Sunday, August 29, 2010

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD (2010)

Directed by Tamra Davis

Where & When: Nuart Theater, West Los Angeles, CA. August 20, 2010  5:10PM



Tamra Davis, director of such films as "Billy Madison" (1995) and Britney Spears' film debut, "Crossroads" (2002), had befriended artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat early in his career and in 1988, she taped an interview with him during the height of his fame.

A few months later, Basquiat was dead at the age of twenty-seven from a heroin overdose. After his death, Ms Davis put the footage away she had shot and didn't look at it again until almost twenty year later. She decided to take this footage and use it to help make this documentary about the life of the acclaimed artist and her friend.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York to parents who were of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent. At an early age, he showed an interest in art which his mother encouraged. As a teenager, he started doing graffiti throughout Manhattan but it wasn't your typical tagging. It was more like an artistic expression and he would put up slogans and messages, then signed them as "SAMO".

At seventeen, Basquiat dropped out of high school and left home where he survived on the streets by selling t-shirts and postcards he made.

In 1981, he met gallery owner, Annina Nosei and she gave him money to buy his first set of paint supplies. He painted in the basement in her gallery and she sold his work and this partnership made them both a lot of money. Nosei even arranged for him to move into his first apartment and she showed his first one man exhibit in her gallery.

He soon became an international star but he was painfully aware that he was not as respected or given the same opportunities as his white contemporaries like Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi.

As Basquiat became more famous, he decided to move to a new art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, mainly because he could introduce him to his life long idol, Andy Warhol. Warhol and Basquiat became very close friends and even collaborated on some art projects together. Basquiat was very deeply affected by the death of Warhol which caused him to move further into depression and drug abuse.

Ms Davis uses an assortment of friends, acquaintances and business partners of Basquiat to share their thoughts and stories about their relationship with the artist. We hear from people like hip-hop pioneer, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O'Brien, currently the "Style Guy" for GQ but was the long time music critic for Warhol's Interview magazine, art dealer and gallery owner, Larry Gagosian, a group of former girlfriends and fellow artist turned filmmaker, Schnabel, who made his first feature film about Basquait in 1996 that starred Jeffrey Wright.

This is a fast paced but richly detailed account about the fascinating short life of this highly influential artist and the important contributions he made to art in general.

The thing I found most interesting is that out of all the many people who were interviewed for this film, not one person had anything really negative to say about Mr. Basquiat. Now, I realize that when someone is no longer alive, people tend to curb their tongue but considering how temperamental artists are known to be, it's still a little surprising how all of these accounts were so very personal and loving. Even his former girlfriends that he cheated on, still look back on their relationship with him quite fondly. That says a lot about this young man who was clearly very charming and talented as he was complicated and troubled.

I should really emphasize "young" because it's really amazing that Basquait made his entire body of work in his twenties. Perhaps because of his age, nobody really understood the innovation and the complexity of the art that he was doing at the time nor that he would not be around long for people to truly appreciate what he managed to accomplish in a relatively short period of time.

I strongly urge you to see this well made and captivating film. If you are familiar with Basquait, this will give you a more personal insight in to the life of this artist and if you are not, I hope that this documentary will encourage you to go and seek out more information on him and his work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

LIFE DURING WARTIME (2010)

Written & Directed by Todd Solondz

When & Where: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. August 15, 2010 1:30PM


"Happiness" was the 1998 film by Todd Solondz about the three Jordan sisters, Trish, Joy and Helen originally played by Cynthia Stevenson, Jane Adams and Lara Flynn Boyle respectively, who all lived in New Jersey. It was a very dark comedy that dealt with the sisters' troubled lives and relationships with each other, the unraveling of their parents forty year marriage and Bill, Trish's husband, who becomes fixated on his young son's friend and proceeds to drug and rape him.

Twelve years later, Mr. Solondz has decided to revisit these characters in a sort of sequel to his original film. After he experimented with the idea in his last film, "Palindromes" (2004) where he had ten different actors playing the same role, he has chosen to recast this current film with all new performers.

Many years have gone by and Trish, now played by Allison Janney, has moved her children to Florida. Her oldest child, Billy (Chris Marquette) is off to college, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is preparing for his bar mitzvah and her youngest, Chloe (Emma Hinz) is asking her mother if she can borrow some of her mother's percocet since she ran out of her own. She has told the youngest children that their father, Bill (Ciaran Hinds) is dead to spare them the pain and humiliation that he is actually in prison for molestation.

