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"The Invention of Lying" *** (99 Minutes)

Tuesday September 29, 2009

Comedian Ricky Gervais (creator of BBC's "The Office") co-wrote and directed (along with Matthew Robinson) this parable of a world where everyone tells the truth and literally speaks their mind as if there was a microphone attached. Gervais asks the question: What if some average bloke of a loser decides to change his fate by not telling the truth in this alternate universe? And that is the premise for this inventive tale that goes far beyond the telling of a little white lie.

Mark, a fat dude with a pug nose, is about to lose his job and his home. When he tries to withdraw money from his bank to cover his rent, something goes haywire in his brain (this is not fully explored but, like other aspects of the plot, you are asked to ignore a lot and just run with the concept) and, instead, tries to withdraw more than he has. Of course, the teller, whose computer is down, hands it over with no questions asked since no one tells a lie in this world. This sets in motion all kinds of possibilities for our protagonist, who proceeds, knowingly and unknowingly, to change his world and everyone else's around him.

The plot is helped along with some fabulous supporting roles from Jennifer Garner (as Mark's love interest who is clearly "above his league"), stand-up comic Louis C.K. (as Mark's main drinking bud), and Rob Lowe (as his ex co-worker who tries to win over Garner); and includes wonderful cameos by Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, Jonah Hill, & Jason Bateman. The cinematography is somewhat lacking but, hey, you're not going in to this one for the scenery.

As with any one-joke premise, there are some bits and ideas that don't work as much as others, but, for the most part, the marks are hit right on that bulls-eye and should have you reflecting on religion, relationships, sex, & truths that this satire incessantly ribs with great success.

The Warner Brothers film opens nationwide on October 2nd.

Ricky Gervais, Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner, & Louis C.K.
Jennifer Garmer & Ricky Gervais

"Bright Star" ***1/2 (119 minutes)

Thursday September 17, 2009

E-X-Q-U-I-S-I-T-E! The first word that comes to mind to describe this stunning biopic of the Romantic English poet, John Keats. New Zealand born writer/director Jane Campion, whose 1993's "The Piano" won 3 major Academy Awards, has done the near impossible: she's seamlessly combined the beautiful language of poetry with the visuals of the 19th century and the results is one of the most mesmerizing competent films of the year.

The film begins in 1818 when Keats is a young man of 21-full of promise and unrecognized talent. Three years later, he would be dead-stricken by tuberculosis-the disease which also claimed his brother. John is immediately smitten when his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, a beautiful seamstress who lives next door, creates an embroidered pillowcase for Keats’ brother.

Clearly Franny became the crux of Keats’ inspiration that follows and, sadly, their romance is never consummated because, John Keats was poor and his conscience would not allow him to marry the first love of his life. Enter into this equation is Keats’ friend and mentor, Charles Armitage Brown, who views Franny’s presence in his life as a major distraction. Although the rest of the world didn’t, he recognized Keats’ enormous ability & genius and didn’t want anything to sabotage it.

The players are magnificent. Ben Whisaw (“Brideshead Revisited”) gives a perfectly muted angst to his role. You believe he is fully capable of creating the literary beauty of the words that sing throughout the script. Paul Schneider (“Lars and the Real Girl” and more recently in Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go”) as Brown, displays a wonderful range in his performance as Keats’ confidant. But it is Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Stop-Loss”) as Fanny that delivers the presence and spunk that captivates the audience as well her suitor. And her reaction on hearing of the poet's demise is so chilling that it will surely help to garner her an Academy nomination early next year.

The cinematography never seems artificial while the overall effect is one of entrancement. And by all means stay through the credits to hear Whishaw’s recitation of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” which seem a fitting tribute to what has been superbly portrayed on the screen for the previous 2 hours.

Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown
Writer/Director Jane Campion

"The Burning Plain" **1/2 (106 minutes)

Wednesday September 16, 2009

I really wanted to love this movie which was Mexican writer/director Guillermo Arriaga's initial foray into directing. As a screenwriter, he's a talented veteran, penning several of my favorite films of the last 8 years. He burst onto the scene in 2001 writing the critically acclaimed "Amores Perros". He followed that success as the scribe for 2003's "21 Grams", Tommy Lee Jones' "The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2005), and one of my favorite films of 2006, "Babel". Other than "The 3 Burials", his director for these films was the famed Alejandro González Iñárritu.

