Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Foot Fist Way, War, Inc,, Savage Grace, The Promotion, Take-Out, The Happening, Love Comes Lately, Quid Pro Quo, Encounters End of World

A selection of films I've decided to do short writeups on-all of the films listed here can still be found in the New York City area as of the date of this publication, with the exception of "Quid Pro Quo."

The Foot Fist Way 
Directed by Jody Hill

"The Foot Fist Way" is a massively independent comedy, loaded with dirty jokes and perhaps one of the most oddly unlikable characters we may ever come across. And after finding its way around the comedy circuit for the last two years or so, the familiar names of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have finally helped bring it to theatres, in a very limited release but still a step up nonetheless. And it also has given Danny McBride a chance to work with all of them in other projects-and sure enough he has popped up in a few comedies of late including "Drillbit Taylor," "Hot Rod," and two others from this summer "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder." But what can be said about this one? Well, for one thing it is quite funny, although certainly not for everyones tastes. McBride plays Fred Simmons, a karate instructor who certainly believes that he is immortal among man. After Simmons wife Suzie ends up cheating on him with her boss, he ends up reevaluating himself. He also begins a quest to bring Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, an action movie star who he worships, to one of the demos at his dojo. 

"The Foot Fist Way" is very loose on plot-shot with shaky handheld camera and probably with several non-professionals. What makes McBride successful as Fred is that he really does find a middle ground between being such an immoral jerk, and at the same time allowing us to sympathize with him. We can understand why his wife would sleep around him, but at the same time when she does it stings a bit. And aside from that, improved or not, some of the lines here are just hilarious. Between Fred's musings about life, to his massive ego, to the way he treats some of the kids in his class (including his young assistant Julio), just really worked with my funny bone. This is far from a perfect comedy (at only 85 minutes, it begin to wear thin and overstay its welcome towards the end), but with its low budget roots and the fact that it is actually funny makes me happy that it found a home, however underground and cultish that home would be. But thats the place for it, really. 

*** of ****

At Village East Cinemas
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War, Inc.
Directed by Joshua Seftel

Much like "The Foot Fist Way," "War, Inc." is getting some attention but this time from audiences. Released at the end of May in two theatres in the country, with the intention of being released on DVD at the very start of July, the DVD date has been moved to sometime in October to accommodate the somewhat massive audience for it, and now its being released in more theatres throughout the summer. I suppose that would make me a bit happier if the movie was better than it ended up being-and it certainly had the prospect and talent behind it to make it brilliant. But sadly it misses the mark just a few too many times. John Cusack (who also co-wrote the somewhat dismal screenplay) plays Brand Hauser, a hitman for the government who is assigned to kill the president of the fictional country of Turaqistan Omar Sheriff (not the actor), by the Vice President played by Dan Aykroyd (doing his best to do a Cheney impression-and he is also underused to a mere three minutes of the whole movie, bookending the film.) Struggling with his own inner demons and his late wife and his kidnapped daughter (and an odd fascinating with hot sauce), Brand poses as a Trade Show Producer and organizer of the wedding for pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff) in order to pull of the hit, and at the same time falling for a rather good looking reporter named Natalie Hegalhuzen.

I will say without hesitation that all of the lead performances in the film are very well done. John Cusack does his exhausted and weary character very well, and he has for years, and sister Joan Cusack (although appearing briefly) is extremely funny as always. And Marisa Tomei (who although having won an Oscar seems underrated almost) delivers, and the big surprise here was Hilary Duff, playing something very different from her teen bobber performances of the past (one of which I actually saw). But the turn actually seems to benefit her, and she somewhat plays a satire of what she isn't. What I like about Duff the person is that she doesn't appear on the news everyday with pictures of her privates or pictures of her smoking cigarettes, and her work here is oddly mature and even somewhat funny. And one of her characters songs which appears during the credits is somewhat catchy. So perhaps she is the saving grace with all of these muddled young stars out there. And Ben Kingsley doesn't really impress with a rather awful accent, but thankfully his appearance is brief. And I also liked the look of the film, the dark hues matching the dark tone of the movie. But the script is almost a complete mess, drifting from satire to slapstick to drama in a very unfocused way, right down to the third act which offers a few twists that try to end the film on both a dark and forbidden note as well as a rather cute satisfying one, and it fails on both counts. In a nutshell, the jokes aren't funny enough, and the drama isn't sincere. It also packs in far too many targets, going the "American Dreamz" route, only failing more. The plot gets so loaded that it becomes overly confusing to follow at times, and for no real reason. The actors do their very best to work with this lackluster material, and several of the performances actually make "War, Inc." THIS close to recommending, but it misses the mark, much like every single joke in the movie. "War, Inc." is one of those films that I wish I liked a bit more, because with the talent and the topics involved it it could have been quite a biting satire. 

