Monday, August 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Some might call it a trend, the comedy of unhappiness. One needn't look far, they're everywhere these days. There's dark, psychological subject matter lightly peppered with quirk and whimsy. There's clever editing and a homespun appeal to the filmmaking process. There's an amplified reliance on the significance of color that makes the whole picture feel like a gumball machine. There's an "indie" soundtrack by artists that any independent musician would swear is the work of giant corporations. There's a climactic dance number to make it all the more surreal and at once strangely human. Then there's the moniker "independent film". Of course any film starring Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Steve Carell and Toni Collette couldn't truly pass as "independent" - these are household Hollywood names! But somehow despite all the gripes critics are levelling at this phenomenon, I simply cannot find fault - and I couldn't find one thing to complain about with Little Miss Sunshine.

Failed suicide, failing marriage, closet heroin snorting, a vow of silence, an obsession with pagentry, and self-help grandstanding posturing itself as a solution to every little thing. These are a few of the impediments that the endearing Hoover family must grapple with as they trek from Albuquerque to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California. To say much more would spoil the fun that ensues. I haven't had such an entertaining experience at the movies in as long as I remember. And judging by the audience's anticipation before, participation during, and buzz afterwards, I'm certain that I'm not alone in my infatuation. Eat your heart out Napoleon Dynamite.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Fugitive

Every actor has a gimmick that features in each film. For some of us, it's what draws us to our favorite players. For others, it's the element we love to scrutinize. Just think: have you ever seen a Tom Cruise movie where we wasn't running and grimmacing? Take for example Harrison Ford's husky, contempuous delivery of the pivotal line of a film. It's there in every one. Will he perpetually play Han Solo or Indiana Jones? How about Tommy Lee Jones rattling off about 50 words in the space a few spare seconds? Well, for me, as I flipped through the channels the other night and landed on TBS and their abbreviated version of the 1993 chase thriller, I was hooked once again by the lines:

"Listen up ladies and gentlemen. Our fugitive has been on the run for 90 minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground, barring injury, is four miles an hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farm house, hen house, outhouse and dog house in that area... Go get him!"

It's a great movie: it goes by at break neck pace, there's a great cast, even better location shots - it's set in around Chicago [for fun, find all the liberties they take with street names and landmarks - of course there's no Balbo "L" stop!], it's hugely improbable - but that's part of the fun. But above all, my money is on Tommy Lee Jones - he saves the picture from falling apart with all the pitfalls of an action thriller. No wonder he landed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Samuel Gerard. Oh yeah, it's based on the TV series - but just barely, not enough to upset the loyalists. Good clean Hollywood fun.

3 out of 5 stars

Tristam Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

It seems like an unlikely subject - especially since it was deemed one of the most impossible to film novels - but director Michael Winterbottom has endeavored the challenge of adapting Laurence Sterne's 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Using the impossibility of the concept as the overarching device, the film is cast as a satire - a making of the movie, movie. Characters ebb and flow. The lines between acting and reality begin to blur. The absurdities of both worlds intermesh.

Steve Coogan (I'm Alan Partridge, 24 Hour Party People) hilariously plays the title role, and Shandy's father Walter - seamlessly addressing the camera as well as characters in his scene. All the while, he's embattled with trumping the even more funny Rob Brydon (and his character, Walter's brother Toby) with every little thing imaginable. Meanwhile Nino Rota's score to Fellini's 8 1/2 propels the film forward like a crazy train destined to run off the tracks. From the opening sequence to the final frame of the credits, this is British humor at its finest. A wild ride, it almost makes me want to read the book. Almost.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars