It’s already a bad day for Tom (Stephen Rea) an unemployed middle-aged business executive who’s about to enter the ranks of the homeless--but things are only going to get worse when the sun goes down. Brandi (Mena Suvari) a young nurse with a penchant for partying is driving home after celebrating an expected promotion when Tom crosses the street at exactly the wrong moment. Brandi hits Tom then rushes home in abject panic--all the while incidentally Tom’s body is stuck in her windshield and he’s still alive. While Brandi frantically dithers and deliberates how to extricate herself from this situation without consequences Tom is trying to physically extricate his broken body from Brandi’s windshield. What begins as a simple if unfortunate case of hit-and-run becomes a battle of wills between Tom and Brandi--one that crackles with intensity and irony. Both Suvari and Rea give tremendous performances. Rea's downtrodden dignity is enormously empathetic. His attempts to save himself--exemplifying his renewed will to live--are agonizing to watch but also rousing in their own way as this underdog fights against some pretty steep (and bloody) odds. Interestingly enough it’s also easy to empathize with Brandi’s predicament--for a time. Hitting Tom was an accident but when she goes into self-preservation mode Brandi’s actions become more and more horrific with the consequences growing exponentially. Suvari (also an associate producer) hasn’t had a role this good since American Beauty and she makes the most of it. There’s also a nice turn by Russell Hornsby as Brandi’s drug-dealing two-timing boyfriend Rashid who gets drawn into her scheme--much to his regret. Stuart Gordon whose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator remains one of the premier cult films of the 1980s has lost none of his savage wit or his taste for dark humor. That this film is inspired by an actual incident only enhances its impact and its stinging irony. Truth is not only stranger than fiction it’s often stronger. Beyond the violence (sometimes extreme) and satire (sometimes overt) are some subtle yet potent observations about human nature--about not taking responsibility for one’s actions about not getting involved about covering up one’s mistakes. Stuck is not a preachy film but it’s frequently a penetrating one (no pun intended).
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
In other words Prada--based on the bestselling novel by Lauren Weisberger--unfortunately plays upon the sitcom-y boss-from-hell scenario in which the young flunky manages to one up her superior in some valiant way. There are no surprises save for the fact that its set in the world of high fashion invoking all the fabulousness that entails and incorporates the amazing Streep as Miranda Priestly editor-in-chief of THE fashion magazine Runway. Oozing contempt and demanding perfection Miranda at first terrorizes her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) an impressionable lass who wants to be a serious journalist and has no desire to be a “Clacker.” But that lasts for all of about 10 seconds. Andy is soon wearing those Jimmy Choo stilettos and clacking across the floor with the best of them--and the better she gets at her job the more her personal life falls apart. Naturally Andy wises up and realizes life isn’t about Dolce Gabbana and the rest of the gang. Still maybe she could keep one Prada handbag. You know just to remember the experience. Streep is having a nice little resurgence this year with two spectacular performances. In Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion she plays the sunny yet heartbroken half of a singing sister act--and in Prada she’s Satan incarnate. Quite a switch but in the ever-so-capable hands of the Oscar winner it’s a flawless transition. The best part of Streep’s Miranda is all the things she doesn’t say. It’s the searing looks the languid move of the hand--and the hushed tones. This isn’t Kevin Spacey’s screaming lunatic producer in Swimming with Sharks; this is about the threatening quiet and the sacrifices Miranda makes to be lonely at the top. Hathaway as a lovely Audrey Hepburn look-a-like manages to keep her head above water but still hasn’t quite gotten rid of her Princess Diaries gee whizzed-ness. But there’s potential. In supporting roles Stanley Tucci makes a memorable appearance as Miranda’s right-hand man at the magazine doling out snarky but sage advice to our heroine while Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage) plays nice as Andy’s patient boyfriend. The only other real standout star of Prada is the clothes. And the shoes. Oh and the handbags hats belts scarves and other accessories. Director David Frankel--a HBO flunky himself having directed several episodes of Entourage Sex and the City and even HBO’s hit mini-series Band of Brothers--captures this high-powered world of trend and style succinctly giving all fashionista wannabes everywhere a brief but meaningful inside peek. But the real kudos go out to costume designer Patricia Field (an Emmy winner for her work on Sex and the City) who must have had a lot of fun with Prada. She magically produces designs from Valentino (who also makes a small cameo) Donna Karan Bill Blass Galliano and of course Prada. It must be like a painter being given permission to recreate a Picasso or a Monet. Prada is predictable it’s true--but with Streep’s streaked white Cruella De Vil and all the great fashion it’s worth its weight in Versace.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.