The Good Life

Friday, August 28, 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. Sophie Barthes
Samuel Goldwyn Films
101 min. PG-13

When Prozac and Zoloft just won't cut it, the chemically imbalanced (or simply unsatisfied) folks in first-time feature filmmaker Sophie Barthes' surrealist comedy “Cold Souls” turn to a company that offers them the ultimate cure: soul extraction, which, as described by the company's president, makes “everything more functional and purposeful.” Paul Giamatti, who plays himself in the film, lands in an emotionally crippling creative slump while rehearsing his role in a production of Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya.” After reading about said company in The New Yorker, the tormented actor elects to undergo said procedure, which involves lying inside a sleek device that looks like an MRI machine manufactured by Apple. Once removed, Giamatti's soul – much to his dismay – is revealed to be a dead ringer for a chick pea, and is placed in cold storage until further notice. Relieved of irksome human burdens like melancholy, remorse and self-doubt, Giamatti feels “hollow” and “lighter,” even though his famously average outward appearance looks droopier than ever.

It doesn't take long for complications to ensue. His droopiness is soon coupled with loopiness, and – much to his wife's and director's dismay – he begins to lose control of his inner monologue, among other things. Once he has the soul of a Russian poet implanted (the feed works both ways, and the business has a shady international market), he does nail his stage performance, but his chick pea winds up in St. Petersburg, transferred into the body of a talentless soap star who's husband dictates the Russian soul trade.

Giamatti – who really let himself go for the role, his facial hair so overgrown it seems to curl over his teeth – has a ball with the waggish self-parody, and once again captures the frustations of a poor schlub who's as real as any guy you'd pass on the street. When Barthes follows him (which is through about 90 percent of the movie), her handheld camera is loose and shaky – in sync with his precarious state of being. Her somber, gray palette, accented with fuzzy wisps of light, is a good match for the film's deadpan humor, and strongly conveys the adrift tone of Giamatti's literal soul search (especially when that search takes him to the appropriately gloomy landscapes of Russia).

Of course, Barthes' script owes much of its inspiration to Charlie Kaufman, whose similar “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” were never far from my thoughts throughout “Cold Souls.” However, the cinema certainly has room for more quirky, existential explorers, and the ideas presented in this reasonably impressive debut suggest that Barthes is a talent to watch. Surprisingly, one of the areas in which her movie falls short is the development/treatment of the female characters. It's Giamatti's journey, yes, but the dynamite talents of Emily Watson are wasted in the thankless role of Giamatti's little-seen wife; and Dina Korzun, who's soul-trafficking Russian mule is without question the most interesting part of the story, is a little short-changed by a screenplay that doesn't care enough about her character.

The film isn't howlingly funny, but then, it doesn't mean to be. Its jokes are nicely understated, and the most unsubtle is a well-played sight gag of a salad covered in garbanzo beans. I enjoyed the tone, which is at once light and heavy. There's a fun yet tragic fascination to this odd little yarn. Still, I can't get past the feeling that it's a bit of trifle – a here today, gone tomorrow title. The company president, played with poker-faced precision by David Strathairn, says that he and his colleagues don't know if souls are immortal. I don't believe “Cold Souls” is, but here, today, I think of it fondly and recommend it especially to the chemically imbalanced.
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Trailer Park

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

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Arguably the most widely-anticipated film of 2009, James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar" is the director's first film since "Titanic," the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time. I have to be honest, this teaser, which debuted on Aug. 21 after much promotional hullabaloo, isn't as impressive as I had hoped. The motion-capture effects fail to amaze and the fiercely-, forcefully-edited action eclipses a clear storyline. But the environments look mighty intriguing, and I refuse to believe that such a prolific filmmaker would deliver something of poor quality. Don't let me down, Mr. Cameron.

You've seen "The Devil Wears Prada." Now, with unprecedented access, acclaimed documentarian R.J. Cutler immerses you in the professional lives of the real people who loosely inspired the Meryl Streep comedy, following Vogue editor Anna Wintour and her devoted team as they produce the massive Sept. 2007 issue of the fashion bible. Having already seen the film (twice, in fact), I can tell you that it's well worth the ticket price. Fun, flirty and fascinating, it boasts the attributes of both a couture cocktail dress and an avant-garde gown. (And you thought I only knew about movies.)

