"The Disappearance of Alice Creed" (***1/2-100 minutes)

Thursday July 29, 2010

From a silly Hollywood comedy that falls flat to this near-brilliant indy British noir- J. Blakeson's directorial debut is a sure winner. Although he previously wrote the forgettable "The Decent 2", his screenplay here is tight and unrelenting. It reminded me of the Wachowski Brothers' fabulous initial offering, 1996's "Bound", or this years' wonderful "The Square" in which the action is confined to a couple of set locations complete with nonstop suspense & plot twists that never stop churning until the final credits.

The riveting opening ten minutes depict two guys as they meticulously plan a kidnapping. Composer Marc Canham provides a pulsating score that accompanies the visuals, without dialogue, building up to the actual abduction of one Alice Creed. Slowly, we get to know who these 3 characters are as well as their motives. As each layer of the plot is peeled back, just when you think you have it all figured out, Blakeson decides to take the story into even more unpredictable territory.

The three actors each display incredible range throughout the ordeal. Gemma Arterton (Strawberry Fields in "Quantum of Solace") as Alice and Martin Compston as the young kidnapper, Danny, are perfectly cast and believable in portraying the naivety and cunning demanded by Blakeson's wonderful script. However it is the great Eddie Marsan (supporting in Mike Leigh's 2004 "Vera Drake" and as the quirky cab driver in Leigh's 2008's "Happy Go Lucky") as the intense psychopathic Vic, who can explode at any moment, that will truly keep you focused until the end.

I liked the fact that the violence is minimal as the director is more interested in character development than blood. My only problem was that the film loses some steam in the final reel, but, overall, this one is sure to satisfy you for practically all of its 100 minutes running time.
The kidnappers (l to r), Danny (Martin Compston)
& Vic
(Eddie Marsan)
The kidnapped Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton)

"Dinner for Schmucks" (**1/2-110 minutes)

Tuesday July 20, 2010

Oh boy, it's time for yet another Hollywood remake/redo of a French film. Director Jay Roach has established his career devoted to the comedy genre that includes the Austin Powers franchise, the successful 2000 "Meet the Parents", "Meet the Frockers", as well as producing the Borat & Bruno films starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Here he tackles the 1999 well received "The Dinner Game (Le Dîner de cons)" directed by Francis Veber, the source of previous U.S. remakes including The Man With One Red Shoe," "The Birdcage," and "Father's Day." Alas, another huge disappointment-especially considering the talent involved.

The premise: career minded Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd as the straight man) hopes to climb that executive career ladder to the upper floors with corner windows. After Tim impresses his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) during a meeting, Tim is invited to an exclusive dinner regularly thrown by Fender. The kicker: each attendee must bring a guest-the craziest/weirdest of which will be declared the "winner". Although he is reluctant to attend in a moral sense, Tim ultimately sees his chance for furthering his professional standing when he, literally, runs into Barry Speck, played by Steve Carell-outfitted with fake teeth, geeky hairdo & glasses to emphasize his character's geekiness. After Barry offers Tim one of the items that he exclusively uses in his dioramas, a stuffed dead mouse in a costume, Tim realizes that he has found his guest.

The highlight of the film, the actual dinner, does not come until the final reel, and, by then, it is too late. You have to previously endure a trying hour and a half as you watch Carell slowly intrude, and nearly destroy everything good in Rudd's life including his relationship with his girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak in a throw away role). The other characters who are introduced along the way include Barry's IRS boss, Therman (usually reliable Zach Galifianakis in a role that did not produce even a giggle), and Kieran (Jemaine Clement giving a way-over-the-top performance as a narcissistic womanizing artist who is planning to exhibit in Julie's art gallery).

I really wanted to frequently laugh out loud, but the joint screenplay by Andy Borowitz, Ken Daurio, David Guion, & Jon Vitti only managed to squeeze out several light chuckles and one noticeable guffaw (during that dinner sequence at the end). I really yearned for more bite and satire but the script seemed to have that usual Hollywood soft edge-making sure not to offend anyone in the audience.

Rudd & Carell have now done three films together (including Carell's breakout film, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin", & "Anchorman") and their overall chemistry works here, but the film desperately needs an editor's scissor. When the only thing to recommend is a 15-minute segment at the end and those wonderfully conceived dioramas of dead mice, you know you are in for a long evening.

Barry (Steve Carell)with his dioramas

Barry & Kieran (Jemaine Clement) contemplate life

The dinner for schmucks

"The Kids are All Right" (*** 1/2-104 minutes)

Thursday July 22, 2010

Director/writer Lisa Cholodenko's previous narrative efforts were 1998's "High Art" & 2003's "Laurel Canyon", both of which received generally mixed reviews. However, this her third film, she collaborates the writing duties with Stuart Blumberg (2004's "The Girl Next Door") and the results, I predict, will be multiple AA nominations for this terrific ensemble work.

Annette Benning (on the heels of her phenomenal acting in "Mother and Child") stars with Julianne Moore (who also gave a stellar performance in last year's "A Single Man") as Nic & Jules, a long time married lesbian couple raising their 2 kids whom each separately produced using the same surrogate dad. The kids, Joni & Laser, perfectly played by Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") & Josh Hutchinson, are curious as to who their real father/sperm donor is. When Joni (named after the pop/folk singer Joni Mitchell) investigates and they connect with said donor, they set up a lunch date with Paul (played by veteran Mark Ruffalo in a sure fire breakout role).

However, mucho complications ensue when Paul, a cool dude who has never married and owns an organic food restaurant, agrees to meet the surrogate moms-also agreed to, although reluctantly, by said egg donors. Prior to Paul entering the scene, there is already a mid-life crises in full bloom in the steady, typical, bringing-up-kids atmosphere provided by the controlling Nic and the subservient Jules. Now, everyone's world is about to be rocked when Paul enters the picture.

Although "The Kids are All Right" is a "comedy", the smart dialogue & plot situations are believable no matter the sex of the parents. Each character and their motivations are realistic and heartfelt-making this film even more special.

A few words about Mark Ruffalo: His name may not be recognizable but any regular moviegoer will know his face. Most recently seen in "Shutter Island", he's been present in a multitude of films & TV productions and genres. Steady & sure in every role I've seen him in, Paul is the role that may finally put him on the actor A-list. Ruffalo gives a beautifully nuanced performance that, as I stated at the beginning, will undoubtedly lead to one of many nominations this film will bring come Oscar time next year.

(from l to r) Nik (Annette Bening), Jules (Julianne Moore),
Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Joni (Mia Wasikowska), & Paul
(Mark Ruffalo)