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by Bill Gibron

8 Mar 2009


It seems like, every year, the Academy Awards introduces us to a new actor or actress that we should have heard of already, but for some reason (not wholly our own fault), we haven’t. In 2006, it was Felicity Huffman. In 2008, it was France’s Marion Cotillard. And in 2009, the new name messing up Oscar pools everywhere was Melissa Leo. Though she’s been in the business since 1984, few of her films have been mainstream successes. And when she does appear in wide release efforts - Mr. Woodcock, Righteous Kill - she’s never the recognizable lead. Still, Leo is the very definition of a working actress (her IMDb page boasts over 80 appearances in her two decade career). Right after Frozen River, the title that would come to define her current higher profile, she traveled to South Africa to make the thriller Lullaby - and it’s a good thing too. Without Leo, this shallow suspense film would be wholly forgettable. 

Stephanie is a waitress living a dead-end life in the middle of nowhere America. Every week, she travels to the local Western Union station and wires money to her beloved son Stephen who is currently holed up in South Africa. What Stephanie doesn’t know is that her boy is a crackhead, in debt to a drug dealer who doesn’t take such matters lightly. Along with pregnant girlfriend Tina, the strung out kid is in a lot of trouble. One day, Stephanie receives a call at work. It’s T-Boy, the aforementioned South African mobster. He wants a ransom and he wants it NOW. Instead of simply wiring the cash, Stephanie calls in a few favors, grabs her passport, and travels halfway around the world to help her child. When she arrives in Johannesburg, the culture shock is overwhelming. But that’s nothing compared to the personal sacrifices she will make to help everyone - Stephen…and expecting gal pal Tina as well.

Lullaby is a flim flam flick. It wants to substitute local color for actual thrills and standard crime drama dynamics for evocative foreign flavor. In the hands of native Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina! , Cry the Beloved Country), this South African take on typical ‘innocent in a world of vice’ is not effective enough to get us involved. Like the recent, redundant Lake City, Lullaby provides its audience with no real rooting interesting in the outcome. We have some compassion for Stephanie, especially with the amount of emotion Ms. Leo invests in the role. But since nothing is really set-up - not the relationship with the son, not the backstory as to how he got to South Africa, not our heroine’s histrionic move to simply pull up stakes and head across the Atlantic - that by the time the bad guys appear, we don’t know whether to hiss or yawn. The inherent bond between mother and child is inferred and exploited, but never to a successful end. By the time the plot demands payback, we are simply going through the mechanical movie motions.

It has to be said that Leo is electrifying here. She really invests Stephanie with a desperation that practically overwhelms this tiny film. Eyes consistently filled with fear and tears, and body bent from a life of serving others, this scrappy matriarch should really make us care about her plight. But screenwriters Donald Barton, Ivan Millborrow, and Michael Sellers don’t know the first thing about empathy. They simply start the story and hope our feelings eventually catch up. This is particularly true of the Middle Act meet-up with prostitute Tina. Stephanie is supposed to see a kindred spirit in this waste of a working girl, someone struggling to survive, but the callous, cynical nature of this whore undermines any sympathy. And when they suddenly turn into Thelma and STDS, robbing the locals to raise T-Boy’s payment, the myriad of unanswered questions subvert any suspense.

The rest of the performances are rote, to say the least. Joey Dedio has clearly spent far too long in cornrows to be this cavalier. His T-Boy is about as menacing as a man in bad hair can be. Similarly, Lisa-Marie Schneider’s Tina is an ambiguity looking for some kind of filmic focus. She’s bad-ass, she’s battered. She sold out Stephen (?) but then wants to help him (???). Elsewhere, Roodt loads the screen with lots of amateur actors, people who absolutely look the part, but who don’t necessarily know how to play it. There is nothing subtle here. Everything is frontier, “in your face” grandstanding. Even the minor roles tend to overstay their welcome, taking away from the movie’s desire to place you directly on the edge of your seat.

