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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Upside of Anger

The “Old Made New” designation
had its roots in the recommendation of catalogue titles, films that had
sort of slipped through the cracks or were a bit off the beaten path. One of the great things about “the Internets,” as our president would say, is of course that you can upend more traditional notions of archiving, and slot and re-post things as you see fit.

To that end, given my perhaps surprisingly strong regard for Reign Over Me, I thought it would be an interesting counterbalance to post my review of writer-director Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger,
his last prior theatrical wide release, which bowed in March of 2005 to
just over $18.5 million domestically. Reading back over the piece, I
was struck by some of the overt thematic similarities — both movies find Binder exploring the post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air — I had forgotten, perhaps because of the more… not distasteful, really, but headache-inducing elements of The Upside of Anger. I have to say, I think Reign Over Me is much more judicious in its moments of pique and showcased frustration. It shows evidence of someone who’s grown leaps and bounds as director. To wit:

An awkward and generally off-putting amalgamation of
codependency and “zeitgeist” posturing written and directed by Mike Binder
(HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man), The Upside of Anger is a romantic
dramedy ostensibly about fury and resentment’s ability to transform, about the
corruptible power it has over not only those exercising it but those under its
umbrella
.

Joan Allen stars as harridan Terry Wolfmeyer, a woman whose
husband suddenly disappears — she thinks the result of an affair. Terry
presides over her four implausibly un-flummoxed teen and young adult daughters
(Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood) and a large
suburban house where it’s loud even when no one is talking due to the forceful
stamp of her furrowed-brow personality
. The Wolfmeyers’ next-door neighbor is
the rumpled Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-jock turned Detroit
radio deejay who doesn’t want to talk about sports and his baseball career,
even as he signs crates of baseballs to anonymously auction off on eBay. As the
days turn into weeks and more, Terry and Denny engage in a clumsy, discomfited
mating dance, and Denny finds something transforming about all the new estrogen
in his life. Terry is crazy and unhinged, but for whatever reason she helps bring
Denny’s life into focus, and he hers.

The two best things going for The Upside of Anger are its clever casting inversions, which find
the genteel Allen tearing into her rich bitchery with full-hearted aplomb, and
Costner playing a rumpled scalawag who thinks he’s a charmer but no one’s
actually charmed by (at least until the Wolfmeyers come around to his
loose-tongued candor). That both Terry and Denny are functional alcoholics is
fertile (if familiar) comedic ground but a bit of an emotional cop-out. It unnecessarily
negates and blurs their motivations
. The main problem is one of tone, though. In
order for a character as bitter and abrasive as Terry to work, he or she really
has to be set against a more serene background, which the film pretends to have
in the loafing Denny. But The Upside of
Anger
is every bit as shrill and strident as its lead.

The film provokes, sure, but not in a meaningful way. It
doesn’t rankle because it challenges
you, but rather because it’s so clamorous and insistent of its own ornamental,
idiosyncratic charms
. There are a few wild-eyed moments of comic delight — an
awkward dinner scene where the film cements its R rating with a wicked glimpse
into Terry’s mind’s eye — that succeed because you feel the movie isn’t running
along some carefully prescribed track; anything can happen. But overall The Upside of Anger merely comes off as
discordant. Additionally, it must be said that there’s no palpable sisterly
chemistry between the young actresses, and that Swimfan’s Christensen — all giant, blank-faced blinks and eyebrow
quirks — gives a jarringly awful, wince-inducing performance
. Each scene that
foregrounds her is amongst the worst of the movie.

Whatever your appraisal of Binder’s talents as a writer and
actor (he costars here as Adam “Shep” Goodman, Denny’s horndog producer and the
skeazy wooer of Christensen’s middle daughter, Andie), as a director he evinces
no clear sense of control, no ability to carefully mold a scene in order to
bring both the tension and comedy to full boil
— something, say, Sam Mendes
accomplished smashingly in American
Beauty
, a film of suburban dystopia which The Upside of Anger obviously wants to emulate. Setting the movie
several years ago, Binder tries to tie his thesis (that anger’s upside is… that
it’s the person you become?) to post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air. It
works to negligible effect; the screwiness feels patterned and arbitrary
.
There’s little Upside here. (New
Line, R, 116 minutes)

Fracture

Fracture
centers around Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), a well-to-do man who kills his
cheating wife, and readily admits it to the responding police officer. Crawford
has his eyes on a bigger game, though, and mitigating circumstances, including
the lack of a matching weapon, give him several important trump cards when he decides to represent himself in court against hotshot Los
Angeles
assistant district attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan
Gosling).

A very well made genre picture full of smartly modulated
friction
, Fracture
is predicated
on a few significant leaps in believability, certainly (a murder case going to
trial in under two weeks, for one), but director Gregory Hoblit (NYPD Blue, Primal Fear) knows his way
around the criminal justice system. Hopkins,
of course, is reliably steady. Gosling, meanwhile, gives a great, engrossing
performance as the slick, narcissistic Willy — a blithe egotist with one foot
already out the door for a lucrative job at a private law firm
. When he comes under
fire and suddenly finds an embarrassing blight on his near-perfect record, it
ignites in him a deep competitive instinct that Fracture, quite agreeably, never pawns off on a
reawakened idealism. Willy’s a bit of a jerk, actually, but never less
than fascinatingly watchable. For the full capsule review, from CityBeat, click here.

