By Michael Calleri
Buffalo Alternative Press Movie Editor
Whenever someone complains to me that the movies are nothing but the “same old, same old,” I try to calm them down and then ask a few questions. Generally, I find out that they’ve been following the hype and have been on a mind-numbing diet of big ticket “Hollywood” studio releases. I often advise them to rent or buy some of the more interesting independent features available on DVD. Did you see “Breaking And Entering” or “Little Children?” These aren’t mega-blockbusters and neither is perfect, but they are intriguing and mature works and definitely offer food for thought.
To my way of thinking, even with the two duds out of the six offerings reviewed below, this very mixed lot delivers some very interesting material.
How’s this for a possibility? A 30-year old film that has hardly ever been seen, except at a film festival or, even rarer, secret college screening. It has a reputation for insight and power despite never receiving a commercial release. The movie is “Killer Of Sheep” and it was made for $10,000 in 1977 by Charles Burnett, whose most notable work is “The Glass Shield.” “Killer Of Sheep” was Burnett’s UCLA Film School thesis project. It’s a blistering and haunting study of the lives of blue collar black Americans who live in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Now restored in crisp 35mm black and white (it was shot in 16mm), the movie is a fictional look at hardworking neighborhood people simply trying to hold on to their family structure as some members look for jobs and after finding employment, struggle to keep working.
America in the 1970s was a tense place, with cities going bankrupt, ever-present gasoline lines, a vast dichotomy between the poor and the middle-class, and the legacy of Vietnam still hanging like a cloud. Ten years after the Watts riots, blacks in Los Angeles couldn’t even consider themselves third class citizens, let alone aspire to anything greater. All they could do was dream. Burnett, who is African-American, captures the alienation of a society so brilliantly that you can’t believe your seeing the United States up on the screen. If you want to experience something unique, this is the movie for you.
* * * * *
I liked “28 Days Later” a lot, and I really like “28 Weeks Later,” the sequel to Danny Boyle’s rage virus thriller that shook up a huge number of people. In fact, I think the new movie is better than the original. What’s that, you ask? “A sequel that outshines the first offering?” You bet it does.
This is a film rife with menacing silences and shadowy landscapes. It’s freaky and frightening and utterly compelling. Here’s the gist of it. The United Kingdom has been decimated by the lethal animal virus that turned seemingly normal Brits into raging, ravenous zombies. Everyone’s either dead or in hiding in France. At the start of the film, a family attempts to fend off some zombies. Soon the deranged zombies run out of food – other humans. It seems that all of the zombies are dead. The United States military descends on the nation and sets up a safe zone for repopulating British society. Folks are called back from exile. In the initial group are two children. Their dad, played by Robert Carlyle, is thrilled to see them. He’s survived the attack that opens the movie. Where’s mummy, ask the kids? Eventually, mummy turns up, but she has immunity to the virus. Or does she?
That’s all I want to reveal. “28 Weeks Later” is tense and edgy and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo with a real understanding of how to create terror with whiplash editing and hints of dread. And the way he depicts violence is wildly unsettling. This movie will definitely make you nervous, but it will also entertain you in a way very few thrillers do. I can’t wait to see it again.
* * * * *
“Year Of The Dog” is a quirky comedy starring an excellent Molly Shannon as Peggy, an office worker whose beloved pet dog dies, a possible victim of rat poison in her neighbor’s garage. He’s acted by John C. Reilly in his best ordinary guy manner. Peggy’s workdays play out like scenes from the classic “Office Space.” She even has a fast-talking, wisecracking co-worker who is well played by Regina King. Also in the mix are Peggy’s in-laws, Tom McCarthy and Laura Dern, and her boss Josh Pais. Everyone delivers laughs in roles that if badly acted would not be funny at all. There aren’t too many actual comic – or gag - lines in the film, but the delivery of everything is pitch perfect.
In an attempt to get over her grief, Peggy soon hooks up with a mild-mannered animal lover, who is acted by the always-enjoyable Peter Sarsgaard. They seem to be headed for a romantic rendezvous, but, alas, he has a sexual secret. No, not that one. In a whisker, “Year Of The Dog” shifts from being an offbeat comedy to being a sharp political satire as Peggy’s character, now twice bitten by bad news, descends into dog-loving hell. It’s not painful enough that you don’t laugh, but it’s awfully daring for an American movie. Carefully written and skillfully directed by Mike White, the very funny film thrives on Shannon’s ability to play Peggy’s madness with a straight face, yet wring huge laughs from her dancing on the edge of insanity. All of it gives new meaning to the phrase “puppy love.”