Shirley Henderson is filling in the role of Joy, who is visiting Trish because she needs a break from her husband, Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams instead of Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who has been trying to change from his criminal past. While there, she is haunted by visions of the ghost of her former boyfriend, Andy (Paul Reubens) who committed suicide.

Later, Joy visits her other sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy). She is now a successful but self-involved writer who had cut herself off from the family for years. Joy asks if she could stay with her for a while to sort herself out but Helen's life is just too complicated and she is too stressed-out dating Keanu Reeves to possibly have any visitors.

Trish has started dating again and although Harvey (Michael Lerner) is older and not actually her type, she's just happy to have a man in her life. Problems develop when Timmy finds out that his father is still alive by some kid at school. He is upset by the deception but also concerned that he could become like his father.

The family is unaware that Bill has been released from prison on parole. He tracks them down in Florida and while they are away, he sneaks into the house. Once inside, Bill is sadden by how their lives went on without him and proceeds to get Billy's college address so he can pay his son a disturbing surprise visit.

Trish and Harvey are ready to take the next step but she wants to make sure Harvey gets along with her children first. She has him talk to Timmy to help with what is troubling him but because of a misunderstanding about some advice his mother had given him, Timmy makes a wild accusation about Harvey.

Not only did Mr. Solondz alter the cast, he also changed time for some of the characters, for example, the two youngest children, Timmy and Chloe, still appear to be around the same age as they were in the first film. This seems like an arbitrary decision and only adds to the confusion to an already muddled and uneven story.

"Life During Wartime" is supposed to be a comedy and while there are a few dark laughs throughout, most of the film comes across as just bleak. This film focuses on a post 9-11 world and all of the pain and fear that derived from that horrific event but there are no other lighter emotions going on throughout this entire film. Each character sheds plenty of tears and is more afraid, sad, lonely and depressed than the next but after a while, it all just becomes tedious.

The biggest problem is that it doesn't ever feel cohesive. Each scene feels separate, rather than a part of the film as a whole. My favorite moment is a brief sequence when after Bill gets out of prison, he goes to a bar and allows himself to be picked up a woman, played by Charlotte Rampling who tells him she is content to sleep with him just because he's a man and straight. While I enjoyed this scene and like many others, you could have easily pulled it out of the film and it wouldn't have been missed nor caused any confusion by it's absence.

I really liked "Happiness" and I was looking forward to seeing "Life During Wartime" but I ended up just being very disappointed. This sequel is nowhere in the same league as the first film and Mr. Solondz seemed more interested in twisting conventional ideas of film making instead of making a proper, well-thought out showcase about the current state of this American family. I didn't think their lives would have improved much but I certainly thought they would have had a more interesting outcome.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

THE EXTRA MAN (2010)

Written & Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini


Where & When: Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. August 8, 2010 1:40PM


Kevin Kline has returned to the big screen, after a seemingly long absence, playing Henry Harrison,an eccentric and unsuccessful playwright who entertains wealthy, elderly widows and relies on their financial kindness in order to help him make ends meet.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano), a mild mannered and lonely young man who has been let go from his position at a Princeton prep school. It may have been because of an embarrassing incident involving him and a brasserie but Louis sees this as a sign for him to start a new life as a writer and move to New York city.

After Louis arrives in the city, he needs a place to live so he sees an ad from someone looking for a roommate. It turns out to be Henry. After looking at his small, cluttered apartment and agreeing to all of Henry's peculiar rules for living there, Louis decides to take the room.

Henry and Louis bond almost immediately although Henry still keeps him at arm's length. Louis is soon educated on Henry's slightly odd views of life and creative ways on how to get by in New York with very little money.

Louis gets a job at an environmental magazine where he becomes infatuated with his co-worker, Mary (Katie Holmes), a pretty young woman who happens to have a boyfriend although this doesn't stop her from using Louis's obvious crush on her to her advantage.

Louis is harboring a secret desire to wear women's lingerie. He is ashamed of this but still finds himself being drawn to places where transvestites congregate and even goes as far as hiring a dominatrix prostitute (Patti D'Arbanville) so she will force him to don the undergarments.

It's not too long before Henry decides to introduce Louis to the art of being an "extra man" or a social escort for these bored rich women at parties and events but also how to keep them properly entertained. Louis soon discovers he is actually good at this job. It is partially because of his youth and innocence but also because he has something that Henry is currently lacking: charm. You can tell that he was once very charismatic but over time he has become more bitter and resentful and has taken it out on his patrons, and now Louis, with rude behaviour and outbursts.

