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Review: Lonesome Jim

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Evocative title, but it’s a tad misleading; on the other hand, good luck getting anyone to go see a movie called Despondent Jim. Working from an autobiographical screenplay by first-timer James C. Strouse (and shooting in Strouse’s actual hometown, childhood home, etc.), Steve Buscemi, in his third film as director, taps the same comically morose vein of small-town loserdom that distinguished his fine 1996 debut, Trees Lounge. But where the characters in that film were more or less congenital failures, Jim (Casey Affleck), who’s still fairly young, is reeling from a particular and common disgrace virtually never depicted in the movies: the humiliation of returning home — in this case, to dreary Goshen, Indiana — after years spent getting exactly nowhere as a struggling artist in New York City. Hard to say who’s most intolerable: the overbearing mom (Mary Kay Place) who refuses to acknowledge that you struck out? The disapproving dad (Seymour Cassel) whose always-low opinion of your prospects has now been decisively confirmed? Is it good or bad to have a brother (Kevin Corrigan) even less successful than you are? What if your frank assessment of his situation, meant to buck up your own spirits a little, drives him to a (failed, natch) suicide attempt?
    Am I making Lonesome Jim sound like a laugh riot? Even more so than Trees Lounge, this is a peculiarly depressive comedy, finding rueful chuckles in circumstances that would ordinarily produce little more than heavy sighs. Affleck, gradually evolving into the real actor his older brother opted not to be, commits himself wholeheartedly to Jim’s ludicrous self-pity; his listless interactions with a girls’ basketball team — Jim has to take over coaching duties while his brother is in the hospital — make mincemeat of every sports-underdog cliché known to man. Strouse does provide his onscreen alter ego with a wish-fulfillment angel of mercy in the form of nurse Liv Tyler, who unaccountably finds Jim’s dispirited muttering wildly alluring, but even this strand of the film seems credibly frayed at its edges. And while the consumer-grade DV camera Buscemi used makes Goshen resemble a bowl of oatmeal left to congeal on the kitchen counter for three weeks, that doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate. Throw in Mark Boone Junior as a drug-dealing biker uncle who calls himself Evil (sans irony), and you’ve got a contradiction in terms: a study in suffocating inertia that plays like a freewheeling farce. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: L’Enfant (The Child)
Our Brand Is CrisisTo describe any film by the Belgian filmmaking team of brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as “light” might seem absurd and offensive to those familiar with their work. After all, they make gritty, grim, handheld dramas about ex-cons, unemployed waifs, desperate immigrants, etc. — brutal, frill-free films that scar you forever. But believe it or not, what distinguishes L’Enfant from the Dardennes’ previous efforts is a certain lightness — a nimble, populist grace that suggests there’s more than just torment on the filmmakers’ minds.
    The Dardennes have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes twice — most recently for this tale of a dim, impoverished young thief who tries to sell his newborn son for adoption. When the mother (to his surprise) objects violently, our hero goes back and retrieves the kid from the gangsters he sold it to, but the bad guys also ask that they be recompensed for the loss of the sale. So now he’s in debt and on the run, homeless and loveless.
    Needless to say, this description sounds anything but “light.” But there is a strange hopefulness throughout L’Enfant that’s largely missing from the Dardennes’ other films. A lot of it rests among the details — the carefree manner in which the young lovers frolic in the film’s early scenes, the curiously sensitive nature of the protagonist’s relationship with a young kid who, in the final act, becomes a kind of surrogate for the baby. Even the gangsters and the cops seem a bit more understanding this time around. One gets the sense that the characters populating the film all want to do some good in the end; they just have unique and misguided ways of getting to it. One might say that the odd generosity of the world it depicts is what makes this film that much more heartbreaking. By opening up their story to a glimmer of hope, the Dardennes have given their work a newfound, clear-eyed immediacy. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Brick
Joyeux NoelThe phrase “noir set in high school” might put you in mind of Nickelodeon tween stars aping Bogart, but rest assured: Brick is good. Really, really good. You might laugh through the first half hour at the sheer absurdity of the scenario — until you start sweating like Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
    Brick is often wryly funny, but it’s also grave, opening with a girl lying dead in a drainage culvert. She’s discovered by Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenage loner who spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out who killed his ex-girlfriend. In traditional detective-movie fashion, he takes a lot of punches. A noir’s goal is to lead the audience through the plot without ever making it seem easy, and in this regard, Brick actually works better than a lot of murky classics. You have to stay on your toes here, but you’ll be able to follow just slightly behind Brendan as he cautiously maneuvers between femme fatales, sinister kingpins, and fearsome thugs.
