Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sundance 2013 Movie Review: “Dirty Wars”

Made me wanna take a shower after.

Article first published as Sundance 2013 Movie Review: Dirty Wars on Blogcritics.

Every year there are lots of documentaries included in the Sundance Film Festival programming. So much so, that they deservedly have their own categories — for foreign and the United States. I keep saying that documentary films are not my thing. If I wanted to know about a particular subject, there’s more than enough information available online these days. I mean, what isn’t available online anymore? I know that documentaries aren’t meant to function on an entertainment level the same way as regular films do, but I still need something to keep my interest.

With director Rick Rowley’s documentary Dirty Wars, some audiences may find themselves feeling a little icky about our ongoing war on terror by the time it’s over. However, I also know there are those who will probably find this a trumpeting endorsement to the fact that the U.S. will go to any lengths to get the job done. Especially in the search for Osama bin Laden which finally came to an end on May 2, 2011.

Chronicling investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’s trip through the wringer, he visits the aftermath of a home raid that NATO claims to have no knowledge of even though it left many innocent people dead including children and pregnant women. There is way too much information to keep track of but we do get a glimpse into the personal life of Scahill with TV footage of him on various talk shows discussing his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Like I said before, the film makes you feel a little dirty about the whole war on terror and director Rowley holds nothing back as when he lingers on bullet-riddled corpses and gunned down babies. I suppose the gut reaction is what everyone was hoping for here and it works. However, if you’re one of those who think the U.S. can do no wrong and that they should be allowed to do whatever they want to keep fighting the good fight then Dirty Wars is especially not for you.

Sundance 2013 Movie Review: “This Is Martin Bonner”

This Is Martin Bonner, nothing more, nothing less.

Article first published as Sundance 2013 Movie Review: This Is Martin Bonner on Blogcritics.

Slice-of-life films are expected at the Sundance Film Festival. Whether they work or not is one thing. If a life lesson can be learned then I suppose it was all worthwhile, but when a film ends as abruptly as This Is Martin Bonner does, well you wonder if there was a whole third act that somehow got lopped off. While the performances by leads Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette are enough to keep you invested in the characters, it seems as if writer/director Chad Hartigan had no real ending in sight and instead just simply decides to yell, “Cut!”

Martin Bonner (Eenhoorn) has just moved to Reno and is new on the job working for a church-based program helping newly released prison inmates make their transition to life back in the real world. He makes lots of phone calls to his daughter in Maryland, is avoided by his son, spends his free time at antique auctions buying things to sell on eBay, and referees girls soccer games. Travis (Arquette) has just been released and is picked up by Martin. They make a stop at Martin’s favorite diner where they make small talk. Travis jokes to Martin that he’s never actually been to Reno but has lived there for 12 years on charges of unintentional manslaughter while drunk driving. Travis is supposed to be assigned to Steve (Robert Longstreet), but is put off by his over-religious take on life and instead finds solace in Martin. Together they form a quiet friendship of unspoken support and understanding.

And that’s about it. If you’re looking for more from the film, well, you’re not getting it. Like I said, writer/director Hartigan seemed to have some things on his mind to say about religion and making repentance but none of it makes its way into the film. There is a fantastic scene involving Travis meeting up with his estranged daughter Diana (Sam Buchanan) where the film could have picked up and given us some kind of denouement at least for Travis, but like I said, just as the story seems to be picking up, the credits begin. While the performances are very good, Eenhoorn in particular has charm to spare, it’s a shame that we don’t get what could be the rest of the film, instead we’re left with wanting more, but not for the right reasons. So while This Is Martin Bonner, it’s turns out to be a literal case of what you see is what you get.

Photo courtesy 600 West Productions

Sundance 2013 Movie Review: “Austenland”

Jerusha Hess comes into her own.

Article first published as Sundance 2013 Movie Review: Austenland on Blogcritics.

