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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on the eponymous book by Bryan Burrough Public Enemies chronicles the exploits of legendary Chicago gangster John Dillinger a dashing figure whose daring bank robberies both captivated and alarmed a Depression-era America devastated by widespread financial ruin. Director Michael Mann (Ali The Insider) begins his narrative at Dillinger’s career high-point with the Indiana-born outlaw basking in his celebrity status as a Robin Hood figure.
But with Dillinger’s growing fame comes increased scrutiny from law enforcement agencies — particularly the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) and its ambitious chief J. Edgar Hoover. Eyeing Dillinger’s capture as an opportunity to boost his agency’s profile Hoover tasks elite agent Melvin Purvis with bringing the elusive gangster to justice.
WHO’S IN IT?
Toning down the often cartoonish mannerisms he exhibited in Sweeney Todd Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy Johnny Depp exudes low-key charm and self-assuredness as Dillinger a man clearly amused by his celebrity status but never consumed by it. Dillinger’s audacity and fearlessness extend beyond the criminal realm too as evidenced when he pursues a beguiling coat-check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Initially appalled by Dillinger’s aggressive advances Frechette ultimately surrenders becoming his loyal companion during his final days on the run.
As lawman Melvin Purvis Dillinger’s primary antagonist Christian Bale provides a nice foil for Depp though he ultimately isn’t allowed enough screen time to fully develop his character. Bale’s Purvis is straight-laced intrepid and doggedly persistent his efforts continually stymied by the sub-par talent and resources at his disposal. His complicated relationship with highly eccentric Bureau boss Hoover (played by a gleefully uptight Billy Crudup) begs for more development but director Mann opts instead to focus more on the doomed love affair between Dillinger and Frechette. Pity.
Fans of Mann’s action work in films like Miami Vice and Heat will revel in Public Enemies’ elaborately staged shoot-out sequences each of which is lent added intensity by cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s use of high-definition digital video cameras.
But when the bullets aren’t flying Public Enemies is only intermittently interesting. Stars Depp and Bale both excel in their respective roles but neither is allowed much room to venture beyond the tight constraints imposed by Mann who clings stubbornly — and disappointingly — to type. Much more intriguing would have been for Mann to reverse the casting with Bale playing the anti-hero and Depp as his straight-arrow pursuer. Alas the director who convinced squeeky-clean Tom Cruise to play a villain (in 2004’s Collateral) was not so ballsy this time around.
The same cautious predictable approach to casting extends to the film’s tone as well. Rather than deconstruct our culture’s romanticized vision of Dillinger as a handsome populist hero Mann adds to the gangster’s puffed-up Robin Hood image photographing Depp lovingly at every turn and filling the story with unsubtle nods to the character’s altruistic side. It’s a missed opportunity.
Mann has never been one for brevity regularly churning out films that extend well beyond two hours in length. Public Enemies is no exception clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Despite the ample running time he’s allotted to flesh out his story Mann fails to create any real attachment to his characters. For a movie with such a gifted cast appealing subject matter and riveting action sequences Public Enemies is oddly boring.
A chaotic nighttime sequence in which Purvis and his crew ambush Dillinger’s forest hideout only to become mired in a protracted and bloody gunfight ranks with the very best of Mann’s action work. If only the rest of Public Enemies were this thrilling.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Spinotii’s superb camera work demands to be seen on the big screen so slam a few Red Bulls and catch this one at the multiplex.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Bille Golden (Isabel Rose) is a 30-something nightclub singer-slash-waitress who wishes she were performing doing the golden years of the 1950s cabaret. Billie's dream seems impossible: she's not a teenager anymore she's poor lives with her alcoholic mother and doesn't completely believe in herself…all the makings for depression. Along comes Prince Charming to rescue her in the form of one Greg Ellenbogen (Cameron Bancroft) her old high school crush who is now a very handsome and successful lawyer. The drawback? Greg does not believe in Billie's dream. Enter one Elliot Shepard (Andrew McCarthy) a pianist who is more into his art than earning money. Sparks fly when Elliot becomes Billie's music teacher. Of course in a very formulaic way she must choose between her two loves between money and passion.
An unknown Isabel Rose shines in this indie; she is an excellent singing and acting talent taking every scene and making it her own. However most of the others don't exactly hold their own--the already predictable movie proves more so with the mediocre acting of Cameron Bancroft and Andrew McCarthy. Both seem to go through the motions and only stick to the stereotypes of what their characters are: one rich and selfish the other artistic and caring. Victor Argo as Sal the nightclub owner is genuine and carries out his part well but is not seen enough. Eartha Kitt appears in a welcome cameo but in a key role that only plays up the film's unlikelihood.
