Thursday, July 1, 2010

Film Round-Up for July

In this month's edition of The Film Round-Up...Jonah Hill surprises; Michael Winterbottom repulses; Helen Mirren struggles; and Todd Solondz lays off the money shots...Yup, I hit the indpendent mother lode this month.

And I got to enjoy Marisa Tomei, who stars in "Cyrus." I love what Jonah Hill told "GQ" about working with Tomei: "Trust me, it sucks when you're supposed to be her 21-year-old son and you look fourteen years older than her."

As always, these reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission.

Life During Wartime (Dir: Todd Solondz). Starring: Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, CiarĂ¡n Hinds , Michael Lerner, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael Kenneth Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Chris Marquette. Solondz's latest is a sequel of sorts to Happiness—set 10 years after the bizarre events that befell the Jordan family—only the characters are played by different actors. Joy (Henderson), still meek and clueless, embraces the misery of others, including her long-dead boyfriend (Reubens); sister Trish (Janney), still reeling from her husband's pedophilia, takes up with a relentlessly average man (Lerner), which makes her younger son (Snyder) more skittish; and Trish's ex-husband (Hinds) embarks on life after prison, hoping to make amends with his oldest, college student son (Marquette). The third Jordan sister, Helen (Sheedy), is adrift in Hollywood. Not as relentlessly bitter and satirical a movie as Happiness; the characters look haggard and beaten down. Solondz has gotten mellower. Here, the writer/director shows how life is a long, hard slog that's more influenced by past tragedies than by the promise of a fresh start. At times, it's a challenging and frustrating movie to watch—Solondz never drops his poker face—but Life During Wartime ultimately emerges as an arresting look at how we live our lives. [NR] ***

Cyrus (Dirs: Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass). Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh. Divorced and middle-aged John is revitalized when he meets the sexy and free-spirited Molly (Tomei). The two get along famously, but their growing chemistry faces a giant obstacle: Molly's 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Hill), whose closeness to her borders on suffocation. Not content with sharing his mother with anyone else, Cyrus goes about edging John out of the picture. The performances here are standout (especially Hill in a change-of-pace role) and the Duplass brothers deliver a possibly buffoonish premise with heart and wit. However, the plot moves so fast that the three main characters don't fully develop, and their actions and motivations never quite match with what we've learned about them. For some reason, the outstanding Keener, who plays John's ex-wife and best friend, and her character's unique baggage remain underutilized throughout. Very rarely do movies need to be longer, but Cyrus is that rare exception when the characters and their problems require further exploration. [R] ***

Love Ranch (Dir: Taylor Hackford). Starring: Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, M.C. Gainey, Wendell Pierce, Bryan Cranston. It's 1976 and Reno's Love Ranch brothel is doing big business, which feeds entrepreneur Charlie Bontempo's (Pesci) massive ego and impetuous spending. Both drive wife and business partner Grace (Mirren) nuts, especially when he invests thousands of dollars in washed-up Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Charlie's prison record forces Grace to become Bruza's manager, a proposition she resists until she falls for the much-younger pugilist's gentle charm. Soggy drama (inspired by a true story) is hobbled by the lackluster direction of Hackford, who spends the entire film trying on genres (e.g., love story, gangster flick, biopic) and doing his best to be bland—a remarkable accomplishment for a film primarily set in a whorehouse. Hackford, adverse to rub elbows with the seedy and desperate, coasts on his actors' good reputations and gaudy visuals. It only goes so far: Mirren (Hackford's wife) can't pull off a tough-talking tomato and Pesci rehashes the same unhinged tough-guy routine he's relied upon since Goodfellas. [R] **

The Killer Inside Me (Dir: Michael Winterbottom). Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman. Yet another rough-and-tumble, dark Jim Thompson adaptation, this time focusing on a small-town Texas lawman (Affleck) whose dark past and desire to define himself on his own terms translate into a pattern of destructive behavior. Alba plays the loving whore who inadvertently sets Affleck on his violent path; Hudson is the not-so sweet girlfriend who somehow sticks around. Production values are the best part of this remarkably shallow effort from Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, The Shock Doctrine), whose lone move is to drench the movie in violent irony, whether it's baby-faced Affleck indulging in unspeakable acts or having two beloved starlets get brutalized in excruciating (and unnecessary) detail. Confusing plot and a lack of explanation for the main character's motives contribute to a pointless, joyless satire on moral laxness and the dark side of 1950s America. Also available on demand, so there are two ways to pick your poison. [R] *

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