“Independent film” is a term that is becoming harder and harder to define. What constitutes a film’s independence? Freedom from a studio’s creative clutches? Freedom from bank loans taken out to finance the production? Specialty divisions of major studios like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight release films like Away We Go Taking Woodstock Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited labeling them “indies” -– yet each of those titles boasted an eight-figure budget (as much in some cases as common studio schlock) and/or some well-known faces to help sell the product. In my eyes what ultimately categorizes a film as an indie is its subject matter which will often strongly contrast the kind of stories that full-fledged commercial pictures tell. A common theme that often pops up in independent films is that of self-discovery or personal reinvention which is what Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s Paper Man is all about.
The film centers on Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) a failed writer stuck in an emotional professional and marital rut who vacations in a rustic cottage in the Hamptons at the suggestion of his wife Claire. Richard’s problems stem from in part his feelings of inadequacy toward Claire (Lisa Kudrow) a highly respected surgeon who couldn’t be more of a polar opposite and can’t process his creative/psychological predicaments. For moral support Richard relies primarily upon Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) an imaginary friend from his childhood days who provides advice to the aging author. He appears destined to remain a hopeless man-child until he finds someone else to focus his neuroses on: a troubled local teen named Abby (Emma Stone). Together they learn to put the past behind them and embrace the positive in their lives and in each other.
So is Paper Man a true independent film? Let’s see: We’ve got a cast that includes current stars like Reynolds and Stone as well as veterans like Kudrow and Daniels who affords Richard enough innocence so that you can’t help but like the guy -- or at least sympathize with him -- despite his obvious and often irritating flaws. We’ve also got an offbeat narrative that isn’t an easy sell to multiplex audiences another common trait of independent cinema. What Paper Man does have in common with larger scale studio films like The Blind Side Julie and Julia and My Sister’s Keeper is a big heart filled with more emotions than a rainbow has colors. This doesn’t take away from its independence; it makes the film more accessible to a broader audience.
That’s not to say that Paper Man doesn’t have other appealing traits. Emma Stone delivers the goods with a terrific turn as Abby a self-destructive teenager still reeling from the death of her twin sister. She could have gotten by solely on her every-girl cutesiness but instead she shines by creating a layered character that is not as easy to read as you will initially think. Ryan Reynolds also stands out as Captain Excellent Richard’s personal Superman whose bleached blonde ‘do snarky comments and ridiculous getup should draw more than a few chuckles.
Ultimately Paper Man is a pretty solid effort from first-time husband-and-wife writers/directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney (brother and sister-in-law of Dermot) who craft complicated relationships between their characters and avoid easy outcomes to the complex situations that arise. Positioned to open just as the summer movie rollercoaster begins the film will be a welcome alternative to the downright “un-independent” movies that feed off the creativity of others. (Think A Nightmare on Elm Street Prince of Persia Sex and the City 2 The A-Team… you get the idea.)
Idi Amin was the ruthless dictator of the African nation of Uganda throughout much of the 1970s. He was ultimately blamed for thousands upon thousands of deaths (some estimates place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands) during his tenure. The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized version of Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) reign of terror. Giddy after graduating from med school in Scotland Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) randomly picks Uganda to be his first post-college destination. When he gets there the locals are abuzz after the new leader has been sworn in and vows to right all that is wrong with the country. After a chance encounter with Amin Garrigan bears witness to his dichotomous personalities as the ruler goes from threatening to charming on a whim. Amin is so taken with the young doctor--and vice versa--that he invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. A doctor-patient relationship leads to close friendship and before long Garrigan is the very center of the dictator’s inner circle. And not long thereafter he learns that there is no worse place to be. For over 20 years now we’ve all bore witness to Whitaker’s mastery of acting. His choices have been eclectic and his performances consistently great but it’s always been a case of “And oh Forest Whitaker’s great too.” Until now. Whitaker makes what can only be described as an earthquake of an entrance. It’s clear in the movie when Amin will first appear and yet the actor still manages to catch us off-guard. Amin’s manic personalities are child’s play for Whitaker but he never has fun with it which is where other actors might have gone overboard. He is now leading the race for the Best Actor Oscar too. Not that the supporting players are too shabby though. McAvoy's (The Chronicles of Narnia) Garrigan is actually the heart of the story allowing for more screen time than Whitaker and the Scotsman soaks up every second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film but not only because he’s from the opposite side of the earth; it’s because McAvoy the actor makes sure to react differently to everything. In addition former X-File-r Gillian Anderson turns in a solid if short apperance--and you’ll be surprised how amazingly hot she is! Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as one of Amin’s countless neglected ex-wives is superb as well.