   The effort and exhilaration of the mystery will keep you occupied, so you may not notice until afterwards how smart it was of first-time director Rian Johnson to recontextualize his material. Where a fedora-and-trenchcoat detective story would immediately evoke comic pastiche, Brick‘s setting lets it shake off the musty associations of the genre and remind you of everything that was great about noir in the first place. In some ways, this audacious triumph recalls Donnie Darko, another riveting, left-field, high-school-genre-mashup debut. That film flopped in theaters before hitting big on DVD, and the same may be true of Brick. See it now and get the jump on everyone else. — Peter Smith
Review: The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch
Joyeux NoelTo some of us, the camp appeal of the whole Joan Crawford-Norma Shearer lookalike thing got impossibly tired many years ago. But don’t tell that to playwright and actor Charles Busch, the man who started off doing stuff titled Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Theodora, She Bitch of Byzantium in East Village dives and has moved on to Broadway with high-profile productions like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and the Boy George musical Taboo. Indeed, such drag queens haven’t gotten old; they’ve gone mainstream. Compare the films of John Waters with the, um, hit musicals of John Waters.
    Maybe that’s why this documentary about the career of the prodigious, talented, and once fairly transgressive Busch seems so staid. It’s certainly not for lack of thoroughness. Directors John Catania and Charles D. Ignacio fill their movie up with shakily shot archival footage of Busch’s zero-rent productions from the ’80s, cavalcades of sexual innuendo and licentiousness that entertained and scandalized enough people to give the writer-performer a small reputation. But don’t be surprised if all that half-remembered flamboyant galivanting elicits little more than a shrug of nostalgia: Watching drag queens catfight onstage to the hollers of a 1980s audience feels a bit like watching one of those early silent films where a glimpse of a woman’s ankle makes men wide-eyed with lustful glee.
    Luckily, that irony isn’t lost on the filmmakers or their subjects. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film are the reflections of Busch’s collaborators on the sheer surrealism of going from having to pee in beer cans in the back of Lower East Side crack dens to red-carpet premieres. As such, The Lady in Question winds up capturing its particular cultural moment fairly effectively. What it fails to do, however, is to remind us why that particular cultural moment mattered in the first place. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School
Joyeux NoelThe filmmakers of the French New Wave used jump cuts and unsynchronized sound to create a so-called “alienation effect,” bringing the viewer out of the normal movie-watching stupor and into a critical mindset. They needn’t have tried so hard. Far more alienating than their Brechtian antics is the mawkishness of a well-meaning but witless trifle like Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. Syrup to the core, it’s the kind of film where a violent drunk (Donnie Wahlberg) just wants to be let back into dance class, and where a man maimed in a car crash (John Goodman, nowhere near Coen country, or even Roseanne) manages to cough up his entire life story, thick with wistful wisdom, just before he expires in the ambulance.
    Sap like this is an alienating experience that would’ve made Godard rethink his schemes. And worst of all, it ends with baker Robert Carlyle having tender, life-affirming sex with Marisa Tomei on his bread-kneading table. Far from hot, that just seeems unsanitary. — Peter Smth
Date DVD: Capote
Dog Day Afternoon This is both a terrible week for DVDs and a fantastic one. Ride the gossip wave, and you’re stuck watching Jennifer Aniston flail around with an evil Frenchie in the idiotic thriller Derailed. Trust the reputation veteran comic Paul Mooney earned on Chappelle’s Show, and you’ll be depressed to see how unfunny he is in Paul Mooney’s Analyzing White America. And the flops just keep coming: Skip Dreamer (Disney’s umpteenth Redemptive Triumph of an Animal drama), Chicken Little (the worst animated film of the year), and the worst date movie of the week: In the Mix, in which Usher plays a hip-hop stud who falls for a mafia don’s daughter and — oh, never mind.
    On the other hand, fall’s best-reviewed films continue to arrive on DVD, from Noah Baumbach’s coming-of-age drama The Squid and the Whale to the wild Korean satire President’s Last Bang, and this week’s Date DVD: Capote. Yeah, the slaughter of an entire midwestern family isn’t usually date material unless aliens — or Freddy — is responsible, but there’s a good reason why this highminded indie won an Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a subtler film than you might imagine — especially considering Capote was such a ham himself — and one that upholds the old adage about how reporters seducing their subjects (and then selling them out). That tension is amplified here, as Capote relentlessly manipulates the killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a desperate dummy starstruck by Capote’s command performance. Capote was even accused of sleeping with Smith, and though this does seem more indicative of the homophobic times than Capote’s method (after all, Smith was rather closely guarded on Death Row), it underscores a timeless truth: some people will say anything to get a story, or to get into your pants. — Logan Hill

   

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