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"Stone" **1/2 (105 minutes)

Ed Norton with Moderator Nell Minow following the screening of "Stone"

Monday October 4, 2010

Off to the AFI Silver for another special event. This time it's the screening of Robert De Niro and Ed Norton's latest corroboration (they previously worked together on 2001's "The Score", which was also Brando's last film) followed by a Q&A with Norton-who grew up down the road in Columbia Maryland. Despite the A-list actors and a promising opening 10 minutes, ultimately, the post-screening festivities (coverage provided after this review) were far more satisfying than the film.

The psychological prison drama is one we've seen before. As the film opens, we witness a young Jack Mabry (Enver Gjokaj) threatening his wife (Francis Conroy) when she announces her intent to leave him. Switch to the present, and Mabry (De Niro) is a dutiful parole officer getting ready for retirement. But, before he does, he's about to be responsible for handling Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Norton-in dreadlocks, no less)-a hardened urban criminal doing time for murdering his grandparents and then torching their house.

When Creeson, a career manipulator, realizes that his chances of getting paroled are slim & none, he hatches a plan to have his wife Lucetta (played alluringly by Milla Jovovich) seduce Jack in hopes of blackmailing Creeson to ultimately obtain a favorable parole recommendation.

Director John Curran (2006's "The Painted Veil) does a fairly competent job. However, what is most disappointing is the pedestrian script by promising screenwriter Angus MacLachlan in this his 2nd effort after bursting onto the scene with 2005's highly successful "Junebug.

Although the acting is first rate by the principles, the film's psychological twists and turns all seemed too familiar and predictable that, by the end, I could have cared less about the outcome.

The DVD was released on January 18.

As I stated, the wonderful discussion and Q&A were well worth the price of admission. Moderated by film reviewer and corporate expert, "Movie Mom", Nell Minow, the audience was thoroughly entertained and enlightened by Mr. Norton, who provided much insight into his acting style, in particular, & the movie making business, in general.

When quizzed about the cornrows he sports early in the film, Ed said that while researching at the prison he noticed that they were ubiquitous-as prevalent as tattoos. He also mentioned that the prisoners carry with them a kind of "intense anxiety" that he tried to bring to his portrayal and that a lot of it that ended up in the scenes was not in the script. He spoke about one particular prisoner who actually supplied him with about 60% of the language that Norton ended up using in the film.

He called De Niro the "librarian of actors", saying that he was the most right-brained, clinical, methodical, & meticulous actor he knew. Edward added that he identified with De Niro's research oriented approach to his craft. Also, knowing each other before meant they didn't have to over rehearse their scenes together.

In response to a question about his work on the stage, Edward mentioned that his whole grounding and training was in theater and that he's always looking for a good play. Also, Edward admired and appreciated Curran who brings a lot of ambiguity to his films instead of spoon-feeding the audience and making sure they like him.

When quizzed as to what he found was most difficult in going from acting to directing (he directed the 2000 comedy "Keeping the Faith") he humorously commented that it was "annoying actors that won't come out of their trailers to the set". Then, more seriously, added that it was having to deal with so many responsibilities. He quoted Hitchcock saying that it was like getting pecked to death by a thousand pigeons. He was more comfortable directing a lighter film for the first time as opposed to a more layered film such as "Stone"- adding that he greatly admired people like Orson Wells who do monumental characters while directing.


Gerald (Ed Nortonn) & Lucetta Milla Jovovich) discussing
their plan
Jack (Robert De Niro) & Madylyn (Frances Conroy)
Ed Norton responding to a question
from the audience

ROGER EBERT RETURNS TO TV VIA PBS

Here is a link to an AP piece about the show. Be certain to check your local listings for air times.

Also, here is an interesting article on Roger's website regarding the prosthesis he'll be donning on the show.

"Easy A" (*** 1/2-90 minutes)

Wednesday September 29, 2010

A star is born-and her name is Emma Stone. Well, not exactly born-the 22 year-old actor has already appeared in a number of supporting roles-beginning in 2008 in "The Rocker" & "The House Bunny", as well as 2009's critically-acclaimed "Zombieland", and in 2009's not-so-critically-acclaimed "The Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past". However, her breakout role as virgin schoolgirl Olive Penderghast will not only put her on the map but could easily garner an Oscar nod as well.

Olive wants to get out of a camping weekend with her hippie parents and ends up spending it alone at home. When quizzed by her best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) as to how she spent her weekend, she makes up a white lie that she had a rendezvous with a college dude. The fib spirals quickly out of control through the usual gossip channels. Suddenly popular "in the wrong way" she uses her newfound popularity to help positively transform the negative perceptions of gays, nerds, and misfits-all the while fueling her perception as the school sexpert.

Director Will Gluck, who misfired with the 2009 gross teen comedy "Fired Up", completely reverses field and tones it down with this high school comedy that seldom misfires. The smart intelligent script by Bert V. Royal is further enhanced with an "A" supporting cast including the great indie actors Patricia Clarkson & Stanley Tucci as Olive's easy going, cool, liberal parents; Thomas Haden Church (2004's wonderful "Sideways") & Lisa Kudrow-who play Olive's favorite teacher and the school's guidance counselor, respectively; and Malcolm McDowell as the school principal.

