“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.)
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
Who knew that Will Smith could deliver the year’s most unexpected and profoundly moving love story? He plays Ben a man with a deep dark secret that leads him help seven complete strangers each with their own particular set of circumstances. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle we slowly get clues to the traumatic events that cause Ben to contact these people and change their lives in ways they never could have anticipated. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with one of them -- Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) a cardiac patient whose heart may be weak but is clearly strong enough to make a difference in the way Ben looks at things. It’s this relationship that becomes the center of Grant Nieporte’s compelling screenplay but as it continues it’s obvious there is more to what Ben is doing a mystery not revealed until the final moments and one you will not easily forget. Will Smith is at his best. He may be the world’s No. 1 movie star at the moment but he’s continually proving himself to be a brilliant actor as well. Reteaming with director Gabriele Muccino who led him to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness Smith once again finds his dramatic mojo in the role of a man whose life has been shattered by something so profoundly affecting that he reaches out to strangers in an effort to redeem himself. You will be hard-pressed to find the loveable Will Smith persona anywhere within this character. Dawson also has a career best as the spunky and courageous Emily a role that could have been sloppily sentimentalized and maudlin. She’s a revelation delivering a flawless and luminous performance. And best among the various recipients of Ben’s kindness is Woody Harrelson as a blind man he encounters. Also quite good is Barry Pepper as Ben’s childhood friend who is the only other person “in” on Ben’s master plan helping him to achieve his goal. He rips your heart out when he gets the call from Ben who says “It’s time.” Gabriele Muccino puts it all out there. He is an unapologetically emotional director and some will probably find fault with his style but as the Italian filmmaker proved in Pursuit of Happyness he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the story. He’s most successful here in building suspense and an air of mystery around Smith’s character and then bringing it all home in a whopper of a final act. Clearly story acting and gut-level feeling are the three things that drive Muccino and his distinctive stamp and European approach is evident throughout. Most of all he has given Smith and Dawson a real showcase finding the meat of a story that’s one from the heart and good for the soul.
Not to be confused with the 1979 ghost story The Changeling this Changeling is a horror story of a very different stripe. Based on a long forgotten case buried deep in the L.A. crime files this true tale revolves around the mysterious 1928 disappearance of 9-year-old Walter Collins. Set in an election year and with heavy political pressure on city officials and a corrupt LAPD they find a child five months later who they claim is Walter and arrange to reunite him with his mother Christine (Angelina Jolie). Only problem is she says this is not her kid. When she asks the police to continue trying to find her son she finds herself victimized and accused of being insane and unfit for not going along with the PR campaign informing the public that the police have solved the case. With the help of a community activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) she begins to fight the city and the police who try in every way to silence her even committing her to a mental institution. The film details not only her valiant quest to right a wrong and find her real son but serves as a probing indictment of the police state 1920’s Los Angeles had become. As in her searing portrayal of the pregnant Marianne Pearl in last year’s A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie once again connects with her maternal side. In another challenging role she must exhibit a wide emotional range going from fear to anguish to anger to pure resolve in an effort to uncover the mystery of her son’s abduction. Splendidly outfitted in ‘20s garb Jolie delves deep into the soul of a woman who dared to go against the grain and challenge a corrupt police department in Prohibition-era L.A. She’s simply remarkable in the most intense determined and heartbreaking role of her career. As the man who helps out in her cause Malkovich is perfectly matched to Jolie. As the merciless Captain Jones who heads the investigation to find Walter Jeffrey Donovan (TV’s Burn Notice) is properly frustrating and imposing while Colm Feore gets the evil side of his LAPD police chief down pat. Nailing her few scenes Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) plays a fellow psycho-ward inmate who helps Christine when she is institutionalized. Particularly impressive is Eddie Alderson as the 15-year-old nephew of the serial killer who leads police to a grisly crime scene and his uncle played a bit over the top by Jason Butler Harner. And filling out their juvenile roles nicely are Gattlin Griffith as Walter and eerie Devon Conti as the young man impersonating him. Clint Eastwood knows his way around ominous foreboding material so it’s no wonder he was instantly attracted to J. Michael Stracynski’s immaculately researched script. After Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River Eastwood exhibits a strong understanding of the dark side of human nature. Changeling fits right in with his oeuvre and he delivers yet another superbly crafted and acted film -- one that exists on two separate levels as a look at the corruption that crept into the LAPD of the era and as an impassioned journey of a woman trying to find a happy ending for herself and her son. Shot with the director’s usual ease Eastwood seems comfortable letting the almost unbelievable facts of the story speak for themselves and remarkably didn’t change a word of Stracynski’s fascinating screenplay. He doesn’t have to. The fact that it’s a true story that all really happened is simply incredible by itself. This is an unforgettable triumph for everyone involved.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.