**1/2 of **** 

At Angelika Film Center
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Savage Grace 
Directed by Tom Kalin

"Savage Grace" is a pretty bleak and dark film, which would be alright if this tone wasn't so forced down the viewers throat. I don't mind depressing movies-in fact, most of the time I prefer. But this film is unpleasantly miserable-from its characters who are all so unlikable and shallow and self-absorbed all the way to the events we find them in. There isn't a single amount of empathy in any of them, so that we don't really care about what happens to them. In the end-when that final punch is delivered-there really is no reaction because at this point you just want to go home. At the center of the film is Julianne Moore, doing a good job because she's Julianne Moore and I can't expect less of her. She manages to make the movie somewhat tolerable with her rather engrossing performance, and she is trying to have a good time with the role even though the script doesn't really give her any dimensions to work with. She plays Barbara Baekeland, starting with the birth of her son Tony. Barbara is a somewhat overprotective mother, and as we follow her relationship with her son over the years we slowly see how she ruins him. With her trying to get him to side with her after her husband Brooks leaves her for a younger woman, all the way to her actually sleeping with him to defer him away from his blooming homosexuality, Barbara is pretty much the nasty mother from Hell, culminating to a climatic violent scene, with hardly any emotion in it at all (as I mentioned earlier).

"Savage Grace" just simply isn't a very good film, complete with a very faulty script which doesn't offer any character dimensions-which is a shame because the material here could warrant quite an interesting character piece, with multiple characters to analyze. And the film suffers greatly because of this lack. Its a nasty and bleak ride from start to finish, offering not a shred of hope or remorse for anyone in it or anyone watching it sans Julianne Moore who really does give it her all.

** of ****

At IFC Center
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The Promotion 
Directed by Steve Conrad

My question walking into "The Promotion" was answered within the first ten minutes of the film. Why does a comedy with two rather big names-Sean William Scott and John C. Reilly-get resorted to a very small limited release by an almost unheard of production company? "The Promotion" is a rather slow and subtle comedy, never exactly offering huge laughs, but that isn't what it is a aiming for. Not to say it ends up being a great film-and it is highly uneven at times, but there is certainly more to this material and than characters than could possibly appeal to a mainstream audience. And this is for the better. I guess I should have suspected this considering it was written by Steve Conrad, who penned the criminally underrated 2005 film "The Weather Man" which was a subtle dark comedy which ended up failing in the mainstream. "The Promotion" is a corporate satire, with Scott playing Doug, a young man with a wife (played by Jenna Fischer who can play this role in her sleep, and she kind of does. She is somewhat waning thin on me outside of "The Office.") living in a very small apartment with paper thin walls. Doug works at a grocery store, and when he discovers a new branch is opening soon, he applies for the promotion-full manager. When his boss tells him that he is a shoe-in, Doug jumps the gun and signs the lease on a bigger apartment. Things seem to be looking up for him until Richard Welhner comes in from a branch in Canada, and he also applies for the position. And so we get a cat and mouse chase up the ladder to get the coveted promotion.

