Reviews for July 24th, 2009
The Answer Man
Directed by John Hindman.
Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), a middle-aged man, lives quietly in his apartment and prefers to not have any communication with other people. He had once written a best-selling, self-help book 20 years ago called Me and God about conversations he had with God, or so he claims. Trying to get rid of the books that he wrote, he shows up at a bookstore where Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), the manager, who just came out of rehab, refuses to accept his books. One day, Arlen throws his back out and, literally, crawls on all fours into the office of Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a chiropractor who accepts him right away and fixes his back. Soon enough, he develops a romance with Elizabeth and bonds with her 7-year-old son, Alex (Max Antisell). He also becomes a mentor for Kris, giving him answers/advice in exchange for getting rid of his books. Will Elizabeth and Arlen’s romance endure? Will she help him to trust other people? Will Arlen find some peace of mind and overcome his midlife crises for a change? Despite charming performances by Jeff Daniels and, especially, Lauren Graham, there’s really not enough substance in the lazy, bland screenplay to care about the answers to any of those questions. Writer/director John Hindman simply doesn’t allow for Arlen’s character to change organically or believably for that matter. There’s some witty, humorous dialogue on occasion, but none of it gives any of the cast members a chance to truly shine. The romantic scenes between Arlen and Elizabeth should have been moving, but instead they’re corny and contrived, especially the way that Arlen asks her to go for a walk around the block with him. The third act, moreover, feels too rushed, leaving you wanting much more insight into the life and mind of Arlen Faber. At a running time of 96 minutes, The Answer Man has a terrific cast and charming performances, but it’s often lazy, contrived, lacking insight and, ultimately, underwhelming in terms of drama, romance and comedy. Number of times I checked my watch: 3 Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
California Company Town
Directed by Lee Anne Schmitt.
This timely, provocative documentary focuses on how the landscape of small, industrial towns in California has evolved when the greedy mining, lumber and oil companies abandoned them after using up all of their resources. The actions and inactions of those companies have their own short-term and long-term consequences on the environment and on the many workers and townspeople that they had displaced. Director Lee Anne Schmitt could have followed the standard route of documentaries by including many interviews or looking for solutions to the problem of environmental degradation. Instead, she shows a lot of footage from the small towns, many of which have been completely deserted while the landscape has been eroded throughout the years to the point of appearing inhabitable. Schmitt wisely narrates the film in a gentle, somewhat monotonous voice that’s not condescending or emotional, so it doesn’t feel distracting and, instead, helps you to remain focused on the powerful images themselves. She also briefly discusses the fascinating history of the towns and includes some archival footage of what the towns were like back when they had people living and working there. In many ways, the current-day images of the small towns represents a microcosm of the larger problem of how capitalism often leads to the undermining of more important values such as nature, health and, above all, evolution. Human beings fundamentally rely on nature for basic survival, so it doesn’t make any sense to destroy it while depleting its valuable resources. Why can’t mankind and nature live symbiotically? Sadly, that’s a loaded question that can’t be answered so easily with so much greed, ego, ignorance and apathy found in many people throughout the hustle-and-bustle of this modern world. Just by watching the many striking visuals of landscape degradation and decay, you’ll feel the innate need to preserve and cherish nature in all of its beauty, but, realistically, that’s easier said than done. At a running time of only 76 minutes, California Company Town manages to be a provocative, non-preachy, vital and illuminating documentary with quietly powerful and haunting images. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Opens at the Anthology Film Archives.
The English Surgeon
Directed by Geoffrey Smith.
This provocative documentary follows Dr. Henry Marsh, a 58-year-old brain surgeon based in London, as he travels all the way to Kiev, Ukraine to diagnose and operate on patients with neurological problems. He has been traveling back and forth from London to Kiev ever since 1992 when he noticed the existence of primitive clinics that didn’t have the adequate tools for brain surgery. Many patients were, and still are, neglected and simply told that their tumors are inoperable. Igor Kurilets, a Ukrainian neurosurgeon, assists him throughout his many operations, some of which Marsh doesn’t even charge any fee for poor patients who wouldn’t be able to afford the surgery under the current, bankrupt health-care system. Director Geoffrey Smith includes footage of Marsh giving patients their accurate diagnosis. He candidly admits that it’s very difficult for him to let some of them know that they have no chance to surviving---he wants to give them hope, but he often feels saddened that he’s giving them a false sense of hope. Smith does a masterful job of allowing the viewer to get to know Marsh’s personality whether he’s venting his frustrations about the Ukrainian healthcare system or expressing his passion for helping others or showing his dry sense of humor and wit. The featured patient in the film is Marian Dolishny, an Ukranian man suffering from a brain tumor that gives him epilepsy. If images of blood and guts make you uneasy, you’ll find the surgery scene to be very difficult to watch because the camera remains focused on all the squirm-inducing details of the operating procedure. Admittedly, though, that lengthy scene could have been edited down to only a minute or two because, at nearly 15 minutes, it’s too overwhelming and disturbing. Dr. Henry Marsh ought to be a role model not just for every doctor around the world but for every human being because he genuinely cares about others without any greed or ego. At a running time of 94 minutes, The English Surgeon manages to be a provocative, taut and compelling documentary that’s concurrently disturbing and profoundly moving.