The film will bring to mind other top notch teen comedies such as "Clueless", "Mean Girls", & several John Hughes' classics, but this one stands on its own-mainly due to the charismatic Stone who confidently carries the picture on her lovely shoulders. Oh, and the "A" in the title is more than likely a clear reference to Nathanial Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter", where the heroine was forced to wear that letter around her neck to symbolize her adulterous ways. For me, it also stands for the rating that I am giving for both the film, in general, and Emma Stone, in particular.

The movie is currently available on DVD.

Olive (Emma Stone) getting the attention
of her school mates

"Jack Goes Boating" (***1/2-89 minutes)

Actress Amy Ryan with moderator Blake Robison, Producing Artistic
Director of the Round House Theater

Wednesday September 22, 2010

Add Philip Seymour Hoffman to the ever-growing list of actors who are trying their hand behind the camera. Thankfully, he continues to put his mug in front of it as he marvelously performs double duty in this wonderful character-driven drama based on the off-Broadway by Bob Glaudini (who does the scriptwriting honors as well).

Jack (Hoffman), a limousine driver for his uncle in New York, is a painfully shy loner. He regularly meets with his much more outgoing co-worker & best friend Clyde (John Ortiz, last seen in 2009's "Public Enemies" & "The Fast & The Furious") and, at the suggestion of his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) agrees to be fixed up with an equally shy person who works with Lucy in a funeral home.

The three principals have recreated their stage roles for the screen. The newcomer to the project is the wonderful Amy Ryan (nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2007's "Gone Baby Gone") as Connie. Although the match appears to have been made in heaven, two lost souls who have finally found each other, loner Jack begins the laborious process of trying to woo Connie with proper mentoring in cooking and swimming skills provided by Clyde. All of this prepares the audience for the climatic third act when Jack attempts to prepare a first-time dinner for Connie, Clyde, & Lucy.

One can see how this story would fit nicely on a live stage, but Hoffman, who does an admirable, if somewhat pedestrian, job behind the camera, opens up the story with drab location shots around the big city. Nevertheless, what really drives this simple, human story about 2 very diverse couples is the superb acting. Each actor brings a definite believability and poignancy to their characters that makes the 90 minutes fly by, and, ultimately, worthwhile.

The film is available on Netflix on January 18.

Following the screening at the AFI-Silver Theater was a wonderful interview with actor Amy Ryan by moderator Blake Robison (Producing Artistic Director of the Round House Theater in Silver Spring, MD) followed by a fascinating Q & A. During the interview, Amy spoke about her last appearance in D.C. at the Kennedy Center in 2004 performing in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (which led to a Tony nomination). She also performed on the stage in "Uncle Vanya".

Amy was born and raised in Queens and still resides in N.Y. in Manhattan. She mentioned that she worked with Hoffman in "Capote", but, before that, she worked with him in N.Y. in one-act plays for the drama department. When Philip asked her to be a part this film, he asked her if she could wait about a year because it was to be filmed in winter. She humorously remarked that "yes, Philip is someone I'd wait forever for". The play was performed in N.Y. by the LABrinth Theater Company, a company run by both Hoffman and founder John Ortiz.

Ryan stated that the rehearsal lasted an extraordinarily short two weeks before filming began. She mentioned that Philip wanted to get that done because it would be difficult to explore the acting as much when he began directing.

When asked the question as to what was her favorite part about stage acting and film acting. Amy responded that, in stage acting, she has an intimate dialogue with the audience and experiences a thrill due to the energy that happens in the dark-that everyone is in on the story. She mentioned the thrill, "like no other", of the immediacy of this process. As for film acting, there is the excitement of sharing it with a larger audience despite the process being so minuscule-that it's a different intimacy. Amy always believed it was important to do plays when she was younger because she realized that theater is where she would learn to be a better actor and film was where she could apply what she learned.

In addition to stage and film, Amy has also added TV to her resume, appearing in the finale of season four of "The Office" and several subsequent shows, as well as in HBO's "In Treatment" series as Gabriel Byrne's new therapist.


Jack & Connie go boating

Clyde (John Ortiz) & Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega)

2010 AFI SILVERDOCS AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER ON INDEPENDENT LENS, JAN 4 AT 10 PM ON PBS

If you don’t live in the Baltimore/Washington area, check your local listings as PBS airs “Independent Lens” at different times in different markets. Repeats are always on the schedule if you happen to miss it the first time. Here was my review form last June’s Festival:

"MEN WHO SWIM" (***-58 minutes)

The North American premier of 40-year-old filmmaker Dylan Williams' lighthearted take on his attempt to combat his impending mid-life crises ends up winning this year's SILVERDOCS Audience Award. Welshman Williams moves to Sweden to live with his Swedish girlfriend, marry, & start a family. No longer able to hold onto dreams of becoming a rock star, and feeling like, excuse the pun, a fish out of water, his new plan is simple & unique: become involved in a men's synchronized swimming team. However, his simple hobby rises to the next level when he & his comrades decide to compete for the unofficial All Male World Championship in Milan as the Stockholm Art Swim Gents. We see the team training and, on the surface, all appears hopeless when their coach quits after seeing the futility of it all. However, the middle age gents are determined to go all out to try to dethrone the world champion Dutch team-despite the physical and sociological obstacles placed before them. (For example, when one media reporter proclaims this is "a sport for homosexuals", one of them proudly replies, "Any sport is for homosexuals, and any sport is for heterosexuals.") A light and humorous look at guys who fervently try to prove that life, indeed, begins after 40-and that, with the proper effort and determination, anything is possible.