Jennifer Lopez Seeks Credibility

So Jennifer Lopez is back on the warpath. She made a humanizing appearance on American Idol recently, and now she’s searching for her credibility as an actress, which — yes, haters — she at one point actually had, after a stretch of five films from 1996 to ’98 that included Blood and Wine, Selena and U Turn, and culminated with Out of Sight. Paring down her ridiculous profile is one thing that’s clearly within her control (there were times in 2002 when I believe she was doing perfume launch concerts at openings of various Arby’s), but the other thing she really has to do is find some solid dramatic material that reinvents her with critics and, more importantly, reestablishes her with audiences, so that she can then slip back into the sort of glossy, lucrative, utterly forgettable commercial vehicles (Angel Eyes, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, et al) that provide her with the ample amounts of fine lotion to which her derriere and legs have become accustomed.

The treacly An Unfinished Life wasn’t such a project, and it ain’t gonna happen with the salsa-movement-starter biopic El Cantante, in which Lopez costars with her emaciated husband, Marc Anthony. It looks like Lopez is doubling down on the socially conscious thriller Bordertown, which reteams her with Selena director Gregory Nava (a good thing), and costars Antonio Banderas, Martin Sheen (of course) and Sonia Braga. But the movie’s just-announced August 31 release date, from distributor THINKFilm, indicates that no one has much confidence in this as any sort of legitimate awards contender, and early, mixed-trending-negative word that’s leaked out from test screenings confirms as much.

Bordertown tells the story of Lauren Fredricks (Lopez), an
ambitious newspaper reporter who’s sent to Juarez, Mexico by her editor (Sheen) to investigate what has happened to hundreds of women who have disappeared, and how local police and authorities have been covering up their brutal rapes and
murders. Lauren looks up her former colleague (and lover, naturally) Alfonso Diaz
(Banderas, above left), and they soon uncover one of
the hottest stories of the year when they come across the only known survivor
of one of these mysterious attacks. The victim is initially reluctant to speak, but
Lauren eventually convinces her to break the silence.

These sorts of earnest-crusader flicks always look good on paper, and I’m not doubting this particular story has some puncher’s worth, but it doesn’t take into account the root of Lopez’s chief appeal, which has always been in parts smoldering, larger-than-life, vengeful, or some loose, rangy combination thereof. The notion of her as an underdog advocate, however driven, still underwhelms. We’ll see. Bordertown doesn’t have the scent of a hit, though, either with critics en masse or the public. Lopez’s quest may have to continue…

Happy Birthday, Ashley Judd

It’s a happy birthday to Ashley Judd, who turns 39 today. Her misguided affection for Kentucky basketball notwithstanding, Judd has a direct line to deep well of vulnerability that, to be blunt, not a lot of beautiful people have. There have been some harsh commercial judgments passed on Bug, her forthcoming film adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stageplay. And I’m not sure LionsGate is quite the right distributor for it, to be honest, given the critical animus toward the Saw franchise, and the fact that they ripped off their own poster, to a certain degree.

Still, I confess I’m looking forward to the movie, about an unhinged war veteran who drifts back into the life of his ex after a couple years in jail, and ignites… well, some bad times. And a large part of that has to do with Judd. William Friedkin directs, and clearly Harry Connick Jr. got the Jim Caviezel part, which is a good thing. But Judd can convey smart, pent-up fragility with the best of them, and Bug seems to be a claustrophobic character piece, a la Richard Linklater’s Tape, about the different sorts of hell we create. Perhaps a glimpse of things to come, too, given the thousands of psychologically traumatized young men and women returning home, date uncertain, from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, for what it’s worth, a piece I penned on Smokin’ Aces for FilmStew has re-posted on occasion of the movie’s DVD release. It can be accessed by clicking here.

Alanna Ubach, Hard Scrambled

Legally Blonde,
in which she played one of Reese Witherspoon’s
enthusiastic, gum-snapping best friends, which catapulted Ubach to a higher
comedic profile. She reprised her role in 2003’s sequel, and had a memorable supporting
role in 2004’s Meet the Fockers, playing sexy maid Isabel, the
deflowerer of Ben Stiller’s Greg.

Ubach’s latest role (above) finds her costarring alongside veteran
actor Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s
Show
),
droopy-faced indie stalwart Richard
Edson
(known to an entire generation as the unruly valet from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and up-and-comer
Eyal Podell. A character-driven piece about a group of chronic, blue-collar fantasists and ex-cons who plot for
control of a venerable diner after the owner has an “accident,” Hard
Scrambled
is written and
directed by Chicago-based playwright David Scott Hay, and was chosen from a
national script search sponsored by critically acclaimed trade magazine Creative
Screenwriting
. In conjunction with its recent DVD bow, Ubach took some time
to answer a few questions via email. The chat is excerpted below:

Brent Simon: In Hard
Scrambled
you play Crysta, a waitress, which is of course the stereotypical
job of aspirant actors-in-waiting. Any real-life experience slinging hash
(browns, that is), pie, etc.?

Alanna Ubach: The only job I had waitressing was at my
sister’s old restaurant, and of course playing Naomi in the movie Waiting.

BS: Hard Scrambled
is all about dreamers and schemers — what sort of crazy schemes have you
concocted in real life, whether they worked out or not?