(Please click here for information about the cover-up of hidden MSG and for a complete list of ingredients with hidden MSG, which might be linked to many neurological conditions, among others.) Number of times I checked my watch: 1Released by Eyeline Films. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Directed by Chris Fuller.
During 1997 in St. Petersburg, Florida, a year after the racial riots took place there, three adolescents live an aimless and carefree life, drinking booze, having sex and fighting whenever they get the chance to. Jason (Travis Maynard), a skinhead, hangs around with his good friend, Cale (Chris Fuller, using the name Lewis Brogan), who works as a repairman at an auto shop, and gets into fights with any black people that they could find. Nicole (Kayla Tabish) stops by Cale’s auto shop to get her car fixed, which should be ready by the next day. Cale takes that opportunity to flirt with her and, eventually, takes her on a dinner date at the same diner that she works at as a waitress. Little does he know that she’s sleeping with a black guy (Din Thomas) and has random sex, such as with a diner patron who meets her after her shift ends and screws her in his car right in a parking lot. Writer/director Christ Fuller, who wrote the script 12 years ago back when he was 15, leaves the plot at a minimum with no emphasis on standard character development or any other kind of standards you might expect from a narrative film. There’s virtually no dialogue for the first 20 minutes and whatever dialogue ensues is quite laconic, which initially feels frustrating. He also fades-to-black many times and includes audio speeches by Charles Bukowsk, among others. There’s also footage of politician Robert “Budd” Dwyer’s televised suicide in 1987. Shot with a Super 16 camera, the film has a very rough, grainy look to it that adds rawness and even some slight vitality. Patient views, open-minded and undemanding viewers will be fascinated the most, especially by the inclusion of small details make more sense in retrospect, such as a t-shirt with the words: “Don’t Think.” Why is the film called Loren Cass if none of the characters you meet has that name? That’s just one of the many mysteries that require attentive viewing and just a little contemplation to figure out. Those two words can sum up the mentality of pretty much every character on screen. At a brief running time of 83 minutes, Loren Cass manages to be a deceptively simple indie drama that’s quite bizarre, raw, haunting and refreshingly original on a visceral level. Number of times I checked my watch: 3 Released by Kino International. Opens at the Cinema Village.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) lives with her husband, John (Peter Sarsgaard) , and two kids, Max (Aryana Engineer) and Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), in a quiet, suburban Connecticut town. She sees a therapist, Dr. Browning (Margo Martindale), to deal with her depression after her third child died during childbirth and Max had an accident on the ice that left her deaf. She also struggles to overcome a drinking problem. Kate and John decide to adopt a child this time around, especially since Max insists on having a sister to bond with. They stop by an orphanage run by Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) and chose to adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a seemingly adorable, well-mannered 9-year old who loves to paint and even knows how to play the piano quite well. However, there’s much more to Esther than meets the eye once she arrives at the Coleman family’s home. Kate, much like the audience, knows that there’s something seriously wrong with Esther, but can’t quite pinpoint what that “something” is. Meanwhile, her husband and even her therapist think that she’s overreacting or delusional for suspecting Esther of any kind of wrongdoing, which won’t be spoiled here. Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson treads the same water as many similar horror thrillers, namely The Omen, The Bad Seed and Joshua, which, coincidentally, also starred Vera Farmiga as a mother. Some of the scares and fakes scares here are so predictable to the extent that you’ll find yourself think, “I knew that was gonna happen!” However, the mystery of Esther’s past, her motives as well as other unclear aspects about her, remain a mystery throughout which keeps the plot suspenseful until the exciting, pulse-pounding ending, which won’t be revealed here. A few over-the-top, ludicrous scenes generate unintentional laughter, but, for the most part, many scenes do feel psychologically thrilling and scary. Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a terrific job of creating an eerie atmosphere through set design, sound effects, lighting and editing, although he tends to unnecessarily overuse the musical score as a means of heightening the intensity. It also helps that the performances are convincingly strong all across the board, especially the underrated Vera Farmiga as Kate and newcomer Isabelle Fuhrman in an unforgettable performance as Esther. At a running time of 123 minutes, Orphan occasionally sinks into ludicrousness, but has enough suspense, chills and surprises to keep avid horror fans viscerally compelled and ultimately satisfied. Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Opens nationwide.
Directed by Jonas Pate.
Kevin Spacey plays Dr. Henry Carter, a psychiatrist-to-the stars who’s depressed, addicted to pot, drinks heavily and still grieves over his wife’s suicide. His patients include a variety of old and young people suffering from different problems. Jack (Dallas Roberts), an annoying, stubborn and rude superagent, suffers from OCD. His assistant, Daisy (Pell James), an unmarried pregnant woman, can barely stand him and dreams of becoming a producer. She meets Jeremy (Mark Webber), an aspiring writer who’s also Dr. Carter’s patient, when hands her his very first screenplay. They both go on a date together and, before you know it, he confesses his love for her. The title of his screenplay is “Jemma,” named after his new friend (Keke Palmer), an African-American teenager who’s also a patient of Dr. Carter. Kate Anderson (Saffron Burrows) is an aging actress who has fallen out of love with her cheating husband and begins a romance with Dr. Carter even though she’s his patient. Robin Williams briefly shows up as a patient suffering from alcoholism and sex addiction. Finally, there’s Robert Loggia as Dr. Carter’s father who gathers his family together in an attempt to intervene with his drug/alcohol problems. Each member of the ensemble cast delivers a decent performance and is well-cast, which helps you to feel mildly engaged. However, just by noting how many different troubled characters make up the entire plot here, you’d think that the film would run close to 3 hours to bring each character and story to life. Instead, at a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, the screenplay by Thomas Moffett feels overstuffed with too many characters in contrived situations while few scenes or characters radiate authenticity and make you feel any kind of pathos, with the exception of Jemma’s subplot. The meandering screenplay never really gets inside the head of Dr. Carter so that you truly care about him. His breakdown and transformation come across as inorganic and too sudden. Ultimately, Shrink manages to be a mildly engaging ensemble drama with decent performances, but it suffers from an overstuffed, contrived and often tedious plot that fails to pack any palpable, emotional punches. Number of times I checked my watch: 4 Released by Roadside Attractions. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
The Ugly Truth
Directed by Robert Luketicl.
Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl), a single, romantically-challenged woman, works as a TV producer of a morning show. When the show’s ratings begin to plummet, her bosses bring someone new onto the show: Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), an outspoken TV personality who openly discusses his belief in the “ugly truth” that men are simple, superficial and constantly think about sex and that women should adapt to their desires instead of trying to change them. Abby has had bad luck in the past with meeting her ideal guy and happens to be in the process of trying to woo her next door neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter), who initially seems disinterested in her. Mike makes a deal with Abby that if she follows his advice precisely about how to impress Colin, she’ll be able to win him over. If the advice doesn’t work, then he’ll quit the show and get out of her life for good. Soon enough, he gives her a full makeover, making her look like a sex object, and tells her how to behave around Colin. When Colin takes her to a minor league baseball game, she wears an earpiece so that Mike can dictate to her exactly what to say to Colin, although that plan leads to a very embarrassing situation which won’t be spoiled here. Mike gives her vibrating panties to wear for her next date. In a scene that loosely recalls the classic Katz Deli scene from When Harry Met Sally…, Abby attends a dinner at a restaurant with Colin present and wears vibrating the vibrating panties, which are controlled by a remote that ends up in the hands of a child who thinks it’s a toy. The screenplay by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith includes plenty outrageous, physical, lowbrow humor that often generates laughter, but some of it does feel too forced and awkward. Director Robert Luketic, who previously directed Monster-in-Law and Legally Blonde, wisely keeps the pace moving along briskly and includes a lively soundtrack. Sure, the plot can be easily labeled as heavily predictable and unrealistic, especially when it comes to all the wild ways that Mike behaves on the morning show or, for that matter, the fact that Abby listens to advice from such a boorish man who certainly has relationship issues of his own to deal with. Abby and Mike have virtually no real chemistry together and the romantic scenes fall flat in ways that might make you roll your eyes, particularly during the corny third act. However, those minor shortcomings don’t make the film any less engaging because, when it comes down to it, Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler radiate enough charisma, comedic energy and appeal onscreen to keep you thoroughly entertained. At an ideal running time of 95 minutes, The Ugly Truth manages to be a crass, simple-minded and highly contrived R-rated comedy that’s nonetheless outrageously funny and irresistibly entertaining. Number of times I checked my watch: 1Released by Columbia Pictures. Opens nationwide.