The Good Life

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Star to Watch


By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Well known for his early work on the U.K. version of the television comedy, "The Office," and HBO's improv-driven series "Extras," funnyman Ricky Gervais has made an impressively smooth transition to the big screen. Last year, he lended his dry delivery and brash British wit to the amusing and disarming -- if not wholly successful -- comedy film "Ghost Town."

(More recently, Gervais made a memorable appearance at the Primetime Emmy Awards, where he characteristically insulted a handful of people while still remaining completely likable.)

This week marks the release of Gervais' directorial debut, "The Invention of Lying," another (somewhat) supernatural laugh-fest in which Gervais stars as a man who learns how to lie in a world where no one else can. Co-starring Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill and Louis C.K., the movie reportedly has shades of religious controversy -- none of the characters have any knowledge of God -- that the studios strategically kept out of its promotional material (trailers, etc.).

I've not yet seen the film (which opens Oct. 2), but the faith aspect certainly makes it seem more intriguing, and it speaks of Gervais' much-appreciated willingness and ability to nudge the envelope in a mainstream climate that, too often, plays it safe.

You can catch my review of "Ghost Town" here, as well as watch the preview for "The Invention of Lying" below.

Friday, September 25, 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. Hirokazu Kore-eda
IFC Films. 114 min. Not rated.

“Still Walking,” the exceptionally intimate and solemn new film from Japanese minimalist Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”), takes place almost entirely inside of a house – a hilltop cottage in Japan owned by an old couple with grown children. And in that house, the key location is the kitchen, where food is prepared and eaten by the matriarch and her family throughout the one day that makes up most of the movie's running time. Early on, as I watched the mother and her daughter peel carrots and salt soybeans before the other family members arrived, I realized that I'd never really seen Asian cooking in a domestic setting – or, at least, not with such prominence. The universality of food is what Kore-eda uses, not only to seduce the viewer, but to give his characters common ground. In its soft-spoken way, “Still Walking” is the Japanese answer to “Soul Food”: no matter what kind of bloodline drama is going down, everyone can at least agree that the corn bread – or, in this case, corn cake – tastes great.

Not that the drama is ever explicitly dramatic, and not at all that this movie is simply about sushi and tempura (though both traditional Japanese dishes are eaten – and, even more deliciously, discussed in depth – before the aforementioned day is out). The family has gathered for their annual commemoration of the death of Junpei, the eldest son who drowned 12 years ago while rescuing a neighborhood kid. The father (Yoshio Harada), a retired physician, is cantankerous and anti-social: while others gather in the kitchen, he retreats to his office or outdoors, and Kore-eda repeatedly makes the distance palpable by filming him from inside the home looking out. The mother (Kirin Kiki), however, seems chipper and content, for she is a woman who knows her role and knows when and how to conceal her pain. The surviving son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), is dreading the event: he doesn't get along with his father, who doesn't approve of Ryota's employment choices, or of his new wife, a widow with a little boy. There's also Ryota's sister, the most neutral member of the family who's sentimental, but takes things in stride.

As the movie progresses (which is a slow and steady process, to be sure), it becomes increasingly more interesting, as layers are peeled back and truths are revealed with a clever nonchalance. In a fine, unpredictable performance by Kiki, the mother, specifically, is fascinating: she is wholly devoted as a wife, yet she is not above indirectly airing out her husband's mistakes in the presence of guests. And her instincts and devotions as a mother – perhaps the most personal things a woman can have – are revealed to be quite fierce, indeed. Such is one of the better pleasures of “Still Walking”: you think you have all of these characters pegged, then some of them pull the rug out from under you. And there is the conveyance of a deep, believable understanding among these people. I'm having a hard time ignoring my thought that some of the dialogue and delivery was a touch contrived, but the characters certainly have the worn-in feel of family. The warmth of their relationships – even the one between Ryota and his father – enhances Kore-eda's tone, which I'll describe as comfortably claustrophobic. We are packed tightly in this home with these people and their troubles, and we rarely ever leave, but, eventually, we find that we don't want to.

