Powerful!!

"Lars & The Real Girl *** 1/2

Outstanding quirky movie that pulls off the premise. Written by Nancy Oliver (who wrote five "6 Feet Under" episodes) is clearly one to watch. And what can you say about Ryan Gosling? He can act with a plastic doll better than most actors with real people. He and Crowe are becoming the premier actors of their generation!

"American Gangster" ****

And speaking of Crowe, "American Gangster" may garner over 6 AA's before all is said and done. I predict best acting noms for Crowe and Washington as well as best picture and direction. Tour de force by Ridley!

"Dan In Real Life" **

Finally, a verrrry disappointing "Dan In Real Life" (2 stars) by Peter Hedges who scored a home run with his indie gem "Pieces of April". Lame script and totally predictable premise drowns this stinker. What a waste of talent!

King Kong (2005) ****

This isn't your great grand daddy's Kong! Jackson has swung at his lifelong dream project, and he has clearly hit the game winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 7th game of the World Series. Jackson keeps reinventing the cinema. That ape had more personality and emotion than half the fluffy Hollywood actors working today! A couple of things concerned me going in: (A) The 3 hour length, (B) Jack Black as the lead character, and (C) Did this classic REALLY need to be remade once again? Well, all I can say is (A) never has 3 hours moved so swiftly, (B) Jack Black can be successfully directed in a non-comedic role, and (C) not only did it need to be remade, but this is the movie that had everything that was missing in the original: namely, an ape with enough heart, emotion, and character to make grown people cry at his demise, and special effects so dazzling that you'd swear that reality was happening before your very eyes! Enough will be written in the weeks to come about its various shortcomings (and ALL film can be critiqued to death if you stop and think about it!) but what can't be ignored is that this is one helluva masterpiece in design, flow, and character study that will go down as one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. Run, do not walk, to see and revel in this magical fantasy by this genius filmmaker!!!

"The World's Fastest Indian" (2005) ****

The feel good movie of 2005!!! Not since that wonderful Canadian indie gem "Seducing Dr. Lewis" have I ever been so mesmerized and excited by a film. Just the day before, I had viewed one of the greatest acting performances I have ever seen by Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote" (in my mind nearly equaling Nick Cages' AA performance in "Leaving Las Vegas"). Give him the Oscar folks. No one can touch his channeled performance. But - - - there it was last night. Anthony Hopkins giving an acting clinic during the entire 127 minutes he is on screen (I believe he was in every scene) that needs to be screened in every acting class on the planet. It was that great! The more in the dark you are about the story and it's absolutely quirky loveable characters the better. (I thought I was going to see a Western when I got the invite. Then when I found out it was about the guy who tries to establish the motorcycle land speed record starring Sir Anthony, I wondered who was going to play the young version of the dude who goes for the record. Wrong Wrong Wrong.) I was also skeptical of director Roger Donaldson, considering the pedigree of his work. I mean, how good can this by the guy who gave us "Cocktail"? OY! Wrong again Kemosbe! Director Donaldson obviously has been drinking from the same well as Kiwi Peter Jackson on this one. No one sounds a false note. The ultimate road movie, this one will garnish high praise in the months to come and deservedly so. Never in the history of the cinema have the acts of peeing (you'll understand after you see it) or fornicating by way-past middle age lovers been so tastefully done. However, Sir Anthony pulls those acts off in spades!!! Enjoy.

Jay Berg’s 2006 SUNDANCE DIARY

14 REVIEWS!!!

Jay Berg here for my yearly wrap up of my 7th Sundance with capsule reviews of only (!) 14 flicks. The numbers were down this year for the first time because, against my better judgment, I decided to take in the first 5 days of the fest instead of my usual back end. Going on the front end meant longer wait list lines (up to 3 hour waits for the most in demand movies-and there were instances when that didn’t get you in!) when tickets weren’t in hand (I went in with only 3). The crowds were enormous, despite the fact that the organizers made an attempt to spread them out using a closing night film for the first time, and attractive musical appearances as bait. The crowds didn’t bite. A friend who was there for all 10 days said the back half of the fest was extremely more manageable than the front end-and you could get into most wait listed movies without a problem. I also missed not seeing the award winners on the last day. So, as it turned out, for the first time I didn’t see any of the award winning films. Here are capsule reviews (using a 4 star rating system) of the programs I screened.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 19

“FRIENDS WITH MONEY” (**)

My group rolled into Park City late in the afternoon and headed straight to The Eccles to try and catch the 9:45 second screening. We ended up wait listing over 2 hours. We lucked out when the volunteers made the announcement just after the start of the Premier that it was unlikely that anyone would get in for the 2nd screening which resulted in about 100 people leaving the line. We decided to stick it out and were rewarded (?) when we were among the last group to get it. The star studded cast (including Jennifer Anniston, Joan Cusak, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand) made a token appearance on stage before heading for the party. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the highlight of the night. The movie? Disappointing. The 88 minutes seemed longer as it chronicled 4 lifelong L.A. friends and their relationships with each other and their significant others. Anniston as a kleptomaniac cleaning lady? PULLEESSSE! The dialogue and the relationships were a stretch to say the least. I had more fun in the wait list line.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 20