AU: I had an ongoing daydream of being a rock star, and marrying
Adrien Zmed from Grease 2 when I was
nine. Those didn’t come true. I dream of being 5’5” (note: Ubach is 5’2”). Perhaps
one day they’ll invent a surgery to stretch short people’s limbs, and my dream
will come true!

BS: A familiar question, I’m sure, but were you driven by a
“performance instinct” growing up, and were you considered funny by your
classmates and friends in your teen years?

AU: I was very sarcastic, and as loud as a 90-year-old deaf
woman when I was a kid. I loved to imitate everyone in my family and make
everyone laugh, so yeah, I guess I was driven to perform at a very young age.

BS: Are you desperate to explore the relatively darker tones
of something like Hard Scrambled in
other projects, or it is more a case of, “Que sera sera.”

AU: I want to explore as much as I’m given the opportunity
to.

BS: What can we expect from Patriotic Bitch, your one-woman show — has it already had
its debut? And what’s the status on Equal
Opportunity
, and what sort of character do you play?

AU: Patriotic Bitch
made its debut at the McCadden Theatre in L.A.
and got great reviews. I’m now in the early stages of getting it primed and
ready for NY. Equal Opportunity will
be playing at the Aspen Fest and I play an all-American secretary with a very
dry sense of humor.

Presented in 16×9 widescreen on DVD, Hard Scrambled’s
listed special features include interviews with Hay and the actors, cast and
crew bios and an amusingly billed “anatomy of a failed scene.” The two-disc DVD
also includes a dozen modules on the essential topics of producing and
directing. From screenplay structure, continuity and working with actors to financing,
editing, publicity and distribution, there are more than two-and-a-half hours
of bonus materials to complement the briskly paced, 84-minute feature
presentation. For more information about Hard Scrambled, visit the
eponymous web site by clicking here
.

Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog is the directorial debut of screenwriter Mike
White (Chuck and Buck, School of Rock), and
it lives in the same neighborhood of flattened emotional affect and just-so
domesticity as Punch-Drunk Love and The Royal Tenenbaums
,
telling the story of a simple, single secretary (Molly Shannon) and her offbeat personal journey after the death of her canine companion. White,
though, is a much more of an ambler
; he isn’t concerned with the pursuit of any
cinematic trends, nor particularly any apparent agenda beyond an intimate,
tossed-off character sketch.

To that end, the movie sometimes seems tonally repetitive,
indulging the same penchant for mostly sweet people colliding with and
intersecting one another in uncomfortable fashion. Its impassivity, as much as
its blend of heartbreak and relatable chuckles, will confound those seeking
some sort of more formal judgment
. What gives the undersized Year of the Dog its to-scale
hold, though, is a nice performance from Saturday Night Live vet Shannon, who gets to display a much wider and
more interesting range of emotions than her broader comedic personae have
heretofore allowed. For the full capsule review, from CityBeat, click here.

Sigourney Weaver on The TV Set



In Jake Kasdan’s new comedy The TV Set, Sigourney Weaver plays a television executive whose suggestions drive a new show’s creator, played by David Duchovny, completely batty. Instead of broadly pitched generalizations, though, the movie smartly captures the sort of sunny-faced over-pasteurization of ideas that seems to so often result in a drab sameness that infects so much TV product.

At roundtable interviews for the film recently, I asked Weaver if that sort of tyrannically unchecked pursuit of accord on display in The TV Set was in her opinion more particular to television, or also possible in the world of film. There are many fingers in pies in any industry, after all, and not all of the owners of said fingers fail upwards. They’re smart people (well, some of them), and they have good intentions, but ideas all manner of hair-brained, backwards, down-market and pandering seem to find their way to the screen with unerring frequency. Is there just not as much importance placed on the debate of ideas and the defense of artistic rationale in TV?

“Well, I do think there’s more direction by committee in television than there is in most of the films that I’ve been a part of because the directors are smart enough to get away, and shoot out of town,” Weaver says. “But one of the things I felt was very important with Lenny — and one of the reasons I based her on this woman I know who runs this nonprofit — was that I didn’t want you to dismiss her too easily. I wanted her to be smart enough and real enough so you kind of had to take her seriously, because I do think that she has a point-of-view that is successful in this world, and she can get results. And so I think that one of the reasons that Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan are now making movies is because television didn’t appreciate them enough. I mean, Freaks and Geeks is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

Weaver is in a position to know, too. Perhaps unknown to many, her father was president of NBC in the 1950s. “He created The Today Show and The Tonight Show, he helped create the talk show, he created Your Show of Shows,” says Weaver. “He put opera and ballet and drama on television. And he had this thing called “Operation Frontal Lobes,” which was that every show, even if it was funny or silly, had to sneak some culture in. You know, even in Show of Shows, Sid Cesar had to sing an aria from Puccini or something like that. He had to trick people into seeing things that were good for them [because] he felt that television could make the man on the street the uncommon man.”

“And so I was very aware of my father while I was playing Lenny,” continues Weaver with a laugh, “because I had the advantage of having grown up with my father, and Lenny did not. Lenny thinks that what she’s doing is good, because she feels that after a long day and a long drive home on the freeway you shouldn’t make people think — that that’s too taxing, that what people want is to be comfortable and laugh and just be stimulated a bit. So she has a different philosophy. But I did think about my father quite a bit [during filming], and I think he would love The TV Set because it shows what he was up against. But in the end, the “Lennys” won. You know, he tried to start a fourth network twice and those families who ran the networks would not let him. He shook things up too much.”