Still, Lullaby languishes in the mind, not because of Roodt’s skill behind the lens, but because of the numerous loose ends left dangling. The relationship between the criminals and the victims, the reason Stephanie is so broken up about her son, the boy who she visits when first arriving in South Africa, the reason she seeks no assistance from anyone in authority or legal power, who she turns to for money, why the diner owner makes a pass - all of these things are introduced, dramatized, and then left to dissipate and decay. Of course, even if they were all wrapped up in the neatest of bows, Lullaby would still lack a solid connective core. The more and more Ms. Leo moves away from the rational and the reasonable, the less and less we care about the outcome.

Indeed, the independent realm was not the right medium for this kind of movie. A lo-fi approach to high tension material only derails the proposed spectacle. Since everyday people usually don’t find themselves locked in cat and mouse conflicts with the criminal element in their town, such heighten reality (and production value) is necessary. Not every film can be One False Move. Not every effort can house a performance like Leo’s. In combination, the incongruity between manner and Method negate each other, resulting in a dull and rather tedious experience. Sadly, it looks like this recent Oscar nom will go the way of so many “here today, forgotten tomorrow” talents. Melissa Leo will still make a living as a solid, sometime superior actress. Here’s hoping Lullaby doesn’t ruin her resume too badly.

by Bill Gibron

7 Mar 2009


Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Some may call them “bros”, or the more high school appropriate “tools”, but eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life.

This formula has been followed in several recent very successful laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and even Superbad. Each time, the taint of testosterone unfettered overwhelms the notion of subtlety or clear substance. Now there’s another name to add to the ever-growing genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models (new to DVD in an Unrated edition from Universal) provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. It’s also one of 2008’s most consistently surprising sleepers.

When they end up in some silly accidental legal trouble, energy drink corporate rep Danny Donahue and his arrested adolescent buddy Wheeler are sentenced to 30 days of community service. Forced to serve their time at a local outreach center known as Sturdy Wings, each man is paired up with a troubled youth. For Wheeler, that means putting up with the F-bomb dropping delinquent Ronnie, while Danny must contend with a D&D obsessed nerd named Augie. The expected result hopes for a little mature guidance and lots of substitute parent/child quality time. Of course, no one gets along at first, our heroes making many mistakes while desperate to relate to these kids. This really pisses off the former drug addict director of the center. Eventually, everyone finds a happy middle ground of acceptance, although their bonds are tested during a Renaissance Fair battle royale. No, seriously. 

Rapidly becoming the MVP of the entire Bro-mance genre, Paul Rudd has rapidly become a consistently comic foil. The last time we saw the actor and several members of MTV’s cult sketch comedy series The State working together, it was on the uneven but often interesting Commandment comedy The Ten. Now comes the hilarious, if somewhat structure-less, Role Models. Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection. By the end of the film, we really care about Danny and Wheeler, the former’s faltering relationship with good sport lawyer Beth (played by the currently omnipresent Elizabeth Banks), and their two underage sidekicks. And thanks to these important aspects, the filmmaker unlocks a series of ways to keep things consistently funny.

The first formidable feature is the raw raunch power of a cursing grade-schooler. Nothing is funnier - or more inappropriate - than a wee one working it, Richard Pryor style. Oddly enough, actor Bobb’e J. Thompson is more than just a sailor’s handbook of profanity. There is real pain and anger in this kid and though the novelty of hearing him swear a blue streak wears off quickly, the effect is still sensational. He is matched quip for quip by Rudd. As he did in Knocked Up, the current “FOJ” (friend of Judd) drops little atomic bombs of brilliance, either in reaction or rejoinder, keeping everything Danny does a question of taste and/or tolerance. Rudd is especially strong during the opening bits, where his dead end life as an energy drink pitch man proves almost lethal. He even has a nice running joke with Thompson (who tags him with the ultimate put-down…“Ben Affleck”).

The final fun facet is the film’s unbridled love for things just slightly outside the mainstream. KISS, about as relevant in 2008 as Uriah Heap and Foghat, become the inspired muse for both Wheeler and our quartet’s last act stand off during the role playing L.A.I.R.E. tournament. Just hearing “Detroit Rock City” blaring from a Minotaur shaped monster truck is more than enough sweet cheese movie magic. Even better, the whole Middle Earth dynamic is both celebrated and chastised, its lack of a link to reality matched evenly by how much pleasure and pride the competitors get out of the event.