* * * * *
For the foreign film fanatics amongst you, “Black Book” is an outstanding entry that will honor your commitment to the form. After years of making American schlock (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” “RoboCop,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Total Recall”), director Paul Verhoeven returned to his native Netherlands to make an epic drama about World War II and the Dutch Resistance. The well-acted, excellently directed “Black Book” never seems long at two and a half hours. The movie is about a Jewish woman who faces death at the hands of the Nazis, only to survive and eventually become part of the struggle against the enemy. She is called upon to be get information by living with and loving an SS commandant. “Black Book” is complex in the way it handles the bloodlust of the Resistance and the anti-Semitism that is not only all-pervasive in Nazi culture, but is also a deep-rooted aspect of Dutch reality. The ending will stun you.
* * * * *
Televised poker was really hot the past couple of years, but the torpor has tamed recently, which is an unlucky occurrence for “Lucky You,” the new romantic comedy starring Eric Bana as a professional poker player and Drew Barrymore as the queen of his heart.
Bana plays Huckleberry Cheever. Seriously, that’s his name. You know right away that one of the co-screenwriters (either Eric Roth or the movie’s director. Curtis Hanson) took an English course or two in college and never got over it. Huck, as he’s called, is a professional poker player with a talent to read people and figure out their pocket cards. Alas, it helps to know a little bit about poker to follow along. He’s capable of beating just about anybody, although one of the film’s failings is that key information either isn’t told or is whispered in such a way that it seems throwaway information. I never got that Huck had ever won a major poker tournament. The movie has him attempting to win the biggest event, the World Series Of Poker.
One of the people who will be in his way is his dad, L. C. Cheever (Robert Duvall), a carefree cad who ran out on him and his mother decades earlier. The elder Mr. Cheever has won the WSOP twice. In “Lucky You,” which is set in Las Vegas, Huck will spend the early part of the film trying to get the $10,000 necessary to enter the tournament. He encounters Drew Barrymore, who I gather, he doesn’t know, but it seems he does know her. Yep, another mysterious failing.
Anyway, Huck does know Drew’s wary sister, played by Debra Messing in a part that’s so underwritten it hardly seems to be in the same movie. Messing also looks nothing like Barrymore (and vice versa), but maybe one or both of them is adopted. Soon you realize that the film has gone from a sprightly little lark about poker to a romantic comedy with minimal laughs and hardly any romance. Ah, you think, the movie’s about love. But you know what, it really isn’t. Everything in “Lucky You” is so low key that it hardly seems to be about anything.
Barrymore is a wonderful actress and she and Bana make a nice screwball team, but the script keeps throwing them curve balls. By the end of the film you really don’t care if they end up together or if he becomes the World Series Of Poker champion. In fact, you don’t even care if all the Daddy issues between Huck and L.C. get resolved. Something about his father is holding Huck back, but even that’s unclear. Actually, it’s a little bit weird.
The big poker showdown is a nationally-televised event, and features real-life poker champs, which may be a thrill for some people, but is less a clever take on reality and illusion than it is just plain annoying. Not one of these men can act and it makes no sense to waste the brilliant comedic talent of actress Jean Smart who sits at the poker table and literally has almost nothing to do. It’s here that the movie uncoils like a messed-up Slinky.
One of the bigger problems with a film about something as specific as Texas Hold ‘Em poker is that to do it right, you have to explain the game for those in the movie theater audience who don’t know much about it. This takes time away from the thin story line and is like sitting in a dull class. Bana will explain the game to Barrymore and the audience, but we get nothing out of it. She gets to have her love for him toyed with like a yo-yo. You see, there has to be conflict between lovers or the girl doesn’t end up threatening to leave the boy because he’s such a jerk.
Meanwhile, Huck will deal with his daddy issues as he and his father actually face-off at the final table in the poker showdown. The screenplay demands that their negativity gets resolved.
“Lucky You” is slight and falls short of being endearing. Bana and Barrymore are too good for the material. Duvall is a great actor, and I’ve seen him in a lot of movies. I hate to write this, but his is a very lazy performance. There’s something seriously wrong with a film when even the so-called “villain” of the piece is dull and lifeless.
* * * * *
“Georgia Rule” is worth seeing for the acting, but overall, it can’t decide if it’s a comedy or a tough drama. I really wish filmmakers would stop trying to go for laughs when they aren’t necessary or needed. It comes across more as begging for laughs. This is a serious movie. Why pander? Jane Fonda is grandmother to Lindsay Lohan. Granny is feisty and independent and determined to turn her trouble-making teenage grandchild into a productive lass. But grandma has rules. Lohan balks. This should be a serious movie about generational conflict. Lohan’s mother (Felicity Huffman) is a mean-spirited alcoholic. Is that why the kid’s a mess? And is Fonda (as mother to Huffman) solely responsible for the hurt and pain and emotional upheaval? What we want from “Georgia Rule” is adult, mature reasoning. What we get is Lindsay Goes To Boot Camp. You know what, all three women needed to go to boot camp. Fonda, Huffman, and Lohan deliver superb performances. I would rather have seen this one played brutally straight.
A Watts masterpiece, London in peril, a woman whos gone to the dogs, Verhhoeven returns, and a coup
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