I had seen the trailer for "The Extra Man" and it looked like it could be a fun and unconventional comedy which I always enjoy seeing. Unfortunately, after seeing the actual film, I realize that there wasn't anything else even remotely humorous besides what I had already seen assembled in that three minute trailer. It had the potential for a interesting film but it all feels too restrained and mannered for a comedy involving characters who are suppose to be very quirky and erratic. Based on the book by Jonathan Ames, who is also the creator of the HBO comedy series, "Bored To Death" which I love, most of the situations and many of the characters' motivations made this feel more like a pilot for a sitcom than a feature film.

I don't know what happened here because this writer/director team, who had previously made a good comedy involving the eccentric comic book artist, Henry Pekar, in the biopic, "American Splendor" (2003), are more than capable filmmakers but they never seemed able to get their footing on how to handle this material.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Mr. Kline, who specializes in these charming oddballs, gives a great, nutty performance. He is the only one who actually lets loose and about the only thing that keeps the film somewhat entertaining.. Mr. Dano, with his sad, pushed-in face, also does a fine job and there are nice supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Ceila Weston and theater legend, Marion Seldes. Ms Holmes, however, seemed uncomfortable and I think comedy is a little out of her element.

"The Extra Man" is a film that you really want to root for but ultimately disappoints. It seemed to have all of the right elements in place but just wasn't able to lift it all off of the ground.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

INCEPTION (2010)

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan


Where & When: The Landmark, West Los Angeles, CA. August 2, 2010  7:05PM


"Inception" began as an idea that Christopher Nolan has been working on for many years and after the crazy success of his highly entertaining but slightly over praised, "The Dark Knight", earning Warner Bros. a lot of crazy cash, they were more than willing to take a chance (financially speaking) on Mr. Nolan's interesting but challenging film.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, who is on a mission to extract information from a person's mind by infiltrating their dreams. This is done by the extractors sleeping in close proximity to their target and using a device that will allow them to invade the victim's dream.

Dom's partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is with him as they try to steal information from Saito (Ken Wantanabe), a wealthy businessman.

They are caught but it turns out to be a test. Saito wants to hire these men for a job he wants them to try. He wants them to plant an idea deep inside the subconscious of  someone while they sleep, which is called inception but he is doubtful it can be done. Dom tells him that inception can be implemented because he has done it.

The mark is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of Saito's business rival, Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite) who is terminally ill. The plan is to plant the idea inside of Robert to break up his father's company so that it does not become a monopoly and threaten Saito's business.

Dom assembles a team to help him with this job: Yusef (Dileep Rao), a chemist who develops heavy sedatives, Eames (Tom Hardy) who has the ability to alter his appearance while in a dream and Ariadne (Ellen Page) a college student who is able to actively build a dream world during the actual dream. Although he has no prior experience, Saito insists on particiating on this job since he is paying for it.

After Maurice Fischer passes away in Sydney, the team arranges to get on Robert's flight back to Los Angeles. They begin the operation during the flight but things don't go according to plan. While in Robert's dream, they attempt to kidnap him but an unplanned armed battle with Robert's mental defenses occurs and Saito gets badly injured in the process. Normally, to end Saito's pain he would have to "die" in the dream to awaken but because of the power of the sedatives used, Saito might not wake up normally but may be put into a type of limbo.

To complicate things further, Dom has a secret involving his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) who he may or may not have been responsible for her death, whose ghost keeps appearing at inopportune times during the dream which could compromise the entire mission.

There is a lot more that goes on in the film that I won't go in to because I don't want to give too much away but also I'm not so sure I could explain it all anyway. I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person but I have to admit that I was having a little difficulty following this film. Now, I understood the main ideas of "Inception" but all of this dream, inside of a dream, inside another dream was just too much mumbo-jumbo for my taste.

I had read one idea somewhere that for older audience members (like myself), "Inception" was more of a challenge to understand than for younger ones because they are more easily able to understand this type of film with dream worlds and multiple storylines because of video games, which I completely agree with this theory. At times during the film, I felt completely lost. Perhaps, as many people have told me, I need to see "Inception" again to get a better idea of what is going on. That may probably be true but the problem is I just can't imagine sitting through this film again for another two and a half hours so that I might have a better grasp of what exactly is going on in this story.