So, what doesn’t work? Frankly, the perpetually scruffy Seann William Scott is too lost in his own libido to garner our sympathy. You just know the minute he sees a hot chick with a pair of come hither…eyes, he’s abandoning Ronnie to his own unsupervised devices. And Elizabeth Banks does the whole noble girlfriend part perfectly, but she’s almost ancillary to the entire narrative (as Rudd’s serenade of the classic “Beth” illustrates). In fact, Role Models really doesn’t need such mainstream sentimentality. The way in which our do-nothing heroes begin to bond with their lost and somewhat fragile charges provides more than enough emotion to sustain us.

As part of the new DVD package, we get more saucy, scandalous material. The Unrated moments are no bluer or ballsier than the original, but the added anarchy really swings. So does the commentary track from director Wain.  Insightful without being insipid, he brings a lot of humor and wit to the track. Equally entertaining are the numerous bits of added content, including deleted scenes, bloopers, improvisational bits with the cast, and some anarchic behind the scenes sneak peeks. Clearly, as with most comedies, Role Models was made up of the best bits of pieced together hilarity. The results definitely speak loudly for Wain’s continuing success as a filmmaker.

Oddly enough, Role Models may be more sweet than satiric. It tosses off the slang and four letter slams with casual abandon, recognizing almost inherently that we will giggle at their presold shock value. But it’s the moment when Wheeler and Ronnie connect over the concept of breasts (or “boobies”, as the movie lovingly calls them) or when Danny defends Augie to his clueless parents that this film finds its voice. In fact, without the sexual references and graphic language, this would be a pleasant PG romp. But Role Models knows it takes more than heart to get Cineplex audiences interested in a contemporary comedy. So it borrows a few blue moves from the Apatow playbook. To paraphrase a classic quote, copycatting is the sincerest form of filmmaking flattery. This winning, if slightly wonky, effort has enough positives to keep the few unnecessary negatives at bay.

by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2009


The secret that has torn apart a once close knit family. A room in the brooding clan’s farmhouse that no one ever goes in. The seedy side of Smalltown USA. The distant father who’s unable to communicate with his angry and confused son. The former fling that’s now the voice of law and order in our hero’s humble hometown. If all of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are staples of the iconic indie thriller. Ever since David Lynch explored the dark underbelly of a little burg called Lumberton, directors have tried to imitate his mix of the common place and the corrupt. Lake City is just the latest example of such In the Bedroom tactics. In the sleepy, sometimes inert suspense saga, we get many of the archetypes that reinvented the genre - and that have more or less stunted it ever since.

Billy is in trouble. Seems a mysterious woman named Hope showed up with a knapsack full of drugs and a kid she claims is his, and then just disappeared. Now local drug thug Red is angry, and he wants either his dope or the $100,00 its worth. Naturally, he thinks Billy is in on the con. Escaping to his mother’s house in Lake City, our hero and his underage charge pray they have managed to stay far outside of Red’s reach. Billy even tries to rekindle an old flame friendship with the town’s female sheriff. But when Hope makes another hasty appearance, things go from bad to deadly. It’s not long before the drug dealers are chasing Billy across his ancestral home - and his mother is doing everything she can to keep him safe.

Lake City lacks the one thing that makes all edge of your seat experiences viable - a reason to care. No matter the level of excellent acting skill proffered by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as the mother), Troy Garity (as Billy), Rebecca Romjin (as the recovering alcoholic sheriff), or child actor Colin Ford, this is a story we can’t become involved in. The entire history of this situation is shrouded in ambiguity, and first time feature filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore decide that the best way to handle such vagueness is to keep things even cloudier until the very last minute. We can infer a lot of spoiler-like things from our view within the circumstance, and because of such flagrant foreshadowing, many of the reveals are anti-climatic. As a result, nothing about Lake City appears new…or novel…or interesting. 

