In this edition of the Film Round-Up...One of the best movies (so far) of 2011; a promising indie feature produced by a local boy; and two movies that miss golden opportunities to be great.
And, yes, I'm on the Ellen Page bandwagon. She's jaw-droppingly good in "Super."
The reviews were previously published in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
Note: Finally, after five years of writing for "Primetime A&E"/"ICON", I finally met Trina. As anticipated, just a lovely, lovely woman.
Ceremony (Dir: Max Winkler). Starring: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace, Jake M. Johnson. Most wedding-themed films are played for love-inspired laughs or showy drama. Here's a wonderful exception. "When Max came to me with the idea for the movie, the way he pitched it to me—and the version that I was interested in helping him make—was the not-easy version," producer Matt Spicer, who grew up in Montgomery County, tells me. "We've all seen the movie where the guy goes to the wedding or whatever and tries to win back the girl." Intellectually precocious Sam Davis (Angarano), an aspiring children's book author, reunites with his sheltered best friend, Marshall (Thompson). But Sam, who's 23 and borderline obnoxious, has an ulterior motive: Their beach weekend occurs next door to where Sam's longtime lover (Thurman, never better) is getting married. Instead of the aforementioned usual proceedings, Winkler offers a moving and honest look at the awkwardness of young adulthood that's reminiscent of classics like Five Easy Pieces and The Graduate. Terrific performances from everyone involved, especially Pace as Thurman's pretentious, smarter-than-he-appears groom, and Johnson as her coarse, but sage, brother. This understated gem is also available on demand. [R] ****
The Conspirator (Dir: Robert Redford). Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Johnny Simmons. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, authorities quickly rounded up the Southern loyalists behind the murderous plot, except for one—John Surratt (Simmons). Desperate for a scapegoat and fueled by vengeance, fear-mongering Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) put Surratt's mother, Mary (Wright), on trial. She faced a clearly biased military tribunal and was assigned a reluctant lawyer (McAvoy) who fought for the North. But the young Frederick Aiken soon discovered that his client's guilt was irrelevant; it was about whether she could get the fair trial she was entitled to by law. The movie's historical revelations—which have contemporary relevance—fascinate, but they can't compensate for Redford's lack of urgency or the curiously muted performances by everyone. Another crucial flaw: We never fully understand why Aiken accepts such a difficult case. In this courtroom drama, there isn’t enough of the latter to keep us interested. [PG-13] **
Super (Dir: James Gunn). Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker. Lifelong loser Frank (Wilson) has only had two triumphant moments in his life—pointing a cop in the right direction of his fleeing target and marrying the beautiful Sarah (Tyler), a recovering drug addict. When Sarah leaves him for the town crimelord (played to oily perfection by Bacon), Frank is divinely inspired to save her while stopping other evildoers ranging from drug dealers to line cutters at the movies. So he dons a red costume, grabs a pipe wrench (which he uses to brutal effect), and becomes the Crimson Bolt. Writer/director Gunn (Slither) has created something amazing: The feel-good version of Taxi Driver, a hyper-violent, touching, and hilarious story of a troubled loner's quest for redemption in a world that has forever mocked him. And it works. There's barely a misstep in this comic masterpiece. With his droopy features and sad eyes, TV star Wilson (The Office) is perfectly cast in the lead, while Page steals the movie as his petite, horny, and surprisingly bloodthirsty sidekick. [R] *****
I Am (Dir: Tom Shadyac). A few years ago, Shadyac, the director of comedy blockbusters such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor, was in a terrible bike accident. Shadyac emerged from his physical and emotional injuries as an enlightened soul sickened by his lifestyle of material excess. The shaggy-haired director's latest effort features him asking various academics, authors, and spiritual leaders about what's wrong with the world and how we can change it. Puzzling effort from Shadyac, who doesn't concentrate on his own momentous life change—which is the real story; he now rides a bike to work and lives in a mobile home—but devotes time to an endless procession of talking heads. The constant stream of chatter turns I Am into a well-intentioned but droning infomercial for positive living. If Shadyac had fully chronicled his own spiritual rebirth, not only would he have made a more interesting film, people may have been moved to change their ways. Unfortunately, I Am inspires nothing but indifference. [NR] **