The Good Life

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Star to Watch


By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Twenty four-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan's resume is a quick read. The year of her earliest film credit is 2005, when she appeared opposite Keira Knightley in director Joe Wright's treatment of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice." That same year, she also starred in the BBC's award-winning production of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House." Her only notable work of late is a bit part in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies." It's safe to assume that if you were to pass this innocent-looking brunette on the street, thoughts of "OMG, that's her!" wouldn't even cross your mind.

That is, until "An Education," an intelligent coming-of-age drama in which Mulligan portrays a free-thinking teen in love with an older man, opens October 9. At this point, Mulligan, resume be damned, is the front-runner for this year's Best Actress Academy Award. Since "An Education" made its debut at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, bloggers, journalists and awards pundits have been abuzz about the young Brit's Oscar chances. No need for me to keep on babbling, watch this girl in action for yourself. She's the real deal and she may just be the next big thing.

Trailer for "An Education":

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

DVD Spotlight - Cinema Classics Edition

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

For this week's edition of DVD Spotlight, we're turning back the clock and taking a look at some beloved, time-tested silver screen classics. A biting comedy, a bubbly romance and an epic Western, each of these titles has carved a place in Hollywood history, and each is well worth your time.


Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

One of my personal favorites, "All About Eve" still feels fresh after over five decades of subsequent screen dramedies. Virtually unmatched in wit and acidic humor, this scathing meditation on Broadway starlets and their fight for fame is as culturally relevant as it is blisteringly funny. Great supporting cast includes Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm and George Sanders, but the indisputable "stahh" is Ms. Bette Davis, who gives her finest performance.

Dir. Vincente Minnelli
Perfect for summer, this breezy and colorful down-home romance has the joyful uplift of a spirited ferris wheel ride. Leading up to the arrival of the World's Fair in the titular town in 1904, Minnelli's tale of three sisters is like a Jane Austen novel adapted for the American South. Star Judy Garland -- who wed her director -- glows in a truly radiant performance, never more so than when singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in one of the film's most memorable scenes.

Dir. John Ford
Arguably the best movie to star All-American cowboy John Wayne, John Ford's picturesque Western is a revolutionary title of the genre, featuring inventive action cinematography that was well ahead of its time. The scenario at play -- a handful of diverse characters forced to band together under tight, tumultuous circumstances -- undoubtedly influenced the premises of countless titles that followed, from Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" to "Speed." Shot under the blazing sun along the Arizona-Utah border, it's another warm-weather-appropriate flick.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Trailer Park

Behold! Some of the newest trailers for some of the most exciting films in the pipe.

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic


Megan Fox ("Transformers") plays a high school cheerleader from hell in Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's teenage horror-comedy. Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia!") co-stars as Fox's character's good-hearted BFF. I'm curious, but undoubtedly less curious than the legion of testosterone-pumped fellas who can't wait to see a bit more of Fox's "body" on the big screen.

Stocky comedian Patton Oswalt reportedly gives a winning performance in this indie drama about a parking garage attendant whose obsession with the New York Giants leads to severe, life-changing events. A festival favorite, this sports-movie-with-a-twist may just become a sleeper hit.


After a string of disappointments, Philly-born filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is finally adapting someone else's material instead of forcing us to withstand another self-serving trifle born from his increasingly uninspired mind. This time out, Shyamalan is adding his strong visual talents to a story that originated as an animated Manga series on Nickelodeon. Here's hoping this change of pace breaks Shyamalan's losing streak.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Art House Salad

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release
By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Dir. Lynn Shelton
Magnolia Pictures
94 min. R

At the “Humpday” screening I attended, writer/director Lynn Shelton (“My Effortless Brilliance”) appeared for a post-film Q and A. One audience member asked her if her latest feature – a made-on-a-dime indie comedy about a pair of straight buddies who decide to have sex on camera – was a low-budget, artistic response to the recent influx of Hollywood bromances. Shelton replied that the timing was purely coincidental. She wasn't just trying to preserve her street cred. “Humpday” is not a film that's out to follow trends, but one that attempts to carve out something fresh and honest. It mostly succeeds.

