September 22, 2010 12:10pm EST
On the hit television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager protagonist Amy Juergens has to deal with high school drama boy troubles the needs of her young child and more making her days at Ulysses S. Grant High School far from ideal. In reality the lives of youngsters are even more complicated as all of the above in addition to peer pressure academic competition and the age-old quest to be cool can overwhelm the most focused individual.
Writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) both dramatize and make light of the plight of pubescents in their sweet new film It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel which chronicles a lonesome teen’s brief stay at an adult psychiatric ward it is a very funny story but the filmmakers keep it levelheaded with melancholy supporting characters and a message about the affliction of our society’s medicated youth.
Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara) plays Craig a chronically depressed Brooklyn teen who checks in for treatment after contemplating suicide. An over-achiever caught up in the rat race that is the American Dream Craig’s pessimism and depression stem from neglectful parents more concerned with him gaining acceptance into an elite school than following his passions. His anxiety is aggravated by the dreadful current events of our time notably the wars and financial meltdown that have crippled the aspirations of much of our country’s youth. Though he is a bit over-dramatic Craig’s ailment does raise notable points about paternal priorities and an entire generation of disheartened dreamers.
But surrounded by the hospital’s eccentric group of patients including Emma Roberts’ damaged love interest Noelle and Zach Galifianakis’ emotionally guarded Bobby Craig makes a psychological breakthrough. Gilchrist is like the love child of Justin Long and Jay Baruchel but isn’t nearly as fun to watch as either of those hot-at-the-moment performers save for one Flight of the Conchords moment in the middle of the movie. It’s not that he’s unconvincing; he’s just dull. Luckily Galifianakis steals the show at every turn giving his first ever three-dimensional performance and earning all the attention he’s been getting lately.
Had its story been laid out ordinarily It’s Kind of a Funny Story wouldn’t have been nearly as affecting as it is. But a series of funky flashbacks quirky cut-scenes and animated sequences make the film’s otherwise predictable narrative abstract original and refreshing.
Tommy Santoro’s (James Marsden) disillusionment with his own family--Dad was a mob enforcer who was shot down in front of the house--leads him to join the Marines but when the Gulf War ends with Saddam still in power Tommy flips and ends up in the brig. An FBI agent (Brian Dennehy) offers him his only way out of a multi-year sentence: Return to the Philly neighborhood he grew up in and inform on his mobbed-up cousin Joey (Giovanni Ribisi). Tommy is dismayed to find that his young brother Vincent (Brad Renfro) is also now in the life. Tommy ends up romancing Brandy (Piper Perabo) a girl he grew up with now widowed and working at Joey’s nightclub. Finally rid of Cyclops’ signature shades it’s nice to see more of X-Men’s Marsden than killer cheekbones and pursed lips including some finely honed dramatic chops. Renfro’s character is supposed to be on the slow side it seems although it’s not quite clear why that is. Ribisi as the hair-trigger tempered Joey doesn’t quite have the gravitas or necessary psychosis to intimidate. In fact all of the cast seem a bit on the young side which lends an unwelcome air of kids-playing-dress-up to the proceedings. With dark hair and a perpetually guarded expression Perabo is nearly unrecognizable as that same blonde who shook her thing on top of the bar in Coyote Ugly--although her casting does invite an unintentional snigger or two when she informs a horny patron that “the bartenders don’t dance.” Cameos by Dennis Hopper (as Tommy’s dad) Val Kilmer (as a drunk grieving his Marine son) and Tommy Lee (as “Jimmy Tats ” an overeager bouncer) are more distracting than meaningful. Writer/director Bobby Moresco (one half of the Crash writing team) proves he’s no Scorsese. The film boasts some striking cinematography and moody lighting and sparks to life whenever things turn violent. But as is often the case in mob dramas connections between characters aren’t clear. Character interaction remains on the murky side as well. Tommy chews Joey out for allowing brother Vincent to get involved in his mob dealings but no one questions Tommy’s reentry into the life. While we feel for Tommy’s dilemma Moresco fails to build sympathy or interest for other characters so by the time the final showdown occurs you won’t much care who lives and who dies.
Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ria (Jennifer Esposito) get into a car accident en route to investigate a murdered body found in a canyon overlooking Los Angeles. Ria is ready to snap necks but Graham explains "It's the sense of touch…I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." He ain't kiddin'. Crash begins at the end after 24 hours that have not only irrevocably changed Graham's life but also the lives of several other L.A. denizens who have inadvertently collided with one another. We go back to the previous day and meet an angry Brentwood housewife (Sandra Bullock) and her D.A. husband (Brendan Fraser) who have their car stolen at gunpoint by two carjackers (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris"
Bridges); a paranoid Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) who tangles with a kindly Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena); a rookie LAPD cop (Ryan Phillippe) and his veteran partner (Matt Dillon) who harass an affluent black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie
Newton) and then later ironically save them in separate hair-raising incidents. Black and white victim and aggressor there doesn't seem to be a right or a wrong as things escalate and culminate. The only common thread is the fact that life is too short to be filled with fear and intolerance.
The all-star cast is nothing less than spectacular. Cheadle tops the list as the beleaguered detective who keeps people including his partner and sometimes lover Esposito at a distance making his inevitable speech about touch even more poignant. This Oscar-nominated actor has the unique gift of lifting a scene to a whole new level just by sitting in silence. Bullock steps out of her America's Sweetheart box for a little while and plays the bigoted but lonely housewife while Fraser plays her workaholic husband with stoic detachment. As the cops Dillon giving one of his better performance to date and Phillippe aptly represent the two sides of the same coin: the racist careworn veteran whose vulnerability is revealed in a subtle way and the idealistic newcomer whose anxiety-ridden day takes its toll in a tragic way. Howard and Newton also turn in superb performances as respectively a television director who hardly ever makes waves and his emotionally wounded wife who can't believe her husband won't fight for her. Most of the more comical moments if you can call them that are provided by Tate (A Man Apart) and Bridges who emerges as yet another rapper who can act. His diatribes about racial relations are spot on. And lastly Crash's most heartening moments come from Pena (TV's The Shield). One night to allay his young daughter's fears he creates an invisible cloak that will forever protect her from harm--only to see it put to the test. It just rips your heart right out of your chest.
Television writer Paul Haggis who makes his directorial feature debut with Crash says his "aim with this film is to explore how intolerance is a collective problem." He should know. Living in Los Angeles he and his wife were once carjacked at gunpoint. Luckily no one was hurt but that one fateful night forced him out of complacency. Suddenly he wasn't immune. But more importantly he began thinking about who these carjackers were what kind of lives they lead--and Crash was born. Los Angeles is the perfect setting as the characters move around independently in their cars and in their homes. This insulated atmosphere only heightens the tension in the film. Real danger lurks on every frame--even in the lighter moments--and it's so gut-wrenching at times it's hard to watch. But just when you are certain some tragedy is about to occur Crash switches gears and surprises you. Of course films of this nature--such as Grand Canyon and Boyz N The Hood which do everything possible to get you to think and react--can also come off a tad preachy at times. In Crash's case it's a sermon we ought to listen to. You'll be hard pressed not to recognize at least to some degree a small part of yourself up there on screen.
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.