Friday, May 1, 2009

Film Round-Up for May

In this edition of The Film Round-Up, we go mostly independent on your ass with Michael Caine, a breakthrough performance from Nicole Beharie, and an early candidate for the year's best documentary. Oh, and how about something new from one of Apatow's minions?

These reviews appeared in the May edition of ICON, and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

No interview with David Grann this month; it got pushed to June. That's perfect actually--the book is ideal summer reading. Plus, fellas, the beach bunnies love guys who read. I think.

American Violet (Dir: Tim Disney). Starring: Nicole Beharie, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Michael O'Keefe, Xzibit, Malcolm Barrett, Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard.
Based on true events from early in the decade, a struggling African-American single mom of four (Beharie) gets arrested on trumped up drug charges, just another target of a power mad, racist district attorney (O'Keefe) seeking convictions to get more federal funding into his sleepy Texas county. Refusing to accept a plea bargain, she joins forces with two ACLU lawyers (Nelson, Barrett) and a lawyer/ex-cop (Patton) to take on the D.A. and the corrupt criminal system. American Violet certainly has its flaws, namely that there's too little insight given into the district attorney's madness and no attempt is made to downplay Beharie's beauty. (Even in jail she looks ready for a premiere.) But its big heart and us vs. them storyline hook you from the start and make up for the glossy packaging and oversights. Excellent performances by pretty much everyone, especially Beharie (The Express) and the undervalued Patton (A Mighty Heart), also help. *** PG-13

Is Anybody There? (Dir: John Crowley). Starring: Michael Caine, Bill Milner, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Rosemary Harris, Linzey Cocker. A lad obsessed with the afterlife (Milner), lonely and stuck living in a makeshift old-age home in 1987 coastal England, befriends the newest resident, a gruff retired magician (Caine) who has seen better days both professionally and personally. Young Milner (so good in Son of Rambow) and legendary Caine (now safely out of the Jaws: The Revenge phase of his career) are fine in the leads. But there are two significant issues. First, director Crowley and writer Peter Harness vaguely define the duo's friendship, so we never feel like they need each other, giving their activities an oddly indifferent air. Second, the plot starts slow and thoughtful before accelerating almost comically to its conclusion. Is Anybody There? is quaint and charming, like spending an hour or two in an antiques store or a tea shop, but it leaves almost no impression. Tidbit that may be more interesting than the movie itself: Harness actually grew up in a retirement home. ** PG-13

In a Dream (Dir: Jeremiah Zagar). This intense documentary profiles Zagar's father, Isaiah, a mosaic artist who has devoted years to covering buildings and alleyways throughout Philadelphia with his dazzling, highly personal mosaics. This artistic pursuit has come at a cost, namely a strained relationship with his family, whom he relates to more as muses than as people. Young Zagar's film captures his father's past and artistic motivations, which are equally troubling and illuminating, as well as showing a tired man who has reached the breaking point. His marriage is crumbling, the walls of his insular world are closing in, and his son Zeke has a drug problem that is an unwelcome interference with his creativity. Director Zagar, who seems compelled to reveal the truth, smartly keeps himself off screen and lets his camera roll, showing what happens when the balance between creativity and domesticity falls out of whack. The result onscreen is absolutely compelling. **** NR

Adventureland (Dir: Greg Mottola). Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig. James Brennan's post-collegiate future is bleak, starting with returning to his parents' home in suburban Pittsburgh. Their economic downturn also means he can't travel to Europe nor can they foot the bill for grad school at Columbia. The job market in 1987 is bleak for a literature major, so James grabs a crummy job at a second-rate amusement park, which turns out to have unexpected benefits. Among them: a sexy, Lou Reed-listening co-worker (Stewart), who helps James open his eyes to reality while threatening to break his heart. Writer/director Mottola (Superbad) has crafted a touching, straight-up tale of transitioning into adulthood, while refusing to give into kitschy nostalgia or non-stop gags. You have to have a heart of stone not to fall for the movie's charms. Terrific cast is headed by the always great Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) as the rudderless grad and Stewart (Twilight), who somehow pulls off being desirable and entirely relatable. Starr, however, nearly steals the movie as Eisenberg's friend and sarcastic co-worker. **** R

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