The beauty of the movie is that it never condescends to the lowbrow level of something like “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.” In fact, I think I only heard the word “gay” uttered once in its entire duration. A loose behavioral study, it's more interested in humanity than humor, and yet, it certainly isn't short on laughs. It pins its focus on the longtime friendship of Ben (Mark Duplass of “The Puffy Chair”) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard of “The Blair Witch Project”), two guy's guys who headed in drastically different directions after college. Ben's now married to Anna (unknown actress Alycia Delmore), and leading a seemingly peachy domestic life in Seattle. Andrew's a drifting artist who's been searching for his soul from Chiapas to Cambodia. When Andrew comes knocking on Ben's door in the wee hours of the night, a hug-filled reunion leads to substance-filled hippie party, which in turn leads to the spontaneous idea of submitting a film to a local, amateur porn festival – a film that would feature Ben and Andrew doing the nasty...with each other.

Shelton – who also appears in her movie as a swinging bohemian – said she shot the film in just 10 days and wrote the script as a rough outline, allowing the actors to fill in the dialogue. Though it feels inarguably organic, the result is a mixed bag of authentic and inauthentic scenes: some seem fly-on-the-wall real, while others seem staged. Specifically, the exchanges between Ben and Anna, while never prototypical, ring a bit false because the actors – especially Delmore – fail to fully sell the relationship. And many of the point-exhausting conversations between Ben and Andrew reach a level of tedium, causing you to question Shelton's editorial eye (i.e., know when to say “cut”). Conversely, though, there are some profound and wonderfully truthful moments of revelation that expose the strengths and weaknesses of each character. It is in these moments that we're given the plausible motives we need to accept these people's actions as sincere.

Leonard, an actor who's all but mastered the art of improvisational realism, is the standout – there's never a second we don't believe his Andrew is flesh and blood. Duplass – who, with a big handful of small films, has established a niche for himself in the indie market – nearly matches his co-star, but at times comes off as though he's acting instead of reacting, like he's got the low-budget leading man role rehearsed. The high point for both leads and for Shelton is the big finish – the final scene in which we discover whether or not the two bros will follow through with their radical scheme. The actors and the director hold the audience in a hilarious, anticipatory state of “will they or won't they” tension, and they end the film on a warm note that, in many ways, encapsulates the entire project. Despite its flaws, this is a surprisingly commendable and respectable movie, one that finds an unusual and entertaining way to evaluate modern male relationships. The fact that it was made by a woman is not only interesting, but kind of amazing.
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh
Roadside Attractions
116 min. R

It's ironic that one of the stars of “The Stoning of Soroya M.” is Jim Caviezel, the actor who so famously took great pains to portray Jesus in 2004's “The Passion of the Christ.” Why? Because this deeply devastating, fact-based drama features the most vividly brutal scenes of primitive, ritualistic capital punishment since Mel Gibson's controversial epic. Caviezel plays Freidoune Sahebjam, the French-Iranian journalist whose 1994 non-fiction book inspired the film. Set in 1986 in the small, sun-soaked Iranian village of Kupayeh, “Stoning” opens with Sahebjam's car breaking down. The writer pays the town's mechanic to fix his vehicle and, in the interim, he meets Zahra (an excellent-as-usual Shoreh Aghdashloo), a clearly distraught local woman with an incredible story to tell. Concealed within the walls of her hilltop villa, Zahra asks Sahebjam to tape-record her first-hand account of a horrific event that took place just a day before: the unbelievable and unjust public stoning of her niece, Soroya (Mozhan Marnò of “Traitor”). The movie then proceeds in flashback, and leads to one of the most shocking climaxes of this or any year.

That “Stoning” achieves such a primal suspense is a testament to director Cyrus Nowrasteh's craft. After all, all one needs is the title to know where things are headed. But the film is mounted with great skill and efficiency, drawing us into Soroya's life while breathlessly advancing the plot. We learn that Soroya, a young mother of four, was a pitiful victim of domestic abuse – the wife of a truly evil man who wanted her out of the picture so he could pursue a relationship with his 14-year-old (!) mistress. As the story goes, the husband, Ali (an appropriately frightening Navid Negahban), found a way to accuse Soroya of adultery, an offense that, in that culture, was – and, apparently, still is – punishable by death. Sparking rumors that quickly fanned out like a brush fire, Ali managed to convince the mayor, the townspeople, even Soroya's sons and father (!!), that his wife was guilty of a crime she didn't commit. Only Zahra – who's shown to have considerable clout given her age and history with the town's mafia-like leaders – stood by the accused; however, it wasn't enough to sway opinions, since Zahra, like Soroya, is still just a woman.