When it comes to quirky filmmaking, no one does it better than Wes Anderson. But that doesn’t seem to stop Jared and Jerusha Hess from trying. Try as they might, they’ve given us plenty of laughs along the way with Jared typically in the director’s chair. From their huge splash at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival with Napoleon Dynamite, through their Hollywood debut Nacho Libre, to their last minor (but still hilarious) outing, Gentlemen Broncos, they may have only made three films prior to this year’s festival offering, Austenland, but they stayed true to their unique vision. With Austenland, Jerusha adapted the novel by Shannon Hale (who co-writes), and seems to have bigger fish to fry — namely, girls of the rom-com persuasion.

Jane (Keri Russell) works day to day at a job she hates where she’s harassed by an unrequited horndog, and keeps a low profile on the dating scene thanks to her obsession with all things Jane Austen. One day she finally decides she’s had enough and takes off on a vacation to Austenland, a Jane Austen-themed resort, against her best friend’s wishes. Here she’s greeted by the owner of Austenland, the chastising Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), after meeting fellow vacationer Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge) at the airport.

Everyone who visits Austenland is given a Jane Austen-style backstory. Seeing how Jane opted for the cheaper vacation plans, she is relegated to being an orphan of misfortune and sent off to the servants’ wing while Elizabeth is deemed Miss Charming. Part of the package includes a courtship with their very own Mister Darcy. These come in the forms of the scowly, downtalking Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Field), the possibly gay Colonel Andrews (James Callis), and the swashbuckling Captain George East (Ricky Whittle). Everything winds up playing tried and true to Pride and Prejudice with Jane eventually having to decide between Henry and Martin (Bret McKenzie), who oversees the lands.

If you think you know how this will end, you’re right. There’s no real surprises here, except for how abruptly Jane makes her final decision. The main problem is that she may wind up with who she really should, but Russell has absolutely no chemistry with him. The one she does click with is who we’re expected to root against which shows how much charisma McKenzie has. While on Flight of the Conchords he may have played a far more insecure character, here he steals the whole movie no matter how much Coolidge tries. Director Hess has absolutely no idea how to rein her in and just lets her do her thing. Coolidge plays the ugly American with complete glee, spouting phrases like, “Tallyho,” “God save the Queen,” “The British are coming, the British are coming,” and even makes her introduction at the airport thanking Jane for being American because she “can’t understand what the natives are saying.”

There’s lots of buzz surrounding Austenland and the women in the audience sure seemed to be eating it up. I even overheard a couple while waiting in line for something else at a public screening in Salt Lake who described it as “awesome.” Not quite. While it’s not the best rom-com you’re likely to see anytime soon, it’s certainly not something any guy will hate himself for getting dragged to.

In the end, it does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to give the girls some trials and tribulations of unlucky-in-love Jane while setting their hearts aflutter with the unsurprising outcome. There’s only one scene where Jerusha gets down to her quirky business, and it’s the funniest scene in the whole movie. Let’s just say it involves the enactment of a horrible play written by Wattlesbrook. So go ahead and see it when it’s released, at least you won’t hate yourself the next morning.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sundance 2013 Movie Review: “In a World…”

A hilarious crowd pleaser.

Article first published as Sundance 2013 Movie Review: In a World... on Blogcritics.

In a World… where the best films of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival… find distribution… audiences across the nation… will be able to bear witness to… In a World… All kidding aside, here lies one of the best films of this year’s festival. If this doesn’t find distribution then there’s no justice this year. Lake Bell has never been one of my favorite actresses, but here she writes and directs, giving herself the chance the shine like she never has before. Bringing her friends (Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, and Fred Melamed) along for the ride certainly didn’t hurt either as they all contribute to the funniest and most heartwarming film deserving a studio to call home.