However, it's been reported that he was upset that he wasn't given his proper due for "Babel" so he decided to split with Iñárritu and direct his own film. And the results are mixed at best. Using a structure similar to the more successful "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", & "Babel", the story is non-linear in time and space as it conveys a story of tortured souls who must sort out their demons and try to rise up from the despair they helped to create.

The film begins with a brief shot of a lone trailer in the middle of a New Mexican wilderness totally engulfed in flames. The next shot is in a bedroom in an urban city with a pensive Charlize Theron starring out a window while her male companion (John Corbett) is lying in bed. Another scene shifts to Kim Basinger, who plays a mother of 4, including the fetching Mariana (nicely played by first-timer Jennifer Lawrence) who is having a love interest with Santiago (JD Prado) whose father (Joaquim de Almeida) happens to be having an affair with Mariana's mother. Then the scene shifts to a young girl whose father is injured when his crop dusting plane crashes in a field. We are introduced to these & other characters at both these varied locations as the film continuously jumps back and forth in time. How they may be related and how their lives intersect is a hallmark of most of Guillermo's previous tales.

However, the construction of the script is either getting old, &/or lacking the solid execution of his previous scripts and I found myself not as emotionally involved as I would have liked considering the weight of the subject matter. Totally devoid of any humor (even black would have been welcomed), "The Burning Plain" will maintain your interest, if only to see how all the pieces fit-but, like me, you might not even care by the time the end credits roll. And that is another flaw of the film: that ending is just too neatly wrapped up considering the heaviness of all that went before it.

There are some things to recommend; namely the superb acting by the 2 Academy Award winning actress, and the production values are top notch including some splendid cinematography. However, the film left me as cold and barren as these characters' lives.

The film opens in limited release (including the Washington area) on September 18.
The mysterious Jose Maria Yazpik followingCharlize Theron
Kim Basinger with her lover Joaquim de Almeida


Here was my review from 6/19 below after I screened it at this year's AFI SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival:

We go from inside Oklahoma prison walls to the inside walls of the fashion industry with award winning producer/director R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue" (***-90 minutes). This is mainly a portrait of Anna Wintour, the editor of "Vogue", who is one of the most powerful, influential, and elusive figures in the fashion world, as she prepares for the year's most important edition that is literally 9 months in the making. Cutler was given unprecedented access to Wintour and her staff for the doc that allows one to witness what it really takes to produce an issue of high fashion that is hundreds of pages in length and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Wintour is credited for pumping new life in her mag when she opted for putting celebrities on the cover-something unheard of previously. Most people got a glimpse of her earlier this year via a CBS "60 Minutes" feature, but it is this film that allows us to see her in action-a rare event afforded to a film crew. Included are scenes of Wintour at home with her daughter (who wants nothing to do with pursuing a career in the fashion industry). However, the real joy for me was the presence and influence of 14 year "Vogue" creative director and visionary Grace Coddington, who is constantly at odds with Wintour. Each respects the other, yet, there is an underlying tension as to what should ultimately appear in the issue-of which Wintour always has the final say. Grace, a former 60's model and the junior fashion editor of London "Vogue", who survived a horrible automobile crash in her 20's, has as much influence and artistic vision (if not more) as her editor. In the end I was craving to know more and more of the personable and talented Grace instead of the dour Wintour. However, Cutler chose to concentrate mainly on what it took to create the issue that featured Sienna Miller on its cover. A kind of fluff piece that skims the surface of its subject, "The September Issue" does deliver entertainment-I just wanted to know more about the personalities involved-especially Grace. A fabulous discussion and Q & A with Cutler was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-wining fashion writer Robin Givhan. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film in theaters on August 28th.

"Humpday" *** (94 minutes)

Tuesday July 28, 2009

One of the more interesting aspects of this indie gem is that it was made with the sensibilities of a woman. Writer/director Lynn Shelton came up with the idea when she heard of a peculiar "film festival" held each year in Seattle called Humpfest. Entries consist of amateur films that depict sexual activity but any scenes showing penetration will result in disqualification.

Lynn has used this event to put an interesting new take on a male buddy/bonding theme explored to no end in countless films. Shelton has changed the rules in her film and made Humpfest a, er, penetrating-allowed film festival. The premise: What if two, 100% heterosexual males decide to compete and take it to the nth degree? What if they film themselves having sex? As one of them put it: "That's beyond gay!"

The 2 guys are Mark Duplass & Joshua Leonard. Mark is becoming one of my favorite indie personalities. He wrote and starred in "The Puffy Chair" (directed by his brother Jay) which was one of my favorite films at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For an encore, he directed, wrote, and produced another fine indie film, "Baghead" which I screened at the 2008 Maryland Film Festival. Here Mark dons only his actor's hat playing Ben, a happily married dude who is paid an unexpected visit by his old school buddy, Andrew. Andrew has showed up after years of traversing the planet, still single and carefree.

When both go off one night to attend a wild party, they proceed to get smashed on whatever is being passed around. Then, when they hear about Humpfest, their male competitive spirit is aroused when one of them gets the wild idea that no way could a film showing 2 heterosexuals having gay sex lose.

Having fully committed their egos to the project, they must now conceal it from Ben's wife, Anna, wonderfully played by newcomer Alycia Delmore. How she finds out is classic and her reaction to the project is priceless and understandable considering that a woman's perspective is behind the words!

The last act deals with the 2 boys attempting to make their film and it is fascinating how it all plays out, no pun intended. This scene is unscripted and wonderfully portrayed by the 2 friends; and it is thought-provoking about how our society looks at friendship, sexuality, and homophobia-especially when it comes to male sex.

The film is in limited release and it will probably go the way of most indie films: direct to disc. So, look for it, as well as "The Puffy Chair" & "Baghead", at NETFLIX or at your nearest video/DVD outlet.

Mark Duplass, Alycia Delmore, & Joshua Leonard

"500 Days of Summer" **** (95 minutes)

Wednesday July 22, 2009

Finally! After sloughing through a bunch of mediocre films lately, here is one that is not only great but clearly one of the finest I've screened this year. First time director Marc Webb has created a brilliant take on young love that will not only sweep you up in its originality & humor but will cause you to reflect on your past love(s) with remembrance and poignancy.

No, this isn't a tale of a "summer" romance. The title is the name of a 20-something woman who has dumped the hero and narrator of our tale, Tom. Don't fret. This isn't a spoiler. You find this out in the first minute of the film.

Summer is played and given a spot-on performance by indie film vet Zooey Deschanel. Tom is embodied by the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Lookout"), who started off working in TVs "3rd Rock from the Sun" and has moved smoothly into the cinema and is currently building a terrific portfolio appearing in an astounding 35 films (!) in 10 years. Together they have produced movie magic and their chemistry ignites the screen.

Most of us guys have been through this at least once in our lives: You are absolutely totally in love with a girl who has it all: looks, brains, & personality. Except there is one itsy bitsy problem: she loves you-but not as much. And that drives you absolutely berserk! You see, Summer loves Tom-but only to a point. A point that Tom has uncontrollably rocketed pass early in the relationship.

The non-linear structure announces each scene by the number of days that have lapsed since Tom, an aspiring architect, first laid eyes on his new greeting card co-worker. For 95 minutes, you see and feel Tom's emotions roller-coaster about, back and forth, up & down, from total despair to total glee and back again.

Webb has effectively used many different techniques to pull you in, from clever music video-like montages, to black & white, to references to Fellini films. Although some of his bits fall short of their mark, most hit hard & true. And the repeated references to "The Graduate" are so perfectly placed that I still can't stop thinking about that film and what it meant to me when I identified so much with it back in 1967 when I was so wonderfully in love!

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter ("The Pink Panther 2") & Michael Weber never seems forced, and the soundtrack by long-time composer Mychael Danna & Ron Simonsen unobtrusively compliments the story. And, after you see the flick, I guarantee that you'll immediately smile the moment you hear Hall & Oates' "You make my dreams come true".

It might rate a "10" on the cutesy scale, but I loved this film!!

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel