Tuesday, October 9, 2007

New DVD releases October 9

A friend of mine once wrote how, when she had a regular arts critic column (arts covering movies and TV), she could never quite reconcile whether she was a critic, fan, or both, and how the film version The Color Purple exposed that conflict. As a critic, she loathed it, but as a fan, she wept through it copiously. After seeing Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me, I can definitely relate. As a critic, I must say Reign Over Me is manipulative, heavy-handed, and misogynistic (after his brief turn towards writing good women characters in The Upside of Anger, Binder is back to his old ways). As a fan, however, I must say Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle moved me more than I thought possible. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review for The New Yorker, it’s strange to recommend any Adam Sandler movie, let alone one dealing with 9/11, but there you go.
Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, whose wife and kids were on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Since then, of course, he’s been anything but fine. He plays video games, listens to music from the 70’s and 80’s on his iPod, travels around lower Manhattan on his scooter, and in general shields himself from anything reminding him of the tragedy he suffered, including his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon). It’s while on the scooter that he runs into Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), his former college roommate. Alan has a successful dentistry practice, though his marriage to Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) feels stuck in neutral. At first merely bemused by Charlie’s state of mind, Alan tries to help him, which isn’t helped by Charlie’s violent outbursts whenever confronted by his past.
Binder (who also appears as Charlie’s accountant) wants to talk about how we, as New Yorkers, and as people in general, prefer not to confront out grief, and result not only eats away at us, but affects the people who may care about us as well (Charlie’s in-laws are concerned enough to want to put Charlie away). That’s certainly a laudable goal, but he doesn’t always dramatize it well. Too often, shouting matches substitute for drama, especially in a courtroom scene (though as the judge, Donald Sutherland does redeem himself in a later scene). Worse, as I said before, almost every woman here (with the possible exception of Alan’s receptionist Melanie (Paula Newsome)) is badly drawn. Janeane is one-note (yes, it’s a loveless marriage, but there must have been something there), Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), a psychiatrist Alan recruits to help Charlie, has some nice comic moments when she initially thinks Alan is fishing for treatment for himself, but is otherwise merely earnest, and there’s a painful subplot involving Saffron Burrows as a patient name Donna who is obsessed with Alan (though she later becomes attracted to Charlie).
And yet, Binder doesn’t suggest that Alan magically heals Charlie, but that it’s a long, slow, and often painful process for both of them. I’ve liked Sandler best when he deepens his man-child persona to show the desperation fueling that persona (as in Punch-Drunk Love and his performance in the otherwise appalling Spanglish), and he delivers another great performance here. And anyone who doesn’t at least mist up when Charlie finally reveals what happened to his family that day should check their pulse. Cheadle once again is, in theory, playing an African-American who helps a white guy find himself, but Binder does make it a little more complicated than that here, and Cheadle underplays the part very well. I may not like myself for saying this, but I sort of liked Reign Over Me.
28 Days Later started out with a particularly scary scene, had the creepiest cut to credits sequence ever (of course, after the events of the credits, the screen went to black and the title card came up briefly), had an eerie sequence of empty London, had the novelty of being the first zombie movie where they were speedy rather than slow, and made its social statements obliquely. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, has some pretty creepy sequences (particularly the opening, where Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack (playing a couple), along with others, try to fight off zombies), but as befitting most sequels, it’s falls short in everything else (the title card, for example, gives updated progress – “2 weeks later” and all that). In addition, it suffers from plot holes – how, for example, when a city is supposedly under martial law, do two kids manage to escape into the “forbidden zone” (where zombies may still be a threat) with the military watching them, and yet nothing is done until the last minute? When a European filmmaker makes his first English-speaking film and it turns out badly, the temptation is always there to blame Hollywood for messing with the style of the filmmaker, and while that is often true, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s previous film, Intacto, had some creepy and stylish scenes but also suffered from plot incoherency, so one wonders who was at fault here.
After Grosse Pointe Blank, The Sopranos, and the like, you’d think it’d be pretty hard to wring laughs out of the premise of a hitman who’s suffering a mid-life crisis, but John Dahl’s You Kill Me does pretty well on that score. The premise, of course, is faintly ridiculous. Frank (Ben Kingsley) is an alcoholic hitman working for the Polish mob in upstate New York who botches a hit on an Irish gangster named O’Leary (Dennis Farina) and, as a result, is sent to San Francisco by his boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to dry up. Frank, of course, doesn’t think he has a drinking problem, but he goes, gets a job in a mortuary (Bill Pullman, who starred in Dahl’s The Last Seduction, plays his contact here), goes to AA meetings (Luke Wilson plays his sponsor), and falls in love with a woman named Laurel (Tea Leoni), a corporate sales exec (they meet cute when he’s the attendant for her stepfather). While he struggles with his alcoholism, and what to tell Laurel, his family has to deal with O’Leary muscling in on their business. What makes this work is the telling – Dahl and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (this was their first script, which they followed with, improbably, the first Chronicles of Narnia movie) show there are still laughs to be had out of this shopworn premise. Most of them come thanks to Kingsley, who plays off of his Sexy Beast performance rather nicely, and from Leoni, which is especially good news since those of us who worshipped her performance in Flirting with Disaster have been waiting in vain for a good showcase for her ever since (as her roles in Deep Impact, The Family Man and Spanglish hardly qualify). Her deadpan line readings and undeniable chemistry with Kingsley make this comedy, if you’ll pardon the expression, kill.
Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan will see a guy (usually; occasionally a woman), often an immigrant, working a food cart, be it a hot dog stand, peanut stand, coffee stand, or even something more exotic. Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart explores the life of one of these men, in this case, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani and former rock star who now runs a coffee cart and, as a sideline, sells porn movies under the table (so to speak). He meets a couple of people who want to help him, like Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani businessman whose fully assimilated and remembers Ahmad’s career as a rock star, and Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a Spanish woman who works at a newsstand. Bahrani apparently took inspiration from Camus’ essay on the myth of Sisyphus (whose punishment, courtesy of the gods, was to roll a rock up and down the hill), except while, according to Camus, Sisyphus did this in triumphant defiance, Ahmad does it because he has no choice in the matter. This is a weighty subject for an American film, even an indie film, and Bahrani doesn’t quite pull it off; he and Razvi can’t quite make Ahmad interesting even as he isn’t master of his own fate. Still, this is certainly a side of America rarely seen, and Bahrani doesn’t make the mistake of marking everyone with the same brush (at worst, Ahmad gets indifference from his customers, and some of them even are friendly towards him).
In the 1960’s, Motown acts grabbed most of the headlines and rose higher in the charts, but for my money, when it came to soul music, Stax Records, founded in Memphis in 1957, had the better musicians and made the better music. Motown, or its house band, was the subject a few years ago in the great documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Now Stax gets an even better doc with Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this doc shows how Stax was more than just a great music label (which it was, of course – any label with the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, and Booker T and the Mg’s, not to mention Otis Redding, deserves that description and then some). It also was a positive force in the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s. Of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the tragic death of Redding helped deal a body blow to Stax; it recovered in the 70’s with artists like Isaac Hayes and Johnny Taylor, but soon after their big concert Wattstax in L.A. (a concert film which is also highly recommended), Stax’s financial troubles forced it to close. There’s nothing new here, but the story is well told by the participants (all of the ones still alive are here to tell about it), and all remember the joy, as well as the sadness, of being part of arguably America’s best record label of the 1960’s, if not of all time.