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Friday, April 20, 2007

To See Or Not To See

Great Performances Saturate

By Jan Stetter

Fans expecting a comic performance from Adam Sandler will be disappointed. In this film, however, they will see his growth and increasing versatility as an actor.

Reign Over Me tells of one man’s unrelenting grief after losing his wife and daughters in the events of September 11.

Sandler plays New Yorker Charlie Fineman, a grief-stricken dentist who drops out of his life when his family dies. Payouts to the surviving family members allow him to exist in a self-imposed insular world. He is not a street person, yet he certainly could be mistaken for one. He does not engage in conversation with other people; he refuses to accept any commiseration or comfort from his in-laws, who are likewise devastated by the loss of their daughter and granddaughters.

Although the script is smart and, at times, reflects the humor shared by two guy friends, it remains a drama that places Adam Sandler amongst a cast of credible, serious actors.

Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a fellow dentist and former college roommate of Charlie’s. Johnson is instrumental in encouraging Charlie to take control of his life and manages to learn the same lesson for himself.

Jada Pinkett Smith gives a winning performance as Johnson’s patient wife, waiting for him to confront his insecurities and move on. Liv Tyler has a small supporting role as a therapist who befriends Cheadle’s character and counsels a grieving Saffron Burrows, who plays a jilted wife.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

To See Or Not To See

Known Outcome Doesn't Dampen Thriller Breach
by Jan Stetter

Breach, a movie that depicts an actual event where the outcome is known, succeeds in captivating its audience. It is the tale of an authentic historical account of one of the most damaging espionage stories in America’s history.

At the center of this story is Robert Hanssen, portrayed brilliantly by Chris Cooper. Hanssen is the real-life traitor who sent classified information to the Russians. Cooper has a chameleon-like quality in letting the audience read his emotional hues, changing as quickly as this story unfolds. One moment he is aloof and stoic; the next, a playful, adoring grandfather as well as a committed husband and a genius in the world of high-tech security information systems. Cooper does this so convincingly that his assigned underling, Eric O’Neill, is confounded by the discovery of Hanssen’s double life.

Second to Chris Cooper’s performance is that of Ryan Phillippe. Philippe plays Eric O’Neill, Hanssen’s assistant. Unaware of Hanssen’s covert actions and the purpose of his own role in working for Hanssen, Eric is a good Catholic boy of the straight and narrow path and has his sights set on being an FBI agent. He is committed to the code of the Bureau and will not let anything deter him.

Phillippe’s performance elicits the art of acting in its purest form. There is no doubt that Philippe, as O’Neill, is in awe of his mentor. There is no doubt that the character is devoted to attaining the commitment and compromised personal life the FBI requires. And, in this convincing portrayal, it is all the more disconcerting when Eric discovers the truth about Hanson.

Actual footage of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the apprehension of Hanssen drapes this movie in a real time sense of American diplomacy with its international security at the forefront. Accurate on-site scenes filmed in Washington D.C. serve to enhance its accuracy.

This movie is intelligent and without graphic violence. The dialog is clear and nearly absent of expletives.

Adding to the fine script and well-crafted retelling of a highest profile patriot betrayal is the interesting actual human twist made by the real life protagonist, Eric O’Neill. Also, a nod should go to Laura Linney for her outstanding performance. She played O’Neill’s boss, who helped spearhead the conviction of the most famous man who chose to breach his country’s loyalty.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Calling All Hopeless Romantics

The Holiday is a romantic comedy opening in movie theatres just in time for the holidays. In this capricious film Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz are experiencing failed love relationships. Distraught, impulsive and in need of a major change of scenery, these two strangers swap homes.

Iris (Kate Winslet) is a newspaper writer from jolly old England. She hits gold as she spends her Christmas holiday in the sunny California mansion of an ultra beautiful, successful career woman in the movie industry. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) secludes herself to the confines of a romantic little cottage in the snowy countryside with an irresistible pooch, a lit fireplace and one unexpected handsome visitor.

All romantic comedies need leading men and Jude Law as Iris’ brother, Graham, is a sure bet. Perhaps most engaging about this film is Jack Black playing the man who wins Iris’ heart. As Miles, he gives a charming credible performance as a clean cut, talented and newly available bachelor.

Kate Winslet outshines all the other actors as she impeccably emotes the feelings of a helpless, hapless sap-turned-smart girl with gumption. Jude Law—well, enough said. Easy on the eyes and who cares what he says as long as it’s in English and the camera remains on his dreamy eyes, his pouting lips and his gorgeous physique.

Diaz, on the other hand, wisps through this movie as a wealthy, fickle woman who has any worldly amenity available to her except for love.