Granted, Hill and Moore do paint some absolutely gorgeous pictures. The camera captures the lush Virginia countryside in picture postcard perfection. Scenes of isolated contemplation, a character considering their plight against a sun-dappled backdrop should create all the mood and atmosphere a film needs. But Lake City keeps sliding into predictability, that is, when it isn’t shielding audiences from necessary interpersonal information. We have to guess at relationships. The connection between Billy and Hope is a good example. They have an eight year old child together that our hero JUST found out about. He’s supposedly a musician. Did he meet her at a gig? Is she a groupie who showed up subsequently to preach paternity? We don’t know.

Similarly, the secret between Billy and his Mom is reduced to nothing more than a red herring. The loss of any loved one is impossible to bear, but this situation seems like a literal accident blown way out of proportion. It’s the kind of incident the Lifetime Channel gets far too much mileage out of day in and day out. Spacek and Garity do have the mandatory heart to heart, and tears do flow as the flashbacks finally fill us in. But instead of handling this material in such a stereotypical way, Hill and Moore should have tried to impose something original or unique onto the memory. Why make it the fulcrum that destroys everything? Besides, Spacek’s character seems to have lost a lot lately. What makes this incident more devastating than any of those?

Questions are never good for a thriller. They circumvent any sizzle or suspense you might build up. Even with iconic rocker Dave Matthews as a sleazeball criminal, there’s no juice here. When Momma handles the problematic drug deal, we get a gratuitous false ending that feels so final that the sudden switcheroo throws the entire experience off balance. Nothing like asking a viewer to reconfigure their entire perspective 10 minutes before the movie ends. Similarly, the subplot involving Keith Carradine as a garage mechanic with a thing for Spacek goes absolutely nowhere. Yet every time he shows up, we’re supposed to be prepared for his hopeless romanticism to pay off. It doesn’t.

Perhaps Lake City‘s final fatal flaw is the indie ideal to go low key instead of high energy. Such shoe-gazing may give us some beautiful landscapes to ponder, but we want pulses racing from intrigue, not the verdant splendor of a mid-Fall valley. Hill and Moore do find a few sequences of truth (though NOTHING in the relationship between Billy and his newly discovered young son works AT ALL) and you can’t help but feel the internal strife Spacek is suffering from. But Lake City can’t compete on the same level as similarly styled movies it clearly copies from. Two decades ago, looking at the horrific truths buried within an idyllic setting seemed original and revisionist. Today, it’s a typical episode of Dateline. Hunter Hill and Perry Moore clearly have something to offer the motion picture artform. Next time, they should try for something a little less derivative.

by Bill Gibron

27 Feb 2009


He remains a symbol of defiance and revolution in a world that’s (supposedly) moved on from his type of gung-ho, guerilla tactics. He’s a hero to some, a demagogue to others, and a thorn in the side of every US administration since Eisenhower. For filmmaker Saul Landau, however, Fidel Castro is a man of many nuances. He’s a powerbroker connected to the people, a liberator looking beyond the basics of Communism to a larger, utopian ideal. After dropping out of graduate school to experience the Cuban revolution first hand, Landau was let back into the country to chronicle the event’s 15 year anniversary. With unprecedented access to his subject and sources, he’s managed to make one of the most intriguing films ever about a would-be world leader.

Part portrait, part propaganda, Fidel! is filled with memorable images: Castro relaxing with pick-up game of baseball; the leader eating in a communal tent with his many military-styled advisers; a group of star struck villagers demanding the man come in for a cup of coffee; a group of school teachers swarming their beloved Fidel, proclaiming his vision for their underdeveloped nation. With newsreel footage of the factual basis for Castro’s rise to power, and the opportunity to witness the country in all its growing pains glory, Landau’s film is a remarkable achievement. It will also definitely chafe those who feel that Castro is a cancer in Latin America, a man who’s mangled Marxism has led an entire people to poverty and almost virtual international isolation.

But this is Landau’s story and he’s sticking with it. As part of the delightful DVD package presented by Provocateur Pictures and Microcinema International, the director is on hand to give a thorough and quite rousing commentary track, and in it, he more or less sets up Castro as one of the key figures of the 20th Century. He points out that, as an idealist, he is one of the few revolutionaries who completely and totally fulfilled the promise of his take-over. Castro wanted Cuba to be its own sovereign nation, unfettered by influence from America (and its corporate clout) and the historical harness of Spain. Landau makes it abundantly clear that Castro did indeed achieve his goals. And since the film finds the country prospering after the entire Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis debacles of the earlier part of the decade, it appears that victory is sweet indeed.

Taken as a simple statement of Castro circa 1969, Fidel! is a fine effort. It applies a cinema verite approach to the narrative, listening in on the leader and his inner circle as they discuss administrative philosophy, the order of power, and the current goals for the Cuba people. Education (and some would say, indoctrination) are the mandates of the day, with Landau visiting schools to show how the new regime guarantees the ability to learn for all. A great deal of Fidel! focuses on the citizenry and its reaction to their enigmatic chief. Castro never panders. Instead, there is a genuineness about his promises that seem sincere, especially in light of today’s “say anything” political ploys.

But one can’t help feel that a really rosy set of lens were used to manufacture this movie. Political prisoners are shown in a kind of photo-op phoniness that, while possibly true, seems unusually lenient for actual enemies of the state. They even sound sorry for being opposed to Castro. Then we see some dissidents waiting to leave the country. They too seem less angry and more apologetic than we expect. Perhaps times have indeed changed. Maybe the rising tensions in South Florida over US policy toward Cuba and sour memories of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 taint our opinion of the man and his manner. Whatever it is, there are indeed times when Fidel! feels forced, like jingoism instead of honest social sentiment.

Still, Landau deserves more than credit for compiling such an intimate look. Castro comes off as smart, savvy, creative, undaunted, and very, very passionate. His speeches combine the best kind of conversational persuasion, and his advisors stands as a loyal group of actual thinkers. Some time is spent on absent Friend of the Revolution Ché Guevara and it is clear that Castro still has uncomfortable feelings over the radical’s death (he died a year before this movie was made). Large landscape portraits of Ché are seen all around Cuba, and his name brings the kind of hushed reverence reserved for saints. Yet this section feels incomplete, as if Landau didn’t want to stray too far from the subject at hand (besides, Guevara is a massive subject to undertake).

As part of this exceptional DVD package, we do get the aforementioned director’s commentary, and it may be hard for some Conservative, anti-Communist Republican types to hear. Landau is virtually in love with Fidel Castro, both as a man and as a symbol of American hubris. He points out the sordid CIA attempts to assassinate the leader, and mocks the presumption that Cuba wanted warmer relations with the Soviets. He sets the record straight about some of the scenes, and even offers us a chance to see a short film he made in 1974 - Fidel + Cuba. It’s an eye opener as well. Along with an old interview that repeats some of the concepts from his commentary, and a look at his production diary, Landau is just as important a part of Fidel! as the iconic ideologue himself.

In 2008, it seems almost silly that the US maintains a staunch and sometimes confusing embargo on an island a mere 90 miles from its shores. Certainly there are reasons both politically and morally for such a stand (at least in the eyes of those harboring hatred for the man who dismantled the Batista regime) and history is never helped by only knowing one side of the story. In Fidel! , Saul Landau does us the honorable service of seeing things from the everyday Cuban’s point of view. This is not the story of the upper class or the rich. This is not the tale of the empowered or the embittered. It’s just a look at one man, his sense of national duty, and the foundation for holding onto his newfound power. Five decades later, it remains a remarkable achievement - albeit a controversial and incomplete one.

by Bill Gibron

26 Feb 2009


Drugs. The Golden Triangle. The villainous and violent Triads. The undercover cop losing his identity in a sea of competing personalities and passions. The boss who sees himself slipping, both power-wise and personally. These are just some of the earmarks of a Hong Kong action film, the kind that have swept through Chinese cinema over the last three decades and redefined the industry and the genre. While names like Chan, Chow, and Li push the limits of martial artistry, directors like Tung-Shing “Derek” Yee have tried to advance the type beyond the standard stuntwork and moralizing. Protégé is a perfect example of this ideal. Instead of a slam bang rollercoaster ride of thrills and fire-fighting chills, we get a contemplative and dark tale of loyalty, compassion, and most importantly, people.