In a World… begins with the legend of Don LaFontaine who passed in 2008. Having voiced over 5,000 film trailers, can Hollywood find the next great voice actor? If underachieving vocal coach Carol (Bell) has anything to do it, it just may be her. Her father Sam (Melamed) has just kicked her out of his place, forcing her to move in with her concierge sister Dani (Watkins). Before long, Carol snags a huge recording job from Gustav Warner (Marino). Gustav and Sam also don’t realize that the hottie Gustav is currently bedding Carol. Meanwhile, Carol finds the support she needs from Dani and her husband Moe (Corddry).

When Carol isn’t busy having one night stands with Gustav, she finds herself actually falling in love with Louis (Martin) who’s spending his free time fighting off the new office assistant Nancy (Stephanie Allynne). There’s also a side plot involving Carol and Dani dealing with Sam’s new trophy wife, Jamie (Alexandra Holden).

Bell has written and directed one of the funniest and charming films you’re likely to see this year. If you don’t walk out with a smile on your face you should seriously consider having your pulse checked. Bell never lets the film fall into sitcom farce, never becomes too in-the-know, and the developing relationship between Carol and Louis makes for one of the most believable rom-coms in years.

Everyone is given the chance to shine and Bell uses her connections to make for some of the funniest cameos imaginable; particularly Geena Davis, Eva Longoria, and an uncredited Cameron Diaz. Can Carol pursue her dreams and make time for her personal life? Will Dani give in to the Irish dialectic charms of a flirty hotel guest? Will Moe sneak a peek at their hot British neighbor Pippa (Talulah Riley) when she needs to use their shower? All this and more to come when In a World… finds its way to theater near you.

Sundance 2013 Movie Review: “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete”

One of the festival's best.

I’ll always remember the first time I visited New York City. After our hailed cab driver was arrested we hopped on board a bus instead. Little did we know that it was about to drive us right through the Boroughs.

Being the only five white people on the entire ride was actually a lot of fun. My dad made quick friends and eventually we made our way to Manhattan. The other reason I’ll never forget this trip was when we made our way on foot through Chinatown to the Fulton Fish Market. On our way we realized that the streets were deserted and there sure seemed to be a lot of bars on the windows. Yup, we had just walked straight through the Bronx projects.

The reason I tell this story is because over the past two months I have relived this surreal experience twice. Once, while watching Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (a title that seems to sum all of that up nicely), then again while sitting in a screening of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed on location to give it the sense of realism it deserves sure brought back a lot of memories. And I have to say, that if the street action down there is anything like it is throughout the movie, we seemed to have had luck on our side as we tromped our way through the snow.

Mister and Pete are our titular heroes as they survive a sweltering summer abandoned in their Brooklyn apartment. Mister (Skylan Brooks) is put in charge of watching over Pete (Ethan Dizon) because his mother Gloria (Jennifer Hudson) is busy working for her pimp Kris (Anthony Mackie), when she’s not shooting up in the bedroom. Mister has it bad at school as well with his teacher giving him an F and now he has to repeat eighth grade. His only real friend seems to be Alice (Jordin Sparks), a nice girl making good, on her way out of the hood. Soon enough, Gloria goes missing leaving Mister and Pete to fend for themselves from starvation, abusive corner store clerks, a bully nicknamed Dip Stick (Julito McCullum), the police, an untimely heatwave, and just trying to make it to August 7 to audition for a casting call to make it big and move to Hollywood.

To say how amazing the cast is, let me put it this way. Until this writing, I had no idea that Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Eko from Lost) were all in Mister and Pete.

To say they all played against type is an understatement — in particular Hudson as the crack whore mother. I haven’t been a huge fan of Hudson, but her turn here makes me take back just about anything I may have said about her being overpraised in Dreamgirls. Director George Tillman Jr. and writer Michael Starrbury may start to lay things on a little thick with some convenient plot contrivances, but aside from the adult cast, Brooks and Dizon make the show their own. These two are a powerhouse and keep you on the edge of your seat believing all of the misadventures along the way.

This is definitely a coming of age tale to look forward to. Seeing how The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete was part of the Premieres category, you should be seeing it sometime this year at a theater sometime this year.