Robert Cary co-wrote the screenplay (with star Rose) and directed the movie which may explain why there are no surprises. Without a different point of view he was unable to really give this film the space it needed to grow and develop. "I've always loved the musicals and romances of Hollywood's golden era specifically those films produced by the majors between the mid-30's and mid-50's " Cary has said. Those formulaic romantic plots of yesteryear may have worked in their time but Anything But Love ends up being just too unrealistic for today's savvier audiences. The plot in addition to Billie's dream sequences is too fairytale-like. Anything But Love fails at being old-fashioned and instead merely forces the audience to wait for the inevitable ending.
Just when you thought the "Batman" franchise had left superhero movies creatively bankrupt, caped crusaders and masked villains are invading Hollywood once again.
This summer's release of "X-Men" promises to be the first in a long list of big-budget comic book adaptations. Many of these were on the back burner for several years but have been making headlines in recent weeks, ever since it was announced that Sam Raimi will likely be the director of Sony's long-awaited "Spider-Man" movie.
"The Greatest American Hero" The latest, and perhaps most bizarre, project announced is a big-screen version of "The Greatest American Hero," the early 1980s TV show that starred William Katt as bumbling superguy Ralph Hinkley (the character's surname was changed to "Hanley" after John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan). Space aliens give Hinkley a superhero suit and an instruction manual, but he loses the manual and must learn how to harness the powers of the suit on his own, with zany, madcap results. The show, which also starred Connie Sellecca as Katt's girlfriend and Robert Culp as his boss, is probably best remembered for its scenes of Katt learning how to fly and for its zippy theme song. According to Daily Variety, Touchstone Pictures has bought the rights to make a film about the knight-errant man in red tights and has hired two screenwriters to put the project in motion. No word yet on whether the "hero" will turn in those tights for 1990s-style body armor a la Batman.
While the "Greatest American Hero" news came from out of the blue, other super-duper movies have been eagerly awaited by comic geeks, studio licensing executives and toy manufacturers for most of the 1990s. Finally, just last week, Variety reported that the "Fantastic Four" movie, with its long and tangled history, might finally get off the ground with director Roger Donaldson ("Dante's Peak") at the controls. It's a merchandiser's dream -- four superheroes, plus the villains! -- and it's been in the works since 1994, when Marvel Comics made legal maneuvers to prevent director Oley Sassone from releasing his $2 million feature film version of the classic comic.
It's not that Sassone's version wasn't licensed by Marvel, but the comics publisher had received a bigger, better offer from producer-director Chris Columbus ( "Bicentennial Man") to do a first-class job; thus, the cheap quickie was never released and has been relegated to grainy bootleg videotapes sold on the underground. Now Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, the Invisible Girl and Human Torch, not to mention their nemesis Dr. Doom will probably command a $100 million budget if they ever make it to the screen.
The "Fantastic Four" news comes after word that several other Marvel properties are also moving from the back burner to the front. Last week, the trades reported that Columbia Pictures is close to hiring director Mark Steven Johnson ( "Simon Birch") to write and direct "Daredevil," the story of a blind criminal defense attorney by day who dresses up like a demon by night and stalks the city for criminals using his radar-like, radioactivity-enhanced senses to detect danger and evil-doers. Then there's "Dr. Strange," which writer-director Chuck Russell ( "Eraser") has recently been hired (also by Columbia) to develop. There's no speculation yet as to who'll play the young, crime-fighting psychiatrist Stephen Strange, who was known to utter strange incantations such as "By the hoary host of Hoggoth."
While Marvel Comics has the lion's share of superhero movies in the works (studios are also working on adaptations of "The Silver Surfer" and "The Incredible Hulk," although those two projects have been stuck in development hell for some time), rival publisher DC Comics isn't out of the picture, not by a long shot.
Apparently not even George Clooney and Joel Schumacher could succeed in killing Warner Bros.' "Batman" franchise. The studio is reportedly talking to "Pi" director Darren Aronofsky about making "Batman 5," and the studio's highly anticipated "Superman Reborn," once known as "Superman Forever," is said to be gearing up again now after being shelved two years ago when Tim Burton walked away (or was fired, depending on what you believe).
Warners is said to be pleased with the new "Superman" screenplay by Bill Wisher, and the candidate for Most Unlikely to Direct is ... Oliver Stone. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Stone is the No. 1 candidate for the job, and the studio wants to take a nontraditional approach to America's most traditional superhero, "sans the tights and more 'Matrix' like." Did Lex Luthor kill President Kennedy? Stay tuned.