If you can get past all of the impossibilities of this movie ever being real, you will enjoy this film. How many people can just leave their jobs on a moment’s notice and afford a transatlantic flight during the busiest holiday of the year? And manage to stay in a beautifully decorated picture perfect setting? And meet a soul mate all in the course of two weeks?

Bah Humbug, don’t believe it. But Ebenezer Scrooge did manage to have a change of heart. What the heck…go see it. After all it is THE HOLIDAY.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Guest & Crew Deliver Again

by Jan Stetter/QCFMag.com

For Your Consideration is Christopher Guest’s latest production and collaboration with Eugene Levy. Both as writers and actors, these two men showcase their talent in this comedy. Guest departs from the mockumentary film genre yet the movie has the familiar mark of Guest combining lunacy with reality and coming up with one cerebral comedy.

Once again the talented cast of myrmidons from previous Guest films gather together to spoof Hollywood and all the hoopla that surrounds the Oscar Awards. Four actors filming a movie set in the South in the 1940’s are all vying for an Oscar nomination after hearing that lead actress, Marilyn Hack played by Catherine O’Hara has been favored as an Oscar contender. The film, Home For Purim is a hokey pretext to introduce these self-absorbed actors. It also serves to introduce us to the rest of the ensemble cast who so naturally caricatures all the beautiful “IT People” who sell a Hollywood movie.

It is fun to pick out the ingenious veterans of this film. Jane Lynch, as a TV Hollywood Now! anchor, gives an understated performance that balances the over the top antics of Now! co- anchor Fred Willard. A testament to the chameleon talent of these actors is Jennifer Cooleridge, who conspicuously plays a clueless blonde with power. Sporting a cropped haircut Larry Miller, as Syd Finkelman plays a studio exec whose job it is to convince the movie’s production company to tone down this epic film’s “Jewishness”.

In the span of this film Catherine O’Hara goes from mature film actress to playing an aging, Jewish, dying matriarch on film and then revealing her hip Hollywood botoxed self while promoting the film on all of the talk show circuits; only to be seen the day after the Academy Awards as a drunken disheartened Oscar-less actress who later turns Acting Maven using her superior “acting chops” to enlighten younger, hopeful underlings.

Harry Shearer is the superannuated actor who hopes Home For Purim will revitalize his meager film career and save him from being the pitch wiener (er pitch man) for a national hot dog chain. Ed Begley Jr. convinces us he’s a heterosexual happily married Hollywood gay make up artist; as does Parker Posey present herself as a marginal comedienne trying to crossover into films.

Anybody who is a fan of anyone of these actors will enjoy this movie. If all this sounds crazy enough to be plausible then run don’t walk to see this farcical film, For Your Consideration.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ferrell Departure a Success

Cast, director weave great story into good premise
by Jan Stetter/QCFMag.com
Stranger Than Fiction is an entertaining movie about a mild mannered IRS employee who lives his life in a comfortable fashion, counting his way to each new day.
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick who counts his toothbrush strokes, the steps to get from his door to the bus line, and the obligatory moments he takes for his daily work break.
His life is neither here nor there. Until one day he hears a voice narrating his numeric existence.
Only he can hear this English accented voice spoken by Emma Thompson, who plays author Kay Eiffel, as she types the details of Harold Crick’s character. Crick is the protagonist in her latest novel—which makes for an entertaining movie premise.

It works due to the talents of director Marc Forster, who himself has a successful film career. He directed the whimsical Finding Neverland and the stark Monster’s Ball. He encourages his actors to define their roles as if they really do live in their characters’ shoes. An element of sweet self-realization for Harold Crick and his tentative moving beyond his calculated comfort zones is examples. Emma Thompson’s refusal to wear makeup for the movie to reflect her character’s recluse nature, and Dustin Hoffman’s quirky performance as a literary authority who is a college professor and faculty life guard makes this movie very pleasurable.

In another instance, Mr. Forster encourages Maggie Gyllenhaal, Harold’s female love interest Ana Pascal, to abandon her contempt for her nemesis, the Tax Man. She is presented as an intelligent, bohemian, café owner who is rebel enough to withhold a percentage of her taxes to show her disapproval of government spending. This action confounds Harold as much as Ana is dumbfounded by Harold’s loyalty to his job and lack of pretense. It is this dynamic that makes us care about these two people. We know people who are uptight and live by the letter of the law and those who are unabandoned and free spirited.

This story could have been successful as a simple love story or even a quaint film about human nature without the vehicle of fantasy mingling with reality. Who could go wrong with the supporting actors who carry this film? It’s as if each one serves to endear them to the heart of this movie.