“WIDE AWAKE” (**1/2)

Director and screenwriter Alan Berliner’s documentary on his inability to sleep seemed like a novel concept in theory, but became bogged down in repetition and self-indulgence. A master editor, he trains his camera 24/7 on himself and, once again, 90 minutes seems like an eternity as we watch him struggle to gain some much needed shut-eye. If he had included some psychological and scientific studies on sleep deprivation, it would have been a tad more interesting. However, he seemed more intent on including the vast (and I do mean vast) collection of material in his workshop which he interjects constantly throughout his film to relate his struggle to stay asleep. I actually came away more concerned about his obsessive compulsive tendencies than his inability to get a good night sleep.

“COME EARLY MORNING” (**1/2)

Included in the dramatic competition, this was written and directed by Joel Lauren Adams and stars the talented Ashley Judd as a southern belle who always has a knack of choosing the wrong men as she tries to deal with her past. I never bought into the script or its characters. Judd’s acting, although superb, couldn’t raise this tired story to a higher level.

“DESTRICTED” (**1/2)

6 visual directors were asked to create an erotic/porno short with the caveat that it be no longer than 20 minutes in length. I was particularly drawn to this because it included one of my favorite directors Gasper Noe (creator of the brilliant “Irreversible” from 2004). As it turns out, his piece, “Babysitter”, was one of the least interesting of the lot. Watching sex with a blow up doll under a constant strobe effect was more annoying than erotic. Most of the pieces were tedious but the best one was by Larry Clark. “Impaled” details the director’s search for a willing virgin boy and then fulfills the boy’s ultimate fantasy to be broken by a porn-star of his choosing. HBO was mentioned twice in the credits so look for that to appear, if not in the theaters, somewhere in their future late night programming (maybe after their “Real Sex” series).

SATURDAY, JANUARY 20

“SHERRYBABY” (****)

After a VERY disappointing first full day, the mediocre steak finally ended with, what turned out to be, the best movie I screened at the festival. Director/screenwriter Laurie Collyer created a beautiful tough tale about ex-addict Sherry Swanson who, just released from a 3 year prison stay, tries to win the love and affection of her 5 year old daughter (being care for by her brother and his wife) while at the same time trying to adjust to an increasingly hostile world. Starring the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, this film brings to realistic light characters that seem to jump off the screen. The script and acting are so wonderful by all the actors that, at times, I felt like I was watching a documentary. And watch out for 5 year old Ryan Simpkins! As for Maggie, her performance is a tour de force and is totally Oscar worthy. And, the Q & A was also amazing. The first question was by a woman who identified so much with the realism and subject matter that she literally broke down as she spoke. This prompted 2 of the actors to respond in same as each talked about how the movie affected them. Brad Henke (who plays Sherry’s brother) sobbed as he spoke about a sister he no longer was in contact with, while Giancarlo Esposito, who played Sherry’s parole officer, welled up while talking about how much he identified with the themes presented in the film. Not an easy flick to watch, the movie kept me spellbound to the very end.

“STAY” (*** ½)

I followed my best screened movie with, what turned out to be, my 2nd best. You may have read about the actual shocking premise, but I won’t spoil it here, even though it reveals itself in the first frames. Best to be surprised but, even if you aren’t, don’t let this deter you. A sweet innocent young lady does a one-time indiscretion that could possibly haunt her for the rest of her life. That is, unless she just keeps it a secret. And that is really the intent of the movie: when is it best to keep an indiscretion to yourself and to keep the truth from those you love? Brilliantly written and directed by Bob (Bobcat/”Shakes The Clown”) Goldthwait and starring Melinda Page Hamilton (who plays a nun on TV’s “Desperate Housewives”), this is actually a romantic comedy that must be seen to be believed. Hilarious and ultimately heartwarming, this film says a lot about relationships and truth. The film was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, so look for it in the theaters-hopefully soon.