Which may account for why the few departures from the house are so striking and vivid. The images of beaches, and trains, and roads, and buildings, and cemeteries are made remarkable because they're rare. (Also rare is composer Gonchichi's simple string soundtrack, which tends to be reserved for the outdoor portions.) Kore-eda manages to create a comfort zone so comfortable that even the sky feels new again when we exit. There's one scene set in a room with a large open window, through which we are given our first glimpse of the home's beautiful view from the hilltop. In that moment – which is early, long before the film nears its melancholic, but pretty, conclusion – a small part of me hoped that the camera would go out and explore what was beyond. But, then, dinner had not yet been served, and there was no way I was going to miss that.
4 stars (out of 5)

"Still Walking" is now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia and is also available via Cable OnDemand.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

DVD Spotlight: Sept. 24 - Sept. 30

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

As I was discussing with a colleague just yesterday, newer doesn't necessarily mean better, and this is especially true in the world of cinema. However, within this blog, and within the "DVD Spotlight" feature, specifically, I do try to keep readers abreast of the latest films that are available to them on video. But finding worthwhile titles can be a bit of a challenge.

The words "NEW RELEASE" certainly look flashy above the Blockbuster rack -- until you pick up "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," take it home, watch it, and then get that icky feeling of renter's remorse. "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" was released on DVD this week; however, you surely won't find it recommended in this post. What you will find are some healthy, thought-provoking alternatives that qualify as both new and worthwhile... and I promise they won't leave you feeling icky.

Dir. Derick Martini
Starring Kieran Culkin, Alec Baldwin and Cynthia Nixon

In the vein of "American Beauty," this domestic dramedy about seedy truths simmering beneath the surface has the type of sly power that can make you wary of your neighbors. Set in a Long Island suburb in the 1970s, it combines familial angst with the paranoia of a Lyme disease outbreak, which may or may not explain some characters' strange behavior. The movie boasts period production design that oozes with authenticity, as well as fine performances from Culkin, his brother Rory, Timothy Hutton, and especially Julia Roberts' niece, Emma Roberts.

Dir. Kevin MacDonald
Starring Russel Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck

Adapted from the highly-celebrated BBC miniseries, this involved, star-studded journalistic thriller contains too many layers and twists, but its affectionate nod to the newspaper biz is an interesting and enduring strength. Crowe plays an old school reporter put on the case of a congressman's murdered girlfriend, and he's teamed up with Rachel McAdams' plucky, new school blogger. The movie is perhaps the first since the economic downturn to pointedly address the changing state of news media. A subplot involving the reporter and the congressman's wife is nicely and delicately underplayed by Crowe and co-star Robin Wright Penn.

Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring Sasha Grey

Soderbergh's "The Informant!" is currently playing in theaters, but movie buffs shouldn't forget about the other title that the Oscar-winning filmmaker released in 2009: this risque' drama about a high-priced Manhattan prostitute (Grey) who offers more than just sex to her clients. A testament to Soderbergh's indefinable nature and continually experimental movie-making practices, "Girlfriend Experience" fascinates and features a surprisingly strong mainstream debut from porn star Grey.

Wednesday, September 16, 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

"Juno" director Jason Reitman's genre-defying new film, which stars George Clooney as a corporate axeman who spends most of his life on airplanes, has been gaining incredible buzz since pleasing crowds and critics at the Toronto Film Festival. The trailer, a series of scenes dubbed over with a throught-provoking monologue by Clooney's character, is highly intriguing and compounds what everyone seems to already be saying: "Up in the Air" is a must-see.


