Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New DVD Releases October 30

Although he hasn’t always been popular with critics or audiences, I’m still a fan of Lawrence Kasdan. Sure, he’s made some duds (Wyatt Earp, Dreamcatcher), but mostly, his films go outside the cookie-cutter formula of most films to try and say something about us (as with his best film, The Accidental Tourist). And he even may have passed on his talent to his sons. Jake Kasdan has already done some fine work in offbeat comedies like the underrated Zero Effect and The TV Set, and the uneven but still worthwhile Orange County. Jon Kasdan may someday reach the heights of his brother and father, but on the evidence of In the Land of Women, his directorial debut, he’s still got a way to go. Admittedly, how much is his fault and how much is the studio’s (this has been sitting on the shelf for a while, and there are some rather abrupt transitions in the movie) is up for debate, but this still plays like a rough cut rather than the real thing.
Part of the problem is also Adam Brody, who plays the main character, Carter, a writer of soft-core porn who wants to write a serious novel about his life. Down in the dumps when his girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya), a model/actress, dumps him, he leaves L.A. to be with his dying grandmother (Olympia Dukakis, doing shtick, as opposed to her honest performance in Away From Her). This storyline has potential, but Brody (essentially playing Kasdan) doesn’t find it. I’ve never watched The O.C., the show that made Brody a star, so I don’t have any preconceived notions of his persona, but instead of playing the emotion of his character, he merely indicates it. Brody’s okay when he’s supposed to be funny (his reaction when his grandmother answers the door wearing just pajamas), but not when he’s supposed to be serious.
Kasdan does better with the women of the title, the family next door that befriends Carter. Meg Ryan is always good when a director strips her mannerisms away, and she’s good here as Sarah, the lonely mother whose husband (Clark Gregg) is having an affair (it’s too bad Kasdan sticks her with a cancer subplot, though). Kristen Stewart, who was terrific in a small part in Into the Wild, is also very good here as Sarah’s oldest daughter Lucy, who resents her mother and is drawn in her own way to Carter. Where there’s always something affected about Ryan, Stewart seems completely natural. And Mackenzie Vega rounds out the trio as youngest sister Paige, being charming, especially in the scene when she asks Carter to marry her. Clearly, Kasdan can direct actors, and he has some talent in writing. Hopefully, he’ll be able to move on to better things.
After the many documentaries dealing with the Iraq War, it’s understandable Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight seemed no different, which is probably why it didn’t do too well at the box office. But this isn’t the usual perspective of someone from the outside, as with documentaries by Robert Greenwald and Michael Moore, nor does it spend time questioning our rationale for going to war. Rather, Ferguson interviews people who were involved in implementing policy in Iraq after the invasion was complete and Saddam Hussein had been deposed. And while what they’re saying isn’t new (books such as “The Assassins Gate” have documented this crisis), it’s all the more powerful here, not just because it’s done on such a visual and visceral level. It’s also powerful because those being interviewed – among them Barbara Bodine, the ambassador to Iraq, retired Colonel Jay Garner, in charge of the Office of Recovery & Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), and Colonel Paul Hughes, who was in charge of working with the armed forces – don’t come off as self-righteous know-it-alls. Rather, they are haunted by their failure to make the administration listen to their reasons, and the research and experience that backed up those reasons, for not carrying out the policy the administration insisted on carrying out. Ferguson, through narrator Campbell Scott, tells all of this in a sober, analytical manner, which makes it all the more devastating to watch. I certainly hope No End in Sight is the type of movie people will catch up to when they say they’re waiting for the DVD to come out.
On its most basic level, Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me is a biopic about Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), the ex-con who became a controversial shock jock in 1960’s Washington D.C., and later a community activist and standup comedian. But it’s also a study of the African-American experience. When we first meet Greene, he’s in prison for armed robbery, but also doing a radio show. As it happens, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) happens to be in prison one day visiting his brother, and he dutifully tells Greene to look him up when he gets out. Dewey is the program director at an urban radio station (it plays soul and R&B), and he wants to take the station in a bolder direction. What he doesn’t count on is Greene showing up at the station (he wins early release from prison for talking a prisoner down from the roof – a prisoner he had to convince to go up to the roof in the first place) wanting a job as a DJ. The rest of the film is mostly a look at the relationship between Greene and Hughes, each of whom initially mistrusts the other – Greene thinks Hughes is an Uncle Tom (derisively comparing him to Sidney Poitier, who was also considered by many blacks at the time as being an Uncle Tom), while Hughes thinks of Greene as little more than a con man reveling in his ignorance. But in subtle ways, Lemmons reveals how each man is more complicated than that. Hughes wants to shake things up at the station in his own way, while Hughes, in a tragic turning point – the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – expresses his anger and sorrow in a broadcast one night, while also calling on his fellow African-Americans not to forget King’s message of non-violence. Lemmons’ film does falter in the last third after Greene walks off The Tonight Show – which Hughes saw as a betrayal of himself and Greene’s talent (Hughes had become Greene’s manager) – but this is still funny and thought-provoking. Cheadle, of course, captures both Greene’s bravado and the insecurity behind it, and Ejiofor matches him well as Hughes (and again, does a persuasive American accent). There’s also good work from Taraji Henson as Greene’s girlfriend and Cedric the Entertainer as a fellow DJ.
As with many sequels, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3 feels like a list more than a movie. Returning hero Spiderman/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)? Check. Returning girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)? Check. Returning nemeses in the form of former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) and employer J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons)? Check. New potential love interest (Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard))? Check. New villains both resentful (Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who becomes the Sandman, who just wants to help his daughter, and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), who wants Peter Parker’s job, and becomes Venom) and alien (the symbiote, which comes from a meteor, and attaches itself first to Peter, exposing his dark side, and then Eddie, turning him into Venom)? Check. Oh, and soap opera-like plot twists (Flint is really the one who killed Uncle Ben, Harry bumps his head and forgets he hates Peter)? Check. Some of this has potential (Peter exploring his dark side, for one), and there are, of course, thrilling special effects (the fight scene between Spiderman and the new Green Goblin), but it all feels overstuffed and incoherent. Also, some of the echoes with the first two movies feel forced (Spiderman recreating the kiss scene of the first movie with Gwen Stacy). More than that, however, is the numbing feeling you get when the film, once again, trumpets Spiderman as a all-American character (he’s even seen flying in front of an American flag), and pounding us in the head with this, rather than letting it develop.
For our TV watch this week, before Felicity Porter, before Buffy Summers, before Sydney Bristow, before Lindsay Weir, and before Veronica Mars, there was Angela Chase. Just as Velvet Underground’s low sales belie the fact that hundreds of bands came out in its wake, so My So-Called Life, despite not even reaching a full season because of low ratings, still remains the touchstone by which every teen-oriented show with a heroine at its center measures itself (Sydney and Felicity were both in college, but their emotional struggles resonated with teens because they shared similar concerns). The story of Angela (Claire Danes), a 15 year old trying to navigate high school, her family, her relationships with her friends, and her crush on classmate Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), still resonates because creator Winnie Holzman and executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz never condescend to Angela or to the rest of the characters.
Many stories have been written about that, as well as the emotional issues Angela and her friends confront, the way it handled the character of Ricky (Wilson Cruz), who struggled with revealing the fact he was gay, the way the failure of the show meant shows wanting to portray teens in a non-soap opera way had to do it in heightened circumstances (hence shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Veronica Mars), and of course, whether the show would still have been good had it gone on to a second season or more. What few people talk about is how funny the show was. One of the grace notes was how the show either used humor to make a point or to leaven the seriousness of the show. Even a relationship as fraught with drama as the one Angela had with her mother Patty (Bess Armstrong) had its humorous moments. In the episode “The Zit,” Patty has found out Angela won’t be in a mother/daughter fashion show with her because Angela thinks she’s ugly, and Patty wonders if anyone is secure about their looks, to which her husband Graham (Tom Irwin) replies, “RuPaul.” Most people remember the Christmas episode for its heartwarming and tearjerking finale, but what I remember is the scene where Brian (Devon Gummersall) calls the teen help line because he feels lonely, and Rayanne (A.J. Langer) tries to cheer him up by pretending he’s called a phone sex line instead. And “Betrayal,” the ep where Jordan and Rayanne sleep together, is full of passionate drama, but also the scene where Angela’s friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) agonizes over whether to tell Angela about it, and won’t let her other friend get a word in edgewise. It’s the little things like that, as well as the big moments, which make me miss the show, but be glad that its influence has yet to wane.

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