Monday, August 3, 2009

Film Round-Up for August

In this edition of THE FILM ROUND-UP: One of our favorites (Jeff Daniels) is good in a bad movie; a grown-up Anna Chlumsky turns up in a funny political satire; and two docs--one religious-minded and one TV-minded. (These reviews were previously published in ICON and are reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)

Lots going on, so you may not see me for a while. Lots of assignments to keep me busy (that's good, I think), but I will throw in a couple of posts as well as a few links to kick-ass interviews. (Cross your fingers...)
See, I still like you. We're still cool.

The Answer Man (Dir: John Hindman). Starring: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale. Twenty years ago, Arlen Faber (Daniels) wrote Me and God, a Q&A with the Big Man himself that gave spiritual guidance to millions. The author isn't one of them. Bitter and lost, Faber has become a recluse, albeit one with a fantastic Philadelphia apartment. When his back goes out, Faber drags himself to a struggling chiropractor (Graham), who rehabs his vertebrae and wayward life. Former ICON cover boy Daniels is terrific as usual, with debut director Hindman giving him lots of juicy dialogue. It's too bad that his script's foundation is shaky, failing to fill us in on how Faber became such a misanthrope or how Graham's character civilizes him. The movie is clearly a showcase for Daniels to be lovably acerbic (a la Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets), but Hindman's quest to do so jeopardizes the movie's tone and even goes against logic. Subplot about a recovering alcoholic who runs the local bookstore (Pucci) is a poorly disguised ploy to generate warm and fuzzies, ditto Daniels' scenes with Graham's adorable, abandoned son. Hindman's attempt to mix breeziness with life lessons is sometimes amusing, but mostly the movie is awkward and clunky. R *

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Dir: Aviva Kempner). In the 1930s, Gertrude Berg was Oprah. She created, starred in, and wrote the hugely popular radio program, The Goldbergs, with her New York City matriarch Molly Goldberg providing "a new image for Jewish mothers." When the program ended, Berg hustled, turning it into a television show that became the model for the sitcom. She also won a Tony (A Majority of One), had a line of housedresses, and wrote an advice column. Berg even wrote a cookbook, even though she was an awful cook. Simply put, she was an inspiration for Jewish families across the nation. The documentary oftentimes plays like a promotional piece, with lots of glowing compliments but very little conflict or shades of grey (except for the unfortunate fate of her blacklisted TV co-star, Philip Loeb). Still, thanks to TV/audio footage and interviews with relatives, colleagues, and fans such as Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kempner produces a rich portrait of a long-forgotten talent who had a staggering cultural relevance. NR **

In the Loop (Dir: Armando Iannucci). Starring: Tom Hollander, Chris Addison, Peter Capaldi, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, David Rasche, Steve Coogan. A daft British government official's (Hollander) offhand comment about U.S. war in the Middle East being "unforeseeable" kicks off a chain of events that have legitimate worldwide complications, spurred primarily by his new adviser (Addison) and a neurotic, struggling U.S. official (Kennedy) who desperately wants in with the war committee. Frenetic, wicked political satire features terrific, layered performances (especially Capaldi as the profane, bullying director of communications for the British Prime Minister) and it paints a convincing picture of how spin and ego drive political survival. If In the Loop has any problem it's that Iannucci and company are too ambitious--a foray into local politics featuring Coogan feels forced, dragging the proceedings further into farcical absurdity--and several years too late. Amidst the glut of political satires released in recent years, In the Loop is still relevant and compelling and funny. And, yes, that's a grown-up Chlumsky of My Girl fame playing Kennedy's whip-smart intern. NR ***

Unmistaken Child (Dir: Nati Baratz). After the respected Tibetan master Lama Konchog died in 2001, his disciple, Tenzin Zopa, embarked on the unenviable, arduous task of finding the great man's reincarnation. There were few concrete clues to follow, lots of walking, and innumerable dead ends. Finally, in 2005, Tenzin found his master's replacement--a chubby infant. There's plenty to like here in this documentary. Tenzin is an inspiring protagonist, a young man whose faith both carries him above his self-doubt and remorse while bonding him to lifelong subservience. Baratz's hands-off filmmaking style lets you make decisions on a form of worship not understood by many, and the accompanying cinematography is breathtaking. However, those assets are compromised by a story in desperate need of a narrator to explain the cultural and religious wrinkles, and a gnawing feeling that the events could have been profiled in 60 minutes instead of 100. Unmistaken Child is enlightening and educational; too bad its thoughtfulness often lapses into sleepiness. NR **

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