Conrad is very kind to his characters, and he never has the audience pit on against the other. While Doug does get the audience advantage by having more screen time and giving voice over narration, Richard really is a nice person-a recovering drug addict with a wife and daughter, very Christian, and hardly likes to use swear words-but Reilly plays it authentic and not in a way where these positive attributes could be used to make laughs at. Both actors really do give it their all, but Sean William Scott really did impress me the most giving a somewhat nuanced performance compared to his "American Pie' days. Performances aside, the film does have its share of laughs, despite being somewhat uneven at times. Some of the jokes end up being so subtle and some scenes so awkward that it becomes painful to watch, especially whenever the Board Executive character is on the screen. And some of the winning jokes-including the material on Richard's self help tape-end up being used too many times, and by the end they aren't funny anymore. But on the whole, "The Promotion" is a good remedy to the somewhat heavy indie films playing in the art houses right now-and certainly one of the more accessible and more likable ones.

*** of ****

At the Angelika Film Center
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Take-Out
Directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou

"Take Out" might be one of the simplest narratives of this or any other year-a little film with such stark realism that it ends up taking little or action at all and ends up becoming oddly engrossing, gripping, and very emotional. I was really surprised how much I liked this movie. Taking place over the course of one day, we follow Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese immigrant who is woken up by two men that tell him that he has to pay his smuggling debt by the end of the day or the price will go up. We then follow him throughout his day working at a small Chinese restaurant, where his friend gives him his share of deliveries as well, and we watch as Ming tries to collect enough money. And thats it, really. There is a tiny twist at the end, but the bulk of the film consists on Ming making food deliveries and we try to keep mental notes of how much money he is making. There are some problems-some people don't tip, one man sends him all the way back before the cook gave Ming chicken when the man asked for beef. And I have to give credit to both the two directors for making such a simple story engrossing, but also the lead performance by Charles Jang, who does so much without hardly saying a word-the pain is all in his expression. When the strong setback towards the end of the film occurs, you can sense the pain in his eyes, and you feel it too. It really is a performance of quiet effectiveness. I really liked this little movie, and am glad to see it doing very well in its small release.

*** of ****

At Quad Cinemas
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The Happening
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan and I have an odd little history together-looking back I have either loved his films immensely-three of them had odd emotional effects on me. And the other three I have detested quite a bit. The three which I loved are "The Sixth Sense," "The Village," and "Lady in the Water,"-the latter two being hated among film fans everywhere, and to this day I have only found a handful of people who liked them just a little bit. And the three I detested quite a bit have been "Unbreakable," "Signs," and now "The Happening," which nearly everything goes wrong. Marketed strongly as the first R rated Shyamalan film-which seems to be just a way to get people in the seats after the strong failure of "Lady in the Water,"-Shyamalan tells quite a disturbing story (and the film does have its small share of actual disturbing moments), but goes a bit over the top in his telling of him. Shyamalan's ego (he even credits himself for a performance that you can hardly hear as its over the phone the whole time) has been announcing that the film was intended to be over the top in B movie fashion, but to me it just seems like a way to try and save himself from having a bad movie on his hands. 

The films tells about Elliot and Alma Moore, who along with their friend Julian, his daughter Jess, and pretty much the entire state of New York have to find a safe place to be after a mysterious attack ends with people killing themselves in odd fashion. Cops shoot themselves in the middle of the street, people get disoriented and forgetting how to speak, and construction workers throw themselves off buildings. Some say its terrorism, but it turns out that there is something even more dangerous going on, and Shyamalan quickly weaves this into an environmental cautious horror story. Things go wrong from the first second with the awful acting. Not only are leads Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel delivering poor work, but also every single extra, every single side character-every appearance by everyone on screen delivers such massively bad performances-from the over the top way they talk to their voices which seem so high pitched and unnatural. Its as if the toxins that were unleashed suddenly turn everyone into bad actors. And the script is kind of a mess as well, and Shyamalan could have weaved a very effective story if he didn't drift as much as he does. One main problem is the introduction of a creepy lady who doesn't know about the attacks, and who has a creepy doll in her bedroom, but before that could be explained she begins to ram her head into the wall. Even James Newton Howards score, which has been a highlight in all of Shyamalan's other films, is annoying and intrusive. There are a few effective scenes-and most of the suicide segments are disturbing in their suddenness and creativity-but on the whole "The Happening" is a weak effort, especially considering what a good storytelling Shyamalan could be and has been for a long time. 