This movie has heart. And there lies the discomfiture. People going to Stranger Than Fiction expecting a laugh-out-loud performance by Will Ferrell will be seriously disappointed—as that is how the movie is being promoted. Why don't distributors of these movies let the story speak for itself?
Maybe that would be stranger than fiction.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Britain's Two New Offerings

'Mum' & The Queen reflective of class
by Jan Stetter/QCFMag.com

This week’s review is about two British movies playing in theatres. What is nice about reviewing two movies from the same country is the feel for the social decorum of the British from the Royal Family to the minister’s family.

Keeping Mum is a play on words and an appropriate title for this British comedy. It is about a modern day Vicar’s family and the universal monotony and familiarity experienced in marriage.

Remembering the importance of reconnecting with one’s family is given extra attention through the delightful antics of Maggie Smith. She plays a sweet, unassuming house maid whose meddling effects the family’s shortcomings and frustrations. Her dark past comes back to intervene and keep this family together.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays the unfulfilled wife teetering on the brink of an affair with her American Golf instructor. Patrick Swayze is hilarious as the mean, lean Lothario. Kudos to his comic timing and performance. In another surprise performance Rowan Atkinson (universally known as Mr. Bean) plays a serious, intellectual man of the cloth. What this family lacks in unity is rediscovered through the misguided comical transgressions of Maggie Smith’s character. This movie was a delight.

In proper British fashion, propriety prevails over self-gratification in both movies. In the movie The Queen, Helen Mirren plays the current head of England’s monarchy. This movie begins as the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has been elected to his position. The fatal car crash killing England’s beloved Diana, dubbed the princess of the people, occurred shortly after Blair’s election.

So begins this movie and the account of the days following the princess’ death and the recrimination towards the Royal Family in their dilatory response of Diana’s untimely fate. If an Oscar could be awarded on just the ability to look like the person one is presenting, then Helen Mirren would win hands down. She also brings much more subtle similarities to her performance. Mirren’s controlled expression and modulated speech revealing little emotion in acknowledging the tragedy of Diana’s death for her countrymen was magnificent.

If you are a fan of the Royal Family or a quixotic admirer of Princess Diana this movie will shed some light on this famous family’s dynamics. In a compassionate story detailing the way in which Queen Elizabeth mourned and acknowledged her former daughter-in law’s demise; Helen Mirren shows us the integrity of the English Royal Sovereignty and the lack of awareness of her people’s devotion and grief in Dianna’s passing.

This movie pulls no punches in excusing the overdue acknowledgement by the Queen of Diana who was adored by her entire country. Yet, it does serve to show how the Queen’s insulated upbringing and grooming left her to respond in the only way she knew how.

We walk away with a better understanding and a more tolerant view of the Queen. As I am sure, Helen Mirren will walk away with an Oscar for her portrayal of The Queen.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

To See or Not to See: Running With Scissors

A comedy? A tragedy?

By Jan Stetter/QCFMag.com

Running With Scissors is a movie based on the autobiography of writer Augusten Burroughs. Growing up in a middle class neighborhood in seventies Massachusetts, Augusten had a mother, a father and a dog. A quintessential existence? Think again.

Critically acclaimed author Augusten Burrough’s bizarre life story is told in magnified grandeur through the vehicle of film and the impressive adaptation of the novel Running With Scissors by playwright Ryan Murphy. Supported by an outstanding cast of film veterans such as Annette Benning, Jill Clayburgh, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, the acting alone is worthy of Oscar nominations.

Annette Benning and Jill Clayburgh were outstanding in their performances. One played a lost soul who abdicated her relationship with her only child. The other played a character who lost her soul when she lost sight of her dreams. Their performances were penetrating and raw – very courageous for actresses in this youth-obsessed culture to reveal their craft in such a riveting, honest, inelegant and ungraceful setting.

Joseph Cross plays the main character during his teen years. Incredibly, he seems the most normal of all of the bizarre characters in this film. A modulated performance by Cross served well in expressing the pain of his lost childhood. The reversal of roles in his relationship with his mother, Annette Benning, fits neatly into the lunacy of Augusten’s young life. The more erratic Benning’s character became, the more Augsten was forced to be the adult.

If you are a fan of Augusten Burrough’s writing, this movie will satisfy. It is full of crippled characters; specifically a delusional mother, a distant alcoholic father, an unscrupulous psychiatrist and several wounded souls.

My complaint is trailers that set the movie up to be a comedy/dramedy. This movie was far from being a comedy. It was a TRAGEDY. It told the story of a young man’s life spent under the care of a deranged psychiatrist. And how this doctor managed not only to bankrupt his own personal finances, but more importantly forever bankrupt the lives of his wife, children and patients.

They say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” For Augusten Burrough, Running With Scissors didn’t kill him. It made him a famous author and a beneficiary of a movie that tells the story of his damaged, unconventional life.