The contrast between Last King's first and second half is as night-and-day as Amin's personalities. In the first half director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) allows the story to simmer to the point of perfection; in the second half he gets sloppy as though in a rush to finish a different movie than the one he started. The ending also a mix of truth and fable (plucked from the highly acclaimed book by Giles Foden) quickly spirals towards its conclusion which is tough to watch for very different reasons. But prior to that--even at some points in the uneven second half--MacDonald paints a beautiful monster out of Amin. Maybe more importantly he paints a beautiful picture of African ambiance an indirect thank you to the Ugandan people that allowed unprecedented access to their country for the sake of Last King. Even with MacDonald's occasional blunders it's hard to deny the power of his film.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) heads home. With only his duffel bag and rifle he seems an aimless and penniless drifter but Elvis knows exactly where he’s going: Corpus Christi Texas to find his estranged father (William Hurt). Now a locally renowned pastor David Sandow has absolved himself of any and all sins he committed before “becoming a Christian ” which includes his illegitimate son with whom he wants no contact. So Elvis goes behind the pastor’s back and forges a relationship with his pristine naïve teenage daughter--and in reality Elvis’ half-sister--Malerie (Pell James). When her brother (Paul Dano) a teenager who wears the Bible on his sleeve threatens to reveal their love affair everything changes irrevocably. If The King were to ever get more than a very limited release in American theaters as many as three of the actors could vie for Oscar noms. Leading the way is Bernal (in his first English-speaking role) who may have the most esteemed resume of any contemporary actor (Y Tu Mama Tambien Amores Perros Bad Education The Motorcycle Diaries and Cannes’ most buzzed-about film this year Babel are just a few). His Elvis is impenetrable and still there’s a sense of menace--which is a feat no actor has pulled off this side of Brokeback Mountain; Oscar-worthy. Hurt fresh off his Oscar nom for A History of Violence again shows us why he’s one of the best most versatile in the biz. He embodies a man whose crisis of faith is but the tip of the iceberg following a role that couldn’t have been more the opposite; Oscar-worthy. James (Undiscovered) can’t quite succeed in obscuring her beauty but she does everywhere else lending a naïveté and an uncanny Southern accent to Malerie who’s 13 years younger than James herself; Oscar-worthy. And Dano gives perhaps the most haunting albeit very brief performance as a misguided teenager hurt more than helped by his dad’s heavy hand.
The King will ruffle more than a few feathers in the Jerry Falwell--and perhaps George W. Bush--sect for its thinly veiled take on Christianity and religion altogether. Well praise the Lord! Finally someone has used the medium of film for something besides a CGI test drive potentially spurring--dare we say--healthy debate in the process. That someone is British director James Marsh who co-wrote the film with Milo Addica (Monster's Ball). Together the two are careful to never assign condemnation to any one character and they touch upon every single dark almost gothic theme imaginable resulting in a film as engrossing as it is galvanizing. And the cinematography is so beautiful it surpasses CGI with landscapes so lush and vivid they look surreal. All of these elements pooled together form a story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet or something Faulkner might concoct if he were around. But again for its sinful look at Christianity good luck finding it in (American) theaters.
“A heel should be about SEX!” yells Lola played with electrifying force by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on a true story Kinky Boots takes a look at an old-school shoe factory in the quiet burgh of Northampton England. Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) inherits the place when his father passes away--but the factory in financial straits. It is simply outdated. So on the advice of one of his employees Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts) Charlie decides to think out of the box so to speak and finds a niche market selling over-the-top but sturdy footwear to transvestites and drag queens. But he needs vision since most of the factory’s workers are used to making men’s loafers. That’s where Lola one of London’s premier drag queens comes in. She has all the flair and design ideas Charlie is looking for--but bringing her to conservative Northampton proves to be a bit tricky. That is until everyone gets to know Lola. Ejiofor is definitely an actor to watch out for. Since making an indelible impression in Stephen Frears’ gritty drama Dirty Pretty Things the British-born actor has been quietly stealing scenes in almost every movie he is in--from playing a deliciously evil drug lord in Four Brothers to Denzel Washington’s sparring partner in Inside Man. But in Kinky Boots Ejiofor doesn’t have to steal any scenes; he IS the movie as the tough but kindhearted Lola. The rest of the cast does a very nice job don’t get me wrong. Edgerton (King Arthur) is particularly endearing as the son desperately trying to keep his dad’s dreams alive while Potts (Wonderland) with her pixie face plays Charlie’s sweet love interest. But it’s all Ejiofor--strutting around in one outlandish musical number after another all while helping Charlie save the factory. A tour de force. A movie about shoes. What could be more fun? Actually Kinky Boots follows some standard fairly foolproof plot devices. There’s the son taking over the family business even though he has no interest in it but finds the joy of making shoes after all. Then there’s the drag queen who is just so fan-tabulous on the stage just OWNS the world but of course harbors deep pain over a father who never understood her and can’t find the right man to save her life. These kind of Boots have walked before. But with a quirky script from writers Geoff Deane and Tim Firth and an easy-going style from TV director Julian Jarrold the film further highlights that certain British wry sensibility that makes most comedies from across the pond so very appealing.