Now, what I really loved about "Inception" were the visuals and this is the only reason why I didn't completely hate this film. The visual effects are done with a minimal amount of computer-generation as possible and are completely breathtaking and innovative. Mr. Nolan has used his long-time team that include cinematographer, Wally Pfister, visual effects supervisor, Paul J. Franklin and editor, Lee Smith who once again helped him create another stunning cinematic vision. I'm very sure you will see this film sweeping the technical awards at next year's Oscars.

I also enjoyed how Mr. Nolan populated "Inception" with actors who are not normally cast in this type of film like Ms Page and Mr.Gordon-Levitt, who are more known for their independent minded films than big-budgeted Hollywood movies. While "Inception" is very far from your typical "Hollywood" summer fare, which in itself is cause for celebration, I think these actors certainly help in giving the film a sense of cool, intelligence and youth which I'm sure was Mr. Nolan's intent but their presence wasn't enough to help me better understand what was going on .

I  really wanted to like "Inception" and while the film's visuals got me hot, the plot left me cold, so I left the theater feeling just lukewarm about the whole thing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

HOWL


"Howl" is the biopic on Allen Ginsberg and his poem that featured the taboo subjects, at the time, of drug use and homosexuality. This poetry caused Mr.Ginsberg in 1957 to face charges of obscenity.

The film recently played at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival, which unfortunately I missed, as well as the festivals in San Francisco, Berlin and Sundance.

James Franco plays Ginsberg and the film features David Strathairm, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and "Mad Men" 's Jon Hamm.

The trailer has just been released and "Howl" should be out in theaters in the U.S. on September 24th 2010.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)

Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg


Directed by Lisa Cholodenko


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  July 20, 2010  7:45PM



The definition of what a "family" is has evolved over the years. Today, people are more open to the idea that parents can consist of something beyond a man and a woman, which brings us to the current film from Lisa Cholodenko, "The Kids Are All Right".

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a couple, together for over twenty years, who each gave birth to a child using the sperm of the same anonymous donor and they have raised their children together in Los Angeles. Nic is a very busy doctor while Jules stayed at home to care for the kids but now that they are older, she wants to get back to work and start a landscaping business. While Nic is tough, no-nonsense and the breadwinner which makes her more like a father figure of the family and Jules is the more maternal one, but both of them bring a decidedly feminine approach in regards to the raising of their children.

Joni (Mia Wasikowska), Nic's daughter, is about to turn eighteen and go off to college and Jules's son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is fifteen and has had his fill of a house full of estrogen. Laser asks his sister to put in an inquiry about their biological father so he could meet him. Joni is not particularly interested in doing this and she is concerned that it might hurt both of their mother's feelings but reluctantly agrees.

It turns out that their father is very interested in meeting them and they arrange to meet at his restaurant. Paul (Mark Ruffalo), is lighthearted, an enviromentalist and a confirmed bachelor. After their initial meeting, Paul hopes to stay in contact with his kids. Laser was unimpressed with him but Joni really wants to form a relationship with him but both decide to keep this from their mothers, at least, for a while.

After a misunderstanding about his sexuality, Laser winds up telling his moms that he had met his father. They are both surprised and a little upset but decide that they should at least meet this man if the kids are going to continue contact with him.

Although Nic is a little icy towards Paul, they all have a nice dinner together and later Paul even decides to hire Jules to design the back yard of his house.

Paul certainly shakes up the household with the kids liking their father's loose and easy-going attitude compared to their more strict house rules while Jules enjoys all of the attention he gives her that Nic has been too busy to do. Unfortunately, Paul's desire to force his way in to this ready-made family and his lack of boundaries effects the family in a way that could potentially tear them apart.

"The Kids Are All Right" is hilarious, charming and has well defined characters with all the emotions and flaws that people recognize and can relate to. It wisely chose not to deal with the political aspects of the issue of gay parenting and kept the focus strictly on the relationships within the family.  I found it so refreshing that this film deals with the lives of gay people and yet they're being gay is not the focus of the story.

I was thrilled that two of my favorite actresses were in the same movie together and they make a terrific team. Ms Bening, who has given many fine performances over her film career, is the stand out here. Her Nic shields herself with a sharp tongue and steely exterior but underneath lies a sensitive and vulnerable woman. Ms Bening may have the more showy part but Ms Moore's Jules is the emotional center of their family. She is very good as Jules is trying to rediscover herself after many years of happily giving her life over to her family but is desperate for a little recognition from her partner. Both of these ladies should be remembered during Oscar season.