** of ****

At area theatres
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Love Comes Lately
Directed by Jan Schutte

I missed "Love Comes Lately" when it played at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but Kino picked it up and is giving it a small release in New York City right now. The film is a quiet mediation on love lost and gained for an eighty year old man, and for some reason I was channeling last years "Starting Out in the Evening," only this was a bit more quirky and upbeat than that film (also very good.) Based on three short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer ("Alone," "The Briefcase," and "Old Love," none of which I have ever read), we follow the Max Kohn, an eighty year old writer who lives with his girlfriend of twelve years. Being eighty has hardly any effect on Max, and we follow him love life both fictionally and realistically during a trip to give a lecture at a college. "Love Comes Lately" is a nice little movie, centered by a very good performance by Otto Tausig, who plays Max in a way that diverts the concept that he is just a dirty old man-when he is in fact sweet, affectionate, and just simply an old romantic.

*** of ****

At Quad Cinemas and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas 
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Quid Pro Quo 
Directed by Carlos Brooks

"Quid Pro Quo" channels a bit of David Cronenberg's 1996 film "Crash," only the difference being that this is actually a good movie. Both of them deal with odd lifestyle fetishes-that film being car crashes, and this one being the ability to be disabled. Nick Stahl plays Isaac, a newspaper writer who is not able to walk and is confined to a wheelchair. When he receives a mysterious email from "Ancient Chinese Girl" he is brought to a strange underground meeting where people sit in wheelchairs with certain disabilities yearning to be that way forever. Eventually "ACG" brings herself out in the open in the form of Fiona (Vera Farmiga who is terrific here). The two start an odd relationship where she yearns to be able to not walk, and he would like to walk, and eventually a pair of magic shoes brings themselves in the mix that might give Isaac the chance to do just that.

The film is shot is very beautiful and crisp digital photography, and the two leads are quite good (Stahl impressing me mostly because he never impressed me before.) They carry the film, as most of it is dialogue between the two of them. And the film avoids being condesending to those that wish to be disabled, and the movie ends up being more about identity, and how various lifestyles can affect perception of oneself-the disability underground cult ends up only being one thing mentioned.

"Quid Pro Quo" has been taken out of its release here in the city, but should be on DVD soon.
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Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog

"Encounters at the End of the World," which is selling out almost constantly at the Film Forum in Manhattan, is a fascinating and visual appealing documentary from one of the visual masters out there, Werner Herzog. I don't think it comes close to being the masterpiece that his nature documentary "Grizzly Man" was a couple of years ago, but I am attracted to Herzog's films-from his fascinating with imagery all the way to his dry and sarcastic personality and sense of humor. Herzog brings us to Antarctica, and also to several different sectors of study within the continent. When he is not focusing on some kind of trancelike image underneath the ice (to some quite great chamber like music which is as haunting as it is dreamlike), Herzog is also being quite funny, and his sense of humor is very heightened. We never laugh at these people, but with them, as they are placed into situations and philosophy's that do have their sense of comedy within them. There is some great comedic footage here, including a group of people going through a safety camp where they have to go through a follow-the-leader type of exercise with buckets over their heads to simulate a whiteout, or a segment involving a penguin that goes insane and begins to run towards a chain of mountains nearly 70 kilometers away. 

And so Herzog continues to impress me with his nonfiction, but even with his fiction he loves to just linger on images for a little longer than most, but thats because its an image that we don't see everyday and probably will never see in the flesh. And as humorous as the film was, it also ended quite gravely, with Herzog pretty much telling us that he thinks the human race is going to die out very soon, and one day explorers will be exploring the ruins wondering just what went wrong.

*** of ****

At Film Forum.

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