Killer of Sheep Goes National

It’s great news for cinephiles as, fresh off successful runs in Los Angeles and New York City, a dazzling 35mm restoration of Charles Burnett’s fantastic Killer of Sheep will enjoy its first-ever proper theatrical distribution this spring and summer, from Milestone Films. One of the more acclaimed and influential movies by an African-American filmmaker, Killer of Sheep
was one of the first 50 films to be selected for the Library of
Congress’
National Film Registry
.

Set
in Watts in the mid-1970s, the movie centers on a sensitive,
blue-collar dreamer (Henry Gayle Sanders) haunted by his work at a
slaughterhouse, and his struggles to keep his family together, and keep
from becoming detached and numb. Killer of Sheep was the award-winning student thesis project of Burnett (The Glass Shield), but due mostly to music licensing
problems and other rights issues, the
film has been screened publically very rarely, and then typically
only in film school settings and occasional retrospective presentations. For more information and a continually updated list of play dates and venues, click here.

Frank Darabont Blasts George Lucas

MTV.com has up a piece with director Frank Darabont in which he discusses his upcoming movie The Mist — part of his ever-expanding personal canon of Stephen King adaptations — as well as his long-in-the-works Fahrenheit 451, which an industry friend told me has some casting news in the chamber, ready to be announced in the next couple weeks.

The most interesting tidbit, though, may be Darabont’s pointed evaluation of the time he spent crafting a screenplay for Indiana Jones IV, a period he calls “a tremendous disappointment and a waste of a year.”

Darabont says the experience only confirmed his feeling that he couldn’t be “chained to a computer anymore, not for the paycheck,” noting that Steven Spielberg loved the finished product and wanted to make it his next movie, only to have Lucas — whom Darabont calls one of the most stubborn men he knows — put the kibosh on it. Still, Darabont won’t reveal exactly what it was that Lucas objected to, or how his story might be different than the greenlit product, penned by David Koepp. “At this point, I don’t give much of a damn what George thinks,” says Darabont, “but I wouldn’t want to harm my friendship with Steven.” For the full piece, click here.

Props to Darabont for shooting so straight. Though puzzling, it’s hard to believe — despite the seeming 40 or so writers who have taken a crack at its script over the past half dozen years — that Lucas would completely shitcan a story that presumably he signed off on, especially if Spielberg loved the script. One would have to think that some trace elements of Darabont’s story might remain. Otherwise, is Spielberg suddenly that hard up for a franchise revisitation, sitting around, waiting to entertain whimsical new Indiana Jones yarns on the off chance that one might catch Lucas’ fleeting fancy?

Though he’s a writer I’ve long admired (hey, I even dig The Paper, what can I say?), we won’t know the success of Koepp’s script for a year or so (or until it leaks out all over the Internet). One thing is for certain, though: as evidenced by the Star Wars prequels, maybe Lucas’ story sense shouldn’t be the principal controlling force in the franchise reboot.

Happy Birthday, Jennifer Garner

It’s a happy birthday to Jennifer Garner, who turns 35 today. I like to imagine that husband Ben Affleck’s courtship of her consisted of popping a tape of this in the VCR, leaning back, and just cracking his knuckles. That’d be smooth.

The jury may still be out on Garner as a viable commercial leading lady (Catch and Release more or less bombed with only $15.5 million earlier this spring, two years after Elektra opened to $12 million on more than 3,200 screens before fizzling out at $24.4 million in domestic receipts). Still, Garner undeniably raised the bar for small screen ass-kicking, while also injecting a nice vulnerability into her work that would seem to make her a natural fit for the sort of settled adult rom-coms that the Under the Tuscan Sun/Must Love Dogs set so loves.

Freedom Writers

I know what you’re thinking while either looking at Freedom Writers’ DVD box cover or
letting the recent spate of television advertising on teen-centric channels
like MTV roll over you — where’s the accompanying music video with Hilary Swank
and Coolio? Inspired by a true story in which gangbanger Long Beach teenagers were
encouraged to put their angst to paper in the charged years following the 1992 Los
Angeles riots, Freedom Writers leans
heavily on the grooves of audience expectation
established by the estimable screen
canon of insistent mentors butting heads with cynical and otherwise hardened
urban teens
— movies like Stand and
Deliver
, Lean on Me and, yes,
1995’s Dangerous Minds, which starred
Michelle Pfeiffer as an idealist under fire who just happened to also look
particularly good in a leather jacket. Still, a critic’s heart isn’t an automatically
hardened one, and on balance there’s certainly more good than bad in this
ardently pitched if somewhat familiar story of swollen-hearted uplift.

Freedom Writers is
penned and directed by Richard LaGravenese, and stars Swank as Erin Gruwell, a new
high school teacher whose passion and optimism are challenged by a roster of
freshmen juvenile delinquents who test at the very bottom of their class. Using
disparate means (Tupac! Anne Frank!), Erin promotes
respect and racial tolerance, precepts which slowly take hold. Urging her
students that their voices matter, she then gets them to record their feelings
in journals, a class project named in homage to the groundbreaking American
civil rights activists known as the “Freedom Riders.”