It’s been over seven years since Nick went deep into the heart of the local Hong Kong heroin trade, and he’s become Triad mastermind Quin’s right-hand man. While our hero currently takes care of transportation issues, the dying mobster is looking for someone to take his place - and Nick seems to be the perfect candidate. As he walks the novice through the various stages of drug smuggling - the cooking kitchen, the importing and warehousing, the control of contacts and persons outside the scope of expectation, Nick begins dealing with a pair of important issues of his own. First, his supervisors want him to go all the way, to get lost in the role of crime lord until they can take down the suppliers and the sources. But even more concerning is a junkie named Jane. Stalked by her pimp/user husband and unable to care for her waifish daughter, Nick feels somehow responsible, and wants to help. All Jane wants, on the other hand, is another hit.

Protégé (new to DVD from Dragon Dynasty) is so unusual, so unique in the current realm of Hong Kong crime films, that it’s a little off-putting at first. When we see star Daniel Wu mastermind an opening act drug deal involving multiple cars and police tails, we except some sort of high speed antics. But as he will do throughout the entire near two hour running time here, co-writer/director Derek Yee defies convention, and then continues to push beyond the norm. This is a film about character, about getting under the skin of a diabetic, dying mobster, an undercover cop under the ever-present lure of crime’s seductive beauty, or an addict who will lie and manipulate - pathetic underfed child in hand - to get what she wants. In essence, Yee sets up a unique and quite dynamic lover’s triangle. It’s a complicated competition between duty, honor, adoration, money, greed, influence, and the sense of superhumanness that comes with being caught between both sides of the law.

Nick is indeed untouchable. He’s done this long enough to earn Quin’s trust, and when a rat is suspected, our hero has every move and excuse down cold. The moments when leader confronts lackey are electric, Andy Lau’s take on the role so dimensional and dynamic that we are surprised by the sudden outburst of rage. For most of the time, Quin is a merely a man, a human being facing a rush of mortality coming far too quickly for his unfinished life. He thinks he can beat the kidney disease that is slowly killing him, but as with almost everyone involved in this story, there’s a fatalism and a finality to his aura that can’t be denied. Even Nick wears such an “end of his rope” demeanor. Life undercover is destroying him as well, leading the former lawman down a path he doesn’t know if he can handle.

All throughout Protégé, Yee substitutes finesse for flash. There is only one major action scene, and it involves a police raid on a drug lab and the resulting escape. Yee gets his actors out on a series of rotting building balconies, and the suspense over who will survive is palpable. But this is a director who understands how to milk tension out of the simplest gestures. When Jane’s horrific husband shows up, looking like a reject from a Japanese punk band, his sinister stare is enough to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck. And when we learn just how far he will go for a fix, such evil becomes even more unnerving. Protégé is not a pretty film, but it’s not because of blood or body parts. The violence here is not visceral as much as it is dark and depressing.

As part of their standard DVD package, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company offer up a treasure trove of content. Bey Logan is once again on hand to walk us through the production and the film’s place in post-modern Hong Kong moviemaking. As usual, his commentary track is insightful, witty, and well worth a listen. We are then given a chance to hear from actors Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing Chu, and producer Peter Chan. Each have something to bring to the Protégé discussion, providing anecdotal spin on the material and a clear view of how such a novel approach bends the traditions within the genre. Toss in a trailer, a terrific transfer of the film itself, and the aforementioned material, and you can clearly see what drove director Yee to take on this intriguing tale.

Fans of the format, of regular roundhouse kicks and high flying kung fu fighting, will definitely feel flummoxed by this movie’s somber and thought-provoking tone. We truly get lost in the relationship between Nick and Quin, understand the competing claims haunting our hero’s conscience. We recognize why he is both attracted to and repulsed by Jane, and sympathize with the concept of wanting to help but knowing that it probably won’t. In fact, Protégé is so much about the human experience vs. the drug trade that it ends up feeling claustrophobic and insular. Yet thanks to Yee’s amazing skill behind the lens, and his accomplished cast, we experience all the horror, all the heartbreak. And when was that last time you could say that about an Asian action film?

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