Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Three Wise Films of Christmas

There's a lot of downtime in working solo on an office's night shift, even more so during the holidays which offer no real vacation in my field of work (although the overtime pay isn't so bad...). It gets to a point where the usual distractions - learning Spanish, practicing guitar, doing crosswords, clipping your nails - aren't that distracting anymore.

This year, I decided to catch up on my mounting pile of movies to watch - it was getting really high- and proceeded to watch over twenty movies in a little less than two weeks. Some of them were as expected ("Charlie Wilson's War" was sure to satisfy my thirst for Aaron Sorkin's dialogs), some were much worse than anticipated (I honestly thought "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" would be an under-rated gem...) and some were absolute discoveries.

Three in particular caught my fancy more than any others for the sheer surprise in my enjoyment of them. All 3 happen to be either overlooked or downright unappreciated. Since traditional Christians have their 3 Wise Men, I'll use this free and hassle-free podium-of-a-blog to "publicize" my 3 Wise Films of Christmas 2007. My only hope is for more people to discover and enjoy them.

1 - Southland Tales
2007 Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Dark Comedy
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott

Richard Kelly's sophomore effort, following the now-cult classic "Donnie Darko", suffered trials worthy of its protagonist, having been delayed over a year and completely overhauled following a much-maligned screening at the 2006 Cannes Festival. And like "Darko", it is destined to achieve Cult-status when the director gets to present his original vision on DVD.

Many critics tried and failed to summarize the movie's happenings, which may explain why most of them thumbed it down - how can you rate something you can't grasp? My own feelings is that the story is less important than the tableaux it exposed or social commentaries it unleashed. Imagine Stanley Kubrick directing his masterpiece "2001" from an Oliver Stone-collaborated screenplay. You don't quite get what's going on, but you do see the targets in bright colors (a porn star hosting a chat show which covers the important issues of Pollution, War and Teen Horniness can't quite miss the mark).

The one sad thing about the film is how chopped-up it feels; two terrific musical numbers leave you with the feeling that 5 or 6 more died on the cutting room floor. "Too Many Cooks" seems to be the case, as producers' anguished change requests can be spotted throughout. Some say the original cut wasn't any more digestible; at least, it must've been more consistent and complete. And if anything, we get treated to an amazing cast of recognizable talent - John Laroquette, Miranda Richardson, Ling Bai, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, Sheri Otteri and Kevin Smith himself, to name a few.

As previously mentioned, "Southland Tales" made me feel like witnessing our own generation's "2001: A Space Odyssey". You don't have a clue what you just saw, but you'll think and talk about it for years to come.

3* out of 5

2- Mr. Brooks
2007 Thriller
STARRING Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Dane Cooke, Demi Moore
WRITTEN BY Bruce A. Evans & Reynold Gideon
DIRECTED BY Bruce A. Evans

I always loved Kevin Costner's on-screen charisma since his break-out turn in "Silverado", but the strings of (let's be frank) turkeys he dished out following his Oscar-win for "Dances With Wolves" made me doubt his sanity. The new millennium saw a more mature and quality-oriented Costner dwelling in unjustly overlooked gems like "Open Range" (arguably the greatest Western since "Unforgiven") "Thirteen Days" and "Upside of Anger". His latest offering, "Mr. Brooks", keeps it up - a quality script with a Costner visibly having a great time.

Story centers on the titular character, a wealthy and popular family man who strangely allowed his imaginary friend to stick around well into adulthood. Said friend, Marshall, also comes with a monkey on Brooks' back - he's addicted to murder. Following Marshall's insistence to indulge in "just one more" threatens to shatter Brooks' carefully planned double-life, as an amateur photographer blackmails him into an apprenticeship, and a stop-at-nothing cop gets closer to finally catching him. To make matters worse, his 18-year-old daughter might be turning into a chip off the old block.
The film succeeds and surprises on many levels. First in side-stepping the pitfalls of such a setting; the "Imaginary Friend" is never labeled or diagnosed thus allowing us freedom of imagination, the tough-gal cop (played by an unusually sympathetic Demi Moore) shows more layers than the standard film detective, the high-energy soundtrack keeps up the engaging tone and pace, and the story itself sports many non-formulaic (if sometimes expected) twists. But the greatest stroke of genius is casting William Hurt as co-lead. Both he and Costner share such a natural and tangible chemistry that you feel like watching 2 guys who have worked together for years; their split-personality characters feel more like siblings, rivalry and complicity included.
I don't think I'll ever understand why so many people I know downright hated this film, but I for one hope that Kev's interview claim, that the movie is the opening act of a planned trilogy, will become a reality.
4* out of 5

3- Cashback
2006 Dramatic Comedy
STARRING Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Stuart Goodwin

This is one of those films that was never shown in any of the dozen theaters in my area, that no one in my entourage has ever heard of and came under my radar purely by chance. And I have to say I love chance. A lot.

"Cashback" follows brokenhearted college student Ben Willis as he journeys through a supermarket's night shift job to get something out of his prolonged bout of insomnia. Surrounded by spectacularly braindead co-workers and a narrow-visioned best friend, Ben tries to relieve his suffering with his uniquely artistic imagination, and the help of the only co-worker capable of putting him back to sleep.

The film started out as a short, whose Oscar nomination gave author Sean Ellis a template to expand - the short is incorporated "as is" inside the feature. Ellis displays every bit of passion from a burgeoning filmmaker who can finally unleash every concept and idea stored in his mind for years. The result is somewhat flawed and clearly uneven, but injected with an absolutely breathtaking innocence and an unmistakable talent. Young Sean Biggerstaff, known to most as Harry Potter's Oliver Wood, displays a very refreshing yet contained charisma that signals the coming of a future star. The rest of the cast, mostly (and to great effect) unknowns never seem to feel out of place, each chewing their every scene with great fun and gusto. And the lovely Emilia Fox continues to make me wonder why she isn't a much better known actress.

I give Ellis and his film only 3.5 stars out of 5, because I know he has barely touched the tip of his talent and can bring us much greater pieces of film making with a little kick in the arse. Until it happens, though, I'll keep enjoying his debut for what it is - a surprisingly sweet and original film.

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