That some of the film’s points of sentimentality are hit
about 25 or 30% too hard is the price of dance-with-the-devil modern
moviemaking within the studio system
, but you forgive these more and more once
the characters start to sink in and more overt manipulation is avoided. Swank
delivers a dedicated performance, and several of the young cast members also
make a nice impression. The one big area of slip-up is that LaGravenese miscalculates
the pitch and tone of Erin’s antagonistic and unsupportive
colleagues (Imelda Staunton as an administrator
and John Benjamin Hickey as a threatened peer), and their sneeringly histrionic
opposition occasionally threatens to sink Freedom
Writers
’ otherwise modest charms. Still, the movie slots high in the canon of inspirational cinema, plays even better on DVD
than on the big screen and is
easily worth a rental or even purchase if said genre is in your wheelhouse.

Sold separately in either widescreen or full-screen
releases, Freedom Writers comes with
Dolby digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 surround English language audio mixes, a
French language 5.1 surround sound mix and optional English subtitles. Swank
and LaGravenese sit for a warm, very friendly audio commentary track in which
much praise is bestowed upon Gruwell, the kids and one another. A very nice 19-minute
making-of special charts the development of the project
, which first caught LaGravenese’s
eye after a 1999 Primetime Live report.
Gruwell and Swank share joint recollections in open, effusive fashion, and LaGravenese
talks about the importance of the eyes and faces of his young students, most of
whom were non-actors prior to Freedom
Writers
. A 10-minute featurette billed as being “the story behind the story”
unfortunately includes no chats with Gruwell’s real-life students, and in
actuality overlaps a good bit with the aforementioned mini-doc, but what both
of these featurettes share is a lot of great interview footage with the acting
neophytes who comprise Swank’s class
. They speak in open-hearted fashion about parallels
between their own lives and the material, and when one young man, Mario Barrett,
lets tears stream from his face, you may find your own heart caught in your
throat for a moment — definitely a rarity for any DVD featurette
.

Also included is a five-minute featurette on Common and
Will.i.am’s positive-minded “I Have a Dream” soundtrack contribution, featuring
recording studio footage and top-notch interview snippets with each of them. Eleven
minutes worth of deleted scenes
includes a lot of material centered on another
class field trip, to see Schindler’s List;
these scenes also provide a bit fuller of an arc for the character of Erin’s
father, played by Scott Glenn, given that they include extended post-screening dinner
conversations. Rounding out the release are a photo gallery, the theatrical
trailer and a collection of trailers for other Paramount
releases. B- (Movie) B (Disc)

Mr. Brooks Trailer: WTF?

The year 2007 has already offered up some grade-A stinkers (I’m looking in your general direction, Premonition…), but some pals and I were recently perusing the summer slate, trying to suss out a few of the certain bombs-in-waiting amidst all those gaudy sequels and franchise pictures. One of my friends rightly seized on Element Films and MGM’s Mr. Brooks. To wit, he wrote:

“Okay, so here’s my pick for 2007’s WTF special: Kevin
Costner is a respectable businessman who has a secret life as a serial killer.
Demi Moore is the cop trying to bring him down. Already we’ve got that
delicious I Love the Early ’90s Halloween Reunion Special feel.

But! Add in William Hurt as the personification of Costner’s
murderous id that drives him to kill, script and direction by Bruce Evans (previous
writing credits: Cutthroat Island, Jungle 2 Jungle; only directing credit: Kuffs)
and a June 1 release date, and
you start to see we really have something special here.”

And he’s right, you know. The trailer offers up some hilarious shorthand (why, he’s the Portland Chamber of Commerce man of the year!),
and very little to indicate a particularly deft or invigorating handling of the “personified id” element. Failing some sort of very fancy, purposefully convoluted hook (and I can only really think of two or three possibilities), this looks like a free money giveaway to a couple stars who maybe haven’t recently been offered quite as many cushy major studio flick paydays as in years past. (As for Hurt, well, I don’t begrudge him a mortgage payment or three, though it’ll be interesting to see if he conveys menace through trademark Whispery Solemn Hurt, or a slightly newfangled iteration of his zonked-out, Oscar-nominated crime boss in A History of Violence.)

Toss in the aforementioned talents of Evans and comedian Dane Cook as an amateur photographer with an apparent penchant for blackmail and yes, Mr. Brooks looks like it has some potential, all right. For a look at the film’s trailer, click here.

Art of Passion

Aching sincerity in and of itself is not a problem. But Art of Passion is one of those movies. First off, it’s written and
directed by a guy named Arthur Bjorn Egeli (!), a guy who describes himself
without pause as “a visionary artist”
in the complementary audio commentary
track on this new DVD release. (That he would then go on from this to make a movie
called Lap Dancer to me says otherwise;
it says he makes art chiefly to get laid.) But at any rate, Art of Passion is about an artist, with
a capital A; why, you can tell how good he is by how deadly serious he is.

Shot in 1994 under the title Unconditional Love, the movie stars Pablo Bryant as Steve Buchanan
(above left), a headstrong young landscape painter on the verge of discovery. While
Steve severs ties and acts out in the course of battling for the approval of
his stern, withholding mentor, Robert Hoffman (David Ellsworth, above right), three women in
turn vie for his attention. There’s Theresa (Jessica Brytn Flannery), a young,
sensual model who lives for the images Steve creates of her. Then there’s Melissa
(Swedish-born Isabelle Dahlin), a much more conventional fellow student who
worships the ideal that she believes Steve stands for. Finally, there’s impetuous
abstract painter Mary (Aleksandra Kaniak, probably the real looker of the
three), who is every bit the intellectual match for Steve.

If compliments must be given, it can be honestly said Art of Passion recreates a time and
space fairly convincingly
; the movie is steeped in autobiographical detail, and
shot all around Provincetown, where
Egeli studied at the Cape School of Art and apparently continues to
occasionally retreat. The film also features, in easygoing fashion, a good bit
of natural nudity; it’s the type of movie that, if it existed back in the
mid-1980s, could slip through on some second-rate cable channel like Cinemax,
and make 12-year-olds feel vaguely funny in their pants. The problem is that
the movie is enormously pretentious, extremely stilted and full of ridiculous problems
and dialogue
. Bryant makes for a dour, unpersuasive lead, and the fact that so
many women are required to orbit him like satellites is unconvincing. Irritation overwhelms interest fairly quickly, making for a tedious 90 minutes.

If the product itself is of dubious value, Liberation
Entertainment’s special edition DVD release is a nice effort, at least
. While
the full-frame transfer leaves much to be desired — studded with grain and
debris, it’s really quite bad, but reflective of the low regard in which the
presumably 16mm source material was held, I guess — Dolby digital 2.0 audio tracks in English
and Spanish capture the low-key aural demands of the movie in clear fashion.
There’s also a spate of supplemental features, beginning with the
aforementioned audio commentary track from Egeli
, in which he talks a lot about
the inspiration for the movie, and its many parallels to (and divergences from)
his own life.

Twelve-plus minutes of deleted scenes kick off the meatier
portion of extras, but the chief bonus feature is 22 minutes of new interviews,
with Bryant, Egeli, Kaniak, Ellsworth, Dahlin, Hal Streib and many more. All
sorts of revealing tidbits pop up here, and Kaniak is most forthcoming with the
gossip, though it’s not exactly that
tawdry. She talks about her nude scenes, and the panic she felt upon arriving
on set and finding out that there was no key make-up artist. Centerpiece Bryant,
meanwhile, is a yawn of an interview, leaving one not to wonder why his career didn’t advance far beyond this movie. Talent
files, the movie’s 90-second trailer, an expansive photo gallery (which includes
some images that can be zoomed in on), an essay by composer Michael Errington and
DVD-ROM screensavers and computer wallpaper round out the disc. Only the awful
video quality mars this presentation. D (Movie) B (Disc)

Dead and Deader

The interspersing of zombie and military flick tropes has a
rich history, dating all the way back, of course, to George Romero’s Day of the Dead and beyond. Dead and Deader, though, I’ll give
credit: it might be the first film in which I’ve gotten/had to deploy both the phrases
“marauding zombies” and “illegal Cambodian incursion” (Henry Kissinger would not
be amused, I guess)
, and that’s not even including the movie’s obvious nods to 2004’s
Shaun of the Dead and Jim Carrey’s similarly
titled goof-fest.

A tonal mash-up of semi-successful execution if entirely
copped moves
, Dead and Deader stars erstwhile
Superman Dean Cain at Lt. Bobby Quinn, a Special Forces commando who, during an
officially unauthorized reconnaissance mission deep into said country’s sweaty jungle
with his platoon, uncovers a secret experimental laboratory full of mutilated
dead bodies, an exceptional breed of life-extending scorpions and strange equipment.
Quinn also unfortunately gets killed… or so it seems.

When he wakes up Stateside after barely avoiding his own
autopsy, an only semi-zombified Quinn finds that, courtesy of said scorpion, he’s
been bestowed with certain powers that make him the ultimate fighter against a
growing band of fully infected, undead flesh-easters. Teaming up with military
cook Judson (Guy Torry), film geek waitress Holly (Susan Ward)
and others, Quinn tries to stop the plague before it infects the entire nation.

I remember flipping through Dead and Deader screenwriter Mark Altman’s 1991 behind-the-scenes
book on Twin Peaks, and being wowed…
by the number of typos and errors. Even for what was obviously a quickie
cash-in title, I thought, this was slung together in pretty haphazard fashion. The
same might be said for quite a lot of Altman’s hackishly referential writing
for the big screen, which includes Room 6,
starring Christine Taylor;
The Darkroom; Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead (and its sequel);
and 1998’s Star Trek-inspired Free Enterprise. He’s a co-writer here, though,
with Steve Kriozere, and the collaboration seems to have worked; certainly
there are no groaning inconsistencies on par with the aforementioned book, and
the tone is for the most part one of nicely balanced fun and splatter-driven schlock.

Its many genre in-jokes are frequently obvious and chatter
about other movies sometimes tedious
, but Dead
and Deader
’s characters are decently sketched out and given some fun lines,
and the cast (which includes Colleen Camp, Peter Greene, Dean Haglund and Armin
Shimerman) really helps elevate things beyond something like Devil’s Den,
which wants to be hip and fun but sinks under the weight of its own accumulated
inanity. By knowing what type of movie they’re making (and what kind they’re not), and all being on the same page,
along with director Patrick Dinhunt, Dead
and Deader
actually earns a marginal recommendation for the hardcore horror
set who also found Shaun of the Dead such
a delicious, chocolate-and-peanut-butter-type flick.

The DVD for the movie comes in a nice cardboard O-ring (above) that spiffs
up what is otherwise a fairly drab cover, presenting a cut-out of a door that frames,
yes, a couple marauding zombies. The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen,
enhanced for 16×9 televisions, and comes with Dolby digital 5.1 and 2.0 English
language tracks, as well as an audio commentary track from writers Altman and Kriozere,
along with composer Joe Kraemer. The most tasty tidbit of the slate of extras is
a 35-minute making-of featurette
, full of cast and crew interviews, as well as
some behind-the-scenes footage. A photo gallery and a DVD-ROM copy of the
script round out the bonus features. C+ (Movie) B- (Disc)

Shia LaBeouf Tops Box Office, Hosts SNL

Forget, for a moment, television’s American Idol. We may have a new big screen pin-up, albeit one of a chatty, somewhat canted appeal. It was a good week indeed for Shia LaBeouf, who ensured that a lot more people will start to learn how to correctly spell his name, what with the strong opening of his Disturbia, a thriller which premiered to an estimated $23 million and change at just over 2,900 locations, good for tops at the box office. (Fellow wide-release opener Perfect Stranger, meanwhile, washed out with $11.5 million at 2,660 sites.) No mind that the movie was a slickly made but only moderately engaging, teen-inflected tweak on the central conceit of Rear Window, and that it ultimately ran out of things to say in the third act — the fact remains that LaBeouf put his stamp of personality on the film, and the under-25 set, leaning female within that group, made it a big hit.

LaBeouf’s hosting gig on Saturday Night Live was a further nice little showcase for him. It wasn’t a classic episode (a notion somewhat amusingly assayed in the show’s opener, where an enthusiastic LaBeouf was met with the shrugging reticence of cast members), but it did offer him a few nice moments. His impression of Tobey Maguire on The Prince Show was a push, but there were fun moments to be had in a public access-type Sofa King commercial (as in, “Our prices are Sofa King low!”) as well as a sketch in which an underage LaBeouf and Andy Samberg concocted a labyrinthine, unfolding scheme to purchase beer at a mini-mart. The best display of the sort of self-assurance that has helped catapult LaBeouf to the top of casting directors’ lists, though, came in the final moments of the show, in a throwaway meta-sketch in which Maya Rudolph aggressively hit on LaBeouf, apparently solely because their first names rhyme.

One of the worst kept secrets in Hollywood, meanwhile, finally was officially rolled out and confirmed — namely, LaBeouf’s casting in the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series, in a yet-to-be-determined capacity. LaBeouf has a friend in Steven Spielberg — he helped place the young actor in Michael Bay’s Transformers, on which he’s an executive producer — so more good things are on the horizon for LaBeouf, to be sure, even if my girlfriend still refers to him as “that little Project Greenlight movie kid.”

Happy Birthday, Adrien Brody

It’s a happy birthday to Adrien Brody, who turns 34 today. When I think of Brody, I always fondly recall the intimate press day roundtables in New York City for The Pianist, long before his Oscar victory for the movie, during which an amusingly clueless college journalist asked Brody why director Roman Polanski wasn’t there as well, to discuss his film. To his credit, Brody didn’t belittle the guy by asking, “Are you serious?”

At the press day for Hollywoodland, meanwhile, Brody had some interesting things to say about an actor’s
connection with his audience, and the (false) sense of familiarity that
breeds
. For that tidbit, click here.

Perfect Stranger

Perfect Stranger is one of those utterly anonymous film titles,
lightly evocative in its own way and yet suitable enough to be applied
to any number of situations or genres
. It feels like a relic of the 1980s, an
indie flick title designed to conjure up an association with some
bigger hit.

Starring Halle Berry and Bruce Willis, and evincing a style that might best be described as deliciously retarded, Perfect Stranger is an overloaded, under-reasoned thriller that’s wholly engineered in reverse. It culminates in one of
those chunky scenes wherein a potential victim laboriously explains a
murderer’s entire convoluted plot directly to said person. Except in Perfect Stranger,
that scene is actually spread out over three different locations, and
includes the killer and deductive explicator snuggling up together on a
couch. Yes, seriously
. A single graspable tone is the film’s greatest mystery; file this one under “comedy, unintentional.” For the full review, from FilmStew, click here.

Laura Dern on Neuroses, Parenting

At the recent press day for Mike White’s generally pleasantly offbeat Year of the Dog, Laura Dern talked some about parenting as a story device, and playing a mother on screen now that she’s one in real life. “The area of
parenting is so funny and interesting because you feel so out of control when
you’re given this job of protecting. It creates panic,” Dern says
.

“Bret is deeply neurotic and a true perfectionist,” Dern continues, talking about her character. “The
difference between her and most of us in the world that are new moms, because I
think there is a level of obsessiveness and neuroses that comes with becoming a
parent, like… ‘Oh my God, my job is to protect you for the rest of your life? How did
this happen?’ So I think that’s innate in way, even though when you try to be
conscious and balanced it’s easy to get neurotic about one’s children. The
difference is most of us look at our children and say, ‘I want to control every
waking moment of the rest of your life and make sure it’s OK… too bad the world
isn’t like that.’ Bret says, ‘And I know I can.’
And she believes it in her core. That’s why she was so fun to play. Because anyone who has that kind of ego
it so fantastic. And Tom McCarthy was so amazing as her husband, because he’s
sort of like her dog, he’s sitting
there just acquiescing to whatever she says.”

Are We Done Yet?

Now, was there ever a chance that Are We Done Yet? — a sequel to 2005’s $82 million-grossing Are We There Yet? — was going to
be a critics’ darling? No, probably not. But the first film was a
harmless enough family comedy about besieged masculinity and eventual
maturation. It had its moments of diverting amusement, and it actually
told a linear story in some loose, relatable sense. This sub-moronic
re-up, though, is completely divorced from any sort of reality (even
of its own devising) and totally mind-numbing
, even at well under 90 minutes.

That Are We Done Yet? runs on comedy of the predictable is surely
no surprise, but Hank Nelken’s script is especially atrocious, a
desultory mix of slapstick and bland bickering, powered by
mind-boggling contradictions in character. You know going in
that there will be: a) toys stepped on; b) a leaky roof; C) a falling
chandelier; d) a comic electrocution; and e) Ice Cube falling through said
roof. And there are
. What you don’t expect, necessarily, are bits involving a talking
raccoon, a deer whose eyes bug out in cartoonish fashion and Ice Cube
wrestling a giant sturgeon.

But it’s the breathtaking manner in which the movie so immediately
announces its complete gracelessness and lack of respect for its
audience’s intelligence that is most amazing
. After an animated opening
credits sequence that trumps the entire combined feature for
imagination and sheer entertainment value, Ice Cube’s character is awakened by his
alarm clock, at 5 a.m., to an outdoors that is completely bright and spilling sunlight into the room. Nothing gets much better from there, in either attention to detail or certainly cleverness. For the full review, from FilmStew, click here.

Hairspray Advance Peek

Grease was the
word… being bandied about by a few elbow-rubbing journalists after a special 16-minute
preview screening of footage
from Hairspray
earlier this week. As in, “Didn’t that remind you of Grease?” and, “That’s going to connect with audiences unlike any Hollywood
musical since Grease.”

Heady predictions, sure, but not entirely undeserved or
irrational speculation based on the high-energy, song-and-dance clip-fest which
director Adam Shankman introduced as a sort of “Frankentrailer.”
Gushing that
the movie was the best thing that had ever happened to him professionally, Shankman
very briefly attempted a Roberto Benigni impression — standing astride two screening
room chairs, on the armrests — before wisely returning to terra firma for the rest of his short introduction. Shankman
went on to effusively praise composer Marc Shaiman’s work on the score, and say that he hoped his adaptation of Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell’s
musical stageplay adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 film could serve as an
antidote to what he views as “a summer of three-quels” and franchises
.

Based on what screened, there’s reason for optimism. Set in
1962 Baltimore, there was sock-hop and
bandstand shimmying aplenty
in the footage, to go alongside trademark, deliciously
zonked, zealously imploring line readings from Christopher Walken, as well as
some grade-A belting from Queen Latifah. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky (above right),
as pleasantly plump inveterate dreamer Tracy Turnblad, really made an
impression
, even if it was John Travolta (above left), in heavy make-up as insistently
cautious matriarch Edna Turnblad, who had many folks in stitches. It seems like there’s also an anti-segregation march musical number, which has to be some sort of first.

Marketing the period to those for whom the ’90s is, like, so
yesterday may certainly present its own set of challenges, but the quality of
the merchandise at least looks up to snuff, which is great news. Distributed by
New Line, Hairspray is currently set
for a wide release on July 20. For more information, click here.

Shirelles: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Universally credited as the originators of the popular “girl
group” sound, the Shirelles paved the way for acts like Martha Reeves and the
Vandellas, as well as the Supremes
. Others may have ultimately done it to more
acclaim, but no one did it quite like the Shirelles, as this solid little concert
disc proves.

Fronted by Doris Jackson, the Shirelles got their start in 1958
as schoolgirls in Passaic, New
Jersey
. In keeping with their youth, their sound was
clean, smooth and vibrant, characterized by a reliance on melody and harmonious
interplay over complex runs
. Removed from Motown and the flashier production sound
that entailed, the Shirelles were known for possessing a sort of clarion quasi-spirituality,
and on their way to becoming the first female super group they became not only inspirations
for a legion of female groups that followed, but also the supplier of quite a
few standards. Throughout the years their long string of hits have been
recorded by dozens of artists, including the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Dionne
Warwick, Smokey Robinson, the Mamas & the Papas, Aretha Franklin and
countless others.

I don’t know where the question mark in its title went, but this
performance of pointedly pitched nostalgia was recorded live at the Rock ’n
Roll Palace in Orlando, Florida, sometime in 1988
, and it comes at a point
where the Shirelles have peaked, certainly, but not diminished nearly as
greatly as one might guess. Putting “Soldier Boy,” “Foolish Little Girl,” “Dedicated
to the One I Love,” two versions of “Baby It’s You,” “Mama Said” and the soaring
title track through the paces, the Shirelles deliver a solid if too-short set
brimming with unadulterated joie de vivre.
Bonus tracks on this DVD include two performances apiece by the Angels (“My
Boyfriend’s Back” and “Til”) and the Dixie Cups (New Orleans jazz standard “Iko
Iko” and Top 10 smash “Chapel of Love”).

Housed in a regular Amray case and presented on a
region-free disc in two-channel Dolby digital, this DVD features an attractive staging
and arrangement of its main course, but no supplemental garnish. Additionally,
the aforementioned “bonus track” inclusions — while quite welcome and certainly
of a piece in terms of genre classification — feel a bit haphazard. Brief
biographical notes or even talking head sketches on the Shirelles would shade
things nicely; certainly there’s room on a disc that barely runs over an hour
as is. B (Concert) C- (Disc)