Not much to report here, since the teaser for writer/director Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" follow-up is carefully, wonderfully mysterious. Here's what we know: Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the sci-fi thriller, which Warner Bros. execs describe as "a contemporary actioner set in the architecture of the mind." You'll have to just chew on that for a while. A long while, actually -- the movie won't be released until the summer of 2010.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Star to Watch


By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

"District 9," one of the few 2009 titles to receive a five-star rating from yours truly, has only one famous name attached to it: Peter Jackson, who produced the sci-fi stunner after his adaptation of the video game "Halo" was shelved by studio backers Fox and Universal. The other two earthlings with key roles in the project are unknowns: writer/director Neill Blomkamp and lead star Sharlto Copley, who all but carries the film on his increasingly scaly back.

A lifelong friend of Blomkamp's, Copley hails from South Africa, the sun-drenched locale in which "District 9" takes place. His background includes the direction of short films and music videos, talent agency management, and some improvisational performing. The inexperienced but inherently gifted actor landed the part of dimwitted bureacrat Wikus van de Merwe after wowing his director/pal in a test footage audition. Now his face is gracing the cover of magazines and both his and his character's tongue-twister names have become parts of the moviegoing public's vocabulary.

Copley deserves the attention he's receiving. His performance as Wikus has everything that this radical yet incredibly realistic movie needs: strength, subtlety, humor and heart. It's not necessarily the kind of work that wins Oscars (since that's not necessarily what "District 9" is about), but it is indeed a star-making turn. Sympathetic and ultimately heroic but certainly not without flaws, Wikus is the only human character with whom the audience can connect -- a tall order that Copley skillfully and successfully tackles.

Blomkamp has expressed an interest in pursuing a "District 9" sequel, and depending on the way the story develops, Copley may also be back for a second go-round. Aside from that, the buzzworthy 35-year-old doesn't seem to be attached to any other upcoming projects. Having recently wrapped his first film's promotional tour, he's presumably quite busy reveling in his newfound notoriety -- and taking a lot of phone calls.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DVD Spotlight: Aug. 13 - Aug. 19

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Since summer cinema is much more about theatrical blockbusters than home video hits, the selection of new DVD releases in the months of July and August isn't so hot. I've already dished on "Watchmen," "Coraline" and "Two Lovers," which all but covers the bases in terms of recent, recommended DVD titles. But, fear not, reader. I've managed to dig up three more newly available films to help you pass the time while beating the heat in your air-conditioned living room.

Dir. Laurent Cantet
2008, 128 min.

Winner of the coveted Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Class," a French flick written by and starring Francois Begaudeau, dramatizes Begaudeau's real-life experiences as a literature teacher in inner-city Paris. Though I've not yet seen this movie, its reputation precedes it: I've essentially heard nothing but glowing acclaim. The most common adjective used to describe it? "Inspiring."

Dir. Jennifer Lynch
2009, 98 min.
"Surveillance," directed by eccentric wizard David Lynch's daughter, Jennifer, is funny enough to keep you giggling and, ultimately, disturbing enough to keep you up nights. Though not for everyone, this creepy little thriller is surprisingly unique, twisting in ways you don't expect and starring a motley crew of actors that, somewhow, create a rather strong ensemble (Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond and French Stewart are among the unlikely co-stars).

Dir. John Hamburg
2009, 105 min.
In this silly-smart bromance, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel star as a groom-to-be and his best man-for-hire, respectively. A gigglefest from a handful of guys who've recently rose to superstardom courtesy of Judd Apatow, "I Love You, Man" co-stars Rashida Jones, Jaime Pressly, Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons. Astutely funny, it doesn't disappoint.

Wednesday, August 5, 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

Twenty-seven years after the first "Tron" film (which has since become a cult classic of modern science fiction), Disney is unveiling the second chapter of the high-tech tale about gladiatorial-like games set in an electronic world. First shown at Comic-Con in San Diego, this thrilling teaser plays like a movie in itself. If you have headphones, do use them so you can fully appreciate the exquisite sound design. And keep an eye out for "Tron: Legacy" when it hits theaters in 2010.


Highly publicized, though not arriving in theaters until March of next year, director Tim Burton's twisted take on the immortal Lewis Caroll story reunites him with muse Johnny Depp, and co-stars Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's real life squeeze), Anne Hathaway, and relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice. Featuring live action, stop-motion animation and motion capture effects, Burton's "Alice" should, at the very least, be one delicious feast for the eyes.


Alice Sebold's best-selling first novel, "The Lovely Bones," didn't exactly grip me (too much fluffy, soccer mom-friendly domestic B.S.), but the film version, scheduled for release this December, is directed by Peter Jackson -- the imaginative mastermind behind "The Lord of the Rings." Therefore, I am incredibly interested. This hot-out-of-the-cutting-room first trailer isn't great, but neither are most previews for major releases. Just drink in the aesthetics: period production design, handsome cinematography, intriguing visual effects. Mr. Jackson knows how to put on one helluva show.

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