Renowned designer and entrepreneur Tom Ford has already left an indelible mark on the worlds of fashion and publishing. Now, with his first feature film, he's attempting to do the same in the similarly glitzy world of Hollywood. The preview for "A Single Man," Ford's erotic thriller starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, is beautifully put together, using only imagery and haunting music to tantalize viewers. The movie has already claimed two prizes at the Venice Film Festival (including a Best Actor trophy for Firth), and was recently picked up for distribution by The Weinstein Company. It's set to be released late in the year.

Controversial documentarian Michael Moore returns with a movie that begs -- or, rather, demands -- the question: "where is all our money?" Pointedly addressing the current state of the economy and the reasons for its downturn, Moore continues to shakes things up in ways few other filmmakers dare. Brazenly topical, "Capitalism: A Love Story" has some people whispering: "Best Picture contender. "

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Star to Watch


By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film crtic

When discussing a star of Matt Damon's stature, there's little need for an introduction, so I'll keep it brief. Since he and pal Ben Affleck nabbed an Oscar for their "Good Will Hunting" script in 1997, the boyish, yet commanding actor has ascended into the top tier of Hollywood's leading men. A renaissance performer, he's proven equally adept at portraying dramatic ("Syriana," "The Departed"), comedic ("Dogma," the "Ocean's" films) and heroic (the "Bourne" franchise) characters, and continues to work with some of the most acclaimed directors in the business.

2009 is a big year for Damon, who stars in two upcoming, highly-anticipated prestige pictures. The first, the fact-based dark comedy "The Informant!," reunites Damon with his "Ocean's" director, Steven Soderbergh. The film, which marks the sixth collaboration between director and star, is an adaptation of the 2000 non fiction book of the same name by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It follows Mark Whitacre, an Ivy League Ph.D. who blows the whistle on a corrupt company and also suffers from bipolar disorder. Co-starring Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula and "The Soup" talk show host, Joel McHale, the movie -- which opens Sept. 18 -- is said to be fiercely funny and a showcase for Damon.

Later in the year (Dec. 11), Damon will appear opposite Morgan Freeman in "Invictus," director Clint Eastwood's much-heralded drama about Nelson Madela (Freeman) and his life during the 1995 Rugby world Cup in South Africa. Damon portrays South African team captain Francois Pienaar in the film, which is already gaining serious Oscar buzz. If both films perform as well as expected, Damon may find himself on the shortlists for both the Best Actor and Best Suppoting Actor categories.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

DVD Spotlight: Sept. 3 - Sept. 9

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Take my word for it, reader: with the only major releases being "All About Steve," "Gamer," "Carriers" and Mike Judge's disposable "Extract," this is NOT a great week for cinema. Put your time and your would-be box-office cash to better use by catching up on these films, released earlier in the year and now available on DVD:

Dir. Tony Gilroy
Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Writer/director Tony Gilroy follows his Oscar-nominated "Michael Clayton" with this clever and witty spy thriller, which incorporates comedy and romance and evokes the fast-talking films of yesteryear ("His Girl Friday" comes to mind). As they did in Mike Nichols' "Closer," Roberts and Owen have killer chemistry, and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson score as two feuding corporate heads.

Dir. Alastair Fothergill
Narrated by James Earl Jones
Compiled from portions of the BBC's epic miniseries, "Planet Earth," this first feature from Disney's newly-formed subdivision Disney Nature certainly boasts some of the year's most breathtaking imagery, filling the screen with patterns and vistas from across the globe. The stories of three "families" -- polar bears, whales and elephants -- is a bit forced, trying hard to fulfill the narrative structure established in better movies like "March of the Penguins," but the cinematography alone makes for an enjoyable experience, showing certain corners of the world as they've rarely -- or, perhaps, never -- been seen before.

Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino
Boden and Fleck, who already scored a home run with 2006's "Half Nelson" (the film that landed star Ryan Gosling a Best Actor Oscar nomination), return with this unconventional sports drama about a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who travels to the U.S. to play in the minor leagues. Employing themes of culture shock and familial responsibility, "Sugar" features strong performances from a batch of unknown actors and turns the familiar baseball-film formula on its head.

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