“THANK YOU FOR SMOKING” (***)

I ended the day with the Premier screening of director Jason Reitman’s story based on the Christopher Buckley’s novel. A biting satire on the tobacco industry, politics, and Hollywood, this one has an all-star cast including Aaron Eckhart, Mario Bello, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, and Rob Lowe. Eckhart plays (what else) the sleaziest lobbyist this side of Washington who is trying to defend the rights of smokers and cigarette makers in a society trying to rid it of both. At the same time, he tries to convince his son that what he is doing is right for the world. Unflinching in how it looks at both sides of the question, no one escapes unscathed. My only fault is that it went on a little too long and ultimately the film runs out of steam by the final reel. However, it is a load of fun for most of its ride.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 22

“THE NIGHT LISTENER” (** ½)

After a spectacular second day, I was brought back to earth with a disappointing premier of Robin Williams’ latest. Director Patrick Stettner, using a screenplay written by himself, Armistead Maupin (“Tales Of The City”) & Terry Anderson, weaves a psychological thriller about a dee-jay who investigates an alleged screenplay sent to him by a mysterious young listener. The cast includes the wonderful Toni Collette, who gives an eerie turn as the alleged young playwright’s guardian. The story was stodgy and never grabbed me and the ending never delivered on its premise. During the Q & A, the screenwriters revealed that the story was based on Maupin’s & Anderson’s actual experience and that there is an actual medical condition represented by the piece. Knowing this made the film ultimately more interesting, but not enough to recommend it.

“EVERYONE STARES (THE POLICE)” (***)

The 3 stars here are more for nostalgia than anything else. Sure to please any fans of The Police, this curious piece is all about drummer Stewart Copeland’s use of his super-8 as he documented the short but glorious history of the famous pop group. The quality of the film is limited by the original equipment and the choppy editing. Yet, there is something special about capturing what no one has done before: depicting the rise and fall of one of rock’s greatest bands from the inside while giving rare creative and personal glimpses of each member that one usually doesn’t get from slick documentary bios. Cuts of the musical pieces that are interspersed throughout in order to back up the visuals only wetted my appetite for hearing the complete songs by the super group.

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (***)

The premier of director/screenwriter Neil Burger’s period piece stars Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and the great Paul Giamatti (who was quite busy at the fest with his starring turn in “The Hawk Is Dying”) in a juicy supporting role. The film, set in 1900 Vienna, relates an unusual love story between a poor magician (Norton), and his out-of-his-class love interest, the Duchess von Teschen, currently engaged to the smarmy crown prince (Rufus Sewell). Full of wonderful magic and illusion (at the Q & A it was revealed that no CGI was used in the film-and Norton performed all the tricks himself) the story will have you mesmerized and guessing till the end. Beautifully filmed and shot on location, this independent film has the feel and the look of many a mainstream movie. And Giamatti shows once again why he is one of the greatest actors on the planet. Great fun!

MONDAY, JANUARY 23

“FLANNEL PAJAMAS (*1/2)

I hated this trifle by directory & screenwriter Jeff Lipsky. The film chronicled the evolution of a relationship as it follows the couple from first meeting to final breakup. Both characters were sophomoric and I never believed or identified with either lead (Julianne Nicholson and Justin Kirk). Whether this was due to the pedestrian script or the acting, I found its over 2 hours almost unbearable.

“FACTOTUM (***1/2)

Another movie based on Charles (“Barfly”) Bukowski’s second novel, as it focuses on Bukowski’s alto ego, Henry Chinaski, played sleazily and brilliantly by Matt Dillon. “Factotum” (“man of many jobs”) chronicles Chinaski as he goes from job to job, bottle to bottle, woman to woman, and bet to bet, while at the same time trying to become a writer. At times amusing, and other times disturbing, the movie is compelling and will literally drag you along for the voyeuristic ride. Nice turn by the talented Lili Taylor in a non typical role (for her) that will surprise you as Chinaski’s partner in crime.

“ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL” (**1/2)

I was somewhat disappointed in this premier of talented director Terry (“Ghost World”) Zwigoff’s latest based on Daniel Clowes’ screenplay. An over-the-top satire, it follows a good guy art student played by Max Minghella (director Anthony’s real life son) and his adventures in art school. The movie started brilliantly but fizzled out completely during the last two reels. And the abrupt ending had the audience collectively scratching their heads. Executive producer John Malkovitch gives a nice, but, for him, forgettable supporting role as an art teacher, but, overall this one needs some tighter editing and a much more satisfying conclusion.

“NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD” (****)

Jonathan Demme’s latest masterpiece is a compilation of Young’s 2 Nashville “Prairie Wind” concerts from last August-a mere 4 months after a brain aneurysm threatened to end his life. No one makes music/concert documentaries better than Demme (his Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” still remains the standard in this category), and here he doesn’t disappoint. Thrillingly filmed (Demme used 9 cameras and a steady cam) and edited, you will be clapping along with the Nashville audience after each of the nearly 20 songs performed by one of the music world’s greatest living legends. Accompanied at times by Emmylou Harris and steel guitarist Ben Keith, as well as a host of other talented musicians, this documentary of music should be seen by anyone who loves and appreciates musical talent par excellence. The star studded audience included Matt Dillon, Clarence Howard, and a rare appearance by Sundance God Redford himself, who came down from his Sundance Ranch throne to honor Neil-who also had his wife Pegi and son in attendance. This is mainly the “acoustic” Neil Young, but the music rocks as much as a plugged- in concert. A true gem!


OUT!