Friday, September 5, 2008

Netflix Quick Picks - Round Ten

Ten movies: two (very!) quirky romantic comedies, two dramas about Hollywood and the film industry, one documentary, one docudrama, one epic drama, one arthouse and one hot mess that defies description.

On with the reviews!

1. Dune - Okay, technically it's supposed to be sci-fi/fantasy (extra helping of the "fantasy"), but David Lynch's adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel can't be pigeon-holed into one neat little genre category. Unless, of course, that category is "Films so bad that you can only continue watching in fascinated horror."

Actually, I really couldn't watch this at all. Netflix, for some ungodly reason, chose to send me the televised version. That being the hacked up and 176 minute long (as opposed to the trimmer 137 minute long theatrical version) with voiceover narration not by the dulcet tones of a James Earl Jones or Orson Welles-type, but someone sounding more like Danny DeVito or Joe Pesci. The version disavowed by writer/director David Lynch who removed his name from the credits in favor of the classic train wreck identification that is the "Film by Alan Smithee."

This isn't to say the Lynch stamp of approval version would have been any less cheesy, overblown, badly acted, clunky and unremittingly awful. I love Lynch's work, but I venture to say his forte is the altered reality, not alternate realities.

Mom always used to say, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!" and to that end I will say this: Sean Young looked lovely and Kyle MacLachlan even lovelier.


2. Lars and the Real Girl - Having heard the basic premise for the story about an awkward, emotionally stunted young man who orders a blow-up sex doll (which he names "Bianca") and pretends she's his girlfriend, I wasn't completely looking forward to this film.

I was so wrong.

This is probably one of my favorite films EVER! Although it relentlessly pushes the envelope of believability, there is something so absolutely warm-hearted, authentic and genuine about this movie. Although Ryan Gosling is outstanding as usual as the oddly eccentric Lars, the story about love and relationships really is one that involves the whole town that rallies around him.

Big kudos to the supporting cast: Emily Mortimer is sublime perfection as Lars' sister-in-law, Karin. She has some great scenes--tackling the reticent Lars in order to get him to join her and his brother for dinner as well as a very emotional scene where she confronts his assertion that no-one cares about him:

That is just not true! God! Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because - all these people - love you! We push her wheelchair. We drive her to work. We drive her home. We wash her. We dress her. We get her up, and put her to bed. We carry her. And she is not petite, Lars. Bianca is a big, big girl! None of this is easy - for any of us - but we do it... Oh! We do it for you! So don't you dare tell me how we don't care.
Peter Schneider does an excellent job as Lars' bewildered brother Gus, Nancy Beatty is fabulous as the no-nonsense Mrs. Gruner, but Patricia Clarkson's subtle grace as the insightful Dr. Dagmar is the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Written by Nancy Oliver and directed by Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl is an extraordinary tale about what it means to live, love and be human.


3. Swimming with Sharks - I thought I had seen this, but wasn't sure, so I rented again--I think. Some parts seemed familiar, but a lot I didn't remember. Once upon a time, this was incisive, witty, edgy. In the times of The Apprentice and The Devil Wears Prada, Kevin Spacey's passive-aggressive antics seem quaint and mild. Heck, I've had bosses that were bigger asshats than Buddy Ackerman. It all seemed so--blah. Skip it.

4. Fast Food Nation - This was actually a loaner from my friend Dave. Based on the best-selling book about the meat industry, Fast Food Nation is an attempt to dramatize the dull documentary with characters and stories and well-known actors (Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Bruce Willis, Wilmer Valderrama, Patricia Arquette, Avril Lavigne and Ethan Hawke unintentionally playing the creepiest uncle ever to walk the planet...).

It fails.

Although I would seriously reconsider eating ground beef and now understand why kosher is so much more preferable, this movie was a complete snooze. I bet Michael Moore or even Morgan Spurlock could have made it entertaining as well as informative. Richard Linklater only manages the latter. Skip it AND the Big Mac...

5. Wristcutters: A Love Story - This offbeat rom-com about suicide victims stuck in a sort of Purgatory was unexpectedly enchanting. Starring Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) and Shannyn Sossamon (looking like a cross between Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley), the film does a great job of conveying the limbo-esque atmospherics of its setting. The third act is bit awkward and rushed, but all in all writer/director Goran Dukic manages to live up to the tagline: "Life is a trip, but the afterlife is one hell of a ride." Rent it!

6. Velvet Goldmine - Todd Haynes pseudo-biopic of a David Bowie-like glam rock star is a trippy, visual feast. There's the achingly gorgeous Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Bowie persona Brian Slade, Toni Collette as his wife Mandy, Ewan MacGregor (looking more like Kurt Cobain than Iggy Pop) as Curt Wild and Christian Bale as the young fan turned rock journalist Arthur Stuart.

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person... Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth. "

The biggest flaw about this film--which ostensibly is about glam rock and a David Bowie type star but is actually about how glam rock's blurring of the lines opened doors and possibilities for millions of youth anxious about themselves and their sexuality--is the overlong musical numbers. Bowie, regrettably, refused Haynes the rights to use his music in the film and it suffers for it. But it's still a remarkably original piece of work. Rent it!

7. Winged Migration - Absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous film about birds flying. Amazing to watch. The only issue I had was in watching the DVD extras to unboggle my mind as to how they filmed it. The film loses some of its magic when you learn that for the most part the birds were trained (imprinted) and the shots somewhat staged. Still, it's thoroughly engrossing and watchable. Rent it, but skip the extras.

8. Gangs of New York - Scorcese's epic on the birth of New York City is a bit too long and redundant--but still fascinating to watch. Great acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. Cameron Diaz is out of her league, but much better than she was in From Hell. Gorgeous set design and cinematography. The conundrum that was Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis), who killed Amsterdam Vallon's (DiCaprio) father Priest (Liam Neeson)--vicious, violent and yet oddly honorable, was a theme that was missing in Scorcese's later offering, The Departed. I felt The Departed lacked the tug-of-war of allegiance that Gangs of New York depicted so well. If it was up to me, I would have given Scorcese the Oscar for this film over The Departed. Rent it!

9. Box of Moon Light - This movie, like Lars and the Real Girl, was suggested by Diane. Unfortunately, it comes nowhere near Lars for charm, magic and emotional resonance. Despite the prodigious talents of John Turturro and Sam Rockwell (who seems to be building a consistent reputation for full-frontal exposure in his movies...), Box of Moon Light is just--lacking. Written and directed by Tom DiCillo, its only saving grace is the wonderful cinematography of Paul Ryan--who I've actually met! Other than that, skip it!

10. Living in Oblivion - Funny I should follow one Tom DiCillo film with yet another. And, this is yet another film that I thought I had already seen, but couldn't remember, so I rented it again. It's a clever look at the agonies of indie filmmaking and must-see viewing (along with American Movie) for any wannabe director. Rent it!

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