I never gave too much thought before about Mr. Ruffalo although I was aware he was a solid actor but in this film, he is seen in a way we don't normally get to see him. He is funny, charismatic and very sexy and he effectively plays Paul as a man who has always used his seductive charm to his advantage but causes a lot of damage in the process.

This is a great cast and all of these actors bring their best which includes "America's Next Top Model" runner-up, Yaya DaCosta who gives a nice performance as Tanya, Paul's employee/sleep-over buddy but the real revelation in this film is Ms Wasikowska. She has nice little moments throughout but I thought she was very touching at the end as she held back tears as she watches her family drive away after dropping her off at college. Her appearance in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" earlier this year I think only gave audiences just a small taste of what this young actress is capable of and I'm certainly interested in what she will do in the future.

Ms Cholodenko has made some very interesting, but not necessarily great films like "High Art" (1998) and "Laurel Canyon" (2002) but with her latest film, she has certainly reached a high point. I think she is helped greatly by the writing what you know philosophy in the semi-autobiographical screenplay she wrote with Mr. Blumberg and together they created a warm, witty and truthful story.

I cannot possibly praise "The Kids Are All Right" enough. I know that people in the big cities will appreciate this wonderful film but I just hope that the citizens in rural America will have an open mind and give it a chance.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

SALT (2010)

Written by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland


Directed by Phillip Noyce


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  July 27,2010  4:30PM


What do Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie have in common?

Well, besides being glamorous movie stars, having adopted children and both staring in a action flick this summer, they both were up for the title role in Ms Jolie's film, "Salt". The movie was originally conceived as a vehicle for Mr. Cruise but he decided it was too similar to his role in "Mission: Impossible" and chose to do "Knight and Day" instead, which apparently, is a complete departure from his Ethan Hunt character.

After the gender flip-flop, CIA agent, Edwin Salt became Evelyn Salt, now played by Ms Jolie, who was preparing to leave the office with her friend and fellow agent, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) when they are called back. A Russian agent has defected and needs to be questioned.

Salt steps in to interrogate this Russian, Orlov who claims that at the upcoming funeral for the U.S. vice-president that the visiting Russian president will be executed by a Russian sleeper agent to cause friction between the two nations. The name of this spy is Evelyn Salt.

Orlov's brain was being scanned during the interrogation and it appears he is telling the truth. Ted and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ONCIX agent are present during this and want Evelyn to stay behind to be questioned. She is concerned about her husband's safety and wants to go home to check on him but she is told that will have to wait.

While being escorted away, Orlov manages to escape. They place Evelyn in a holding room while they go after the Russian. Salt, who wants to clear her name, is able to use her skill, training and literally, her panties to outmaneuver the CIA to get out of the building.

Now, Salt is on the run and she is an unstoppable, glamazon machine. She is able to leap from one moving truck to another while her make-up stays perfectly in place. She is faster (and smarter) than all of the men of the CIA, police department and Russian agents combined while using guns, grenades and her favorite weapon of choice, her bare hands to take anyone down who stands in her way but still manages to find time to dye her hair.  Although, too often she comes across more like a guy in a wig than a real woman but the real question remains, is she really a CIA agent, a Russian spy or something else?

It was a smart move to change the gender of this character because otherwise it would have been an even more predictable action flick and Ms Jolie was perfectly cast because I can't think of another possible actress who would be even close to being believable in this part. Ms Jolie is easily able to be tough and tender and she convinces you she is certainly somebody you don't want to mess with.

Mr. Noyce, the veteran director of the big budget, big action Harrison Ford vehicles, "Patriot Games"(1992) and "Clear and Present Danger" (1994) and the smaller, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (2002), is able to take this slight material and distract the audience to make the story seem not so illogical while keeping the action moving and interesting.

"Salt" gives you what you expect from a summer action film, no more and no less. So, if prefer uncomplicated explosions and gunfire with minimally plausible storytelling, than this is the movie for you.

Now that I think about it, perhaps Mr. Cruise and Ms Jolie should have switched parts in their prospective summer movies. Mr. Cruise would have been more comfortable in this type of action movie while Ms Jolie would certainly have had more sexual chemistry with Cameron Diaz than Mr. Cruise did in "Knight and Day".