Nowrasteh deserves praise for creating a film with such a strong feminine perspective. Watching “Stoning,” we not only sympathize with Soroya, but with every woman trapped within the tyrannical, male-dominated customs of Islam. “The voices of women do not matter here,” Zahra tells Sahebjam. “I want you to take my voice with you.” Nowrasteh gives those restrictions an infuriating, even asphyxiating palpability. He backs you into the hopeless corner that countless Middle Eastern women know all too well. He depicts young boys being trained from the get-go to harbor contempt for women (in one of the many horrors of the film's final act, it is the boys who happily gather the stones that will bring about Soroya's end). The aching desperation of Marnò's performance makes us feel for her character. The broad-minded sensibilities of Nowrasteh's approach make us feel for an entire demographic.

If there's fault to be found, it's with Nowrasteh's overly emphatic finishing touches. He gets a little heavy with the visual metaphors, particularly in how he presents Soroya as a fallen angel of fairy princess-type innocence (we could have gathered that ourselves without the birds, flowery fields and gleaming white burial gown). And the tacked-on, post-execution ending contains melodrama that's way too Hollywood for something so painfully real. Still, by the time these elements register as flaws, the gut-wrenching impact of the film has already sent your jaw to the floor. Nothing can prepare you for what Nowrasteh is willing to show. I suppose there's a question of taste to be considered for just how much carnage is put on display, but “Stoning” means to astonish you and does. Though it becomes increasingly difficult to watch, it is a movie you will never forget.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Star to Watch


By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Before this year, 38-year-old Jeremy Renner's most noteworthy performance was his Independent Spirit Award-nominated turn as the titular flesh-eater in 2003's low budget and little-seen "Dahmer." You might also remember him as the resident sleazeball in the down-home drama "North Country," or as the unkempt cowboy Wood Hite in the "Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." By the end of 2009, however, chances are you'll know him well as Staff Sergeant William James, the straight-shooting soldier he portrays in director Kathryn Bigelow's widely-lauded Iraq war drama, "The Hurt Locker."

Renner as Sgt. James is one of the few '09 performances to already be building some serious Oscar buzz. The American actor is reportedly revelatory in the role, which has him defusing bombs amidst the chaos of battle while coping with the emotional conflicts of war. The film -- written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who spent a great deal of time overseas with an actual bomb squad -- is one of the best reviewed of the year, and it's the first title in the recent wave of War-On-Terror movies to receive nearly unanimous acclaim.

Renner has also been appearing as one of the lead characters on the ABC series "The Unusuals," a comedy/drama that follows a group of New York detectives as they attempt to solve some unconventional cases. Though the show was well-received, ABC announced in May that it would not be returning for a second season. Still, the multi-format exposure can't hurt Renner's career, which, after years of stage work and supporting roles, may finally be hitting the fast track it deserves.

"The Hurt Locker" is currently playing in limited release. It opens July 10 at Philadelphia's Ritz Five theater.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

DVD Spotlight (July 1 - July 8)

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Three of the best films of the year thus far are now arriving on DVD, and since the biggest movie in theatrical release -- "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" -- is a major bust, it's better to hang in and experience something of quality. These titles couldn't be more different -- an animated fantasy, a gritty comic book picture, a moody romantic drama -- but what they have in common is the foundational element of engaging cinema: great storytelling.

Dir. Henry Selick
Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher
101 min. PG

Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, "Coraline" is a visionary fantasy film from Henry Selick, the director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Created in Selick's signature, painstaking style of stop-motion animation, the movie took years to complete, and the result is wondrous. Eye-popping and imaginative, "Coraline" -- about a young girl who enters an alternate, dream-like version of her own world -- is at once kid- and adult-friendly. (Available July 21)

Dir. Zack Snyder
Starring Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman and Jeffrey Dean Morgan
163 min. R

Though overly long, "Watchmen," the highly anticipated adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel, is a slick, beautiful and bad-ass bit of cinema. It marries the post-"Matrix" stylistics of films like "Wanted" and "V for Vendetta" with the unflinching worldview of pics like "The Dark Knight" to become one of the best comic book films ever made. "Who watches the Watchmen?" the film's tagline asks. I say, you should. (Available July 21)

Dir. James Gray
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw and Isabella Rossellini
110 min. R

Shades of Joaquin Phoenix's recent bizarre behavior spill into his lead performance in this love-triangle drama, and for that director James Gray should be most thankful. As man-child Leonard, Phoenix is loose, lively, unpredictable and fearlessly unbound. He's supported by an almost gleaming Gwyneth Paltrow and a wonderfully subtle Vinessa Shaw (an underrated actress who doesn't work enough). The story is smart, the character development is strong and the film entire is suck-you-in good. (Now available)

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