Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the latest from Sundance. Below you'll find reviews of HAPPY ENDINGS (which opened the festival) starring cutie Maggie Gyllenhaal, LAYER CAKE with tons of hard-ass British people, including the new Dumbledore, ROCK SCHOOL (not Jack Black) and another disappointed look at Naomi Watt's ELLIE PARKER. While I don't completely agree with Castor about LAYER CAKE, I think he did a bang up job with these reviews. I'm especially interested in ROCK SCHOOL, a film I totally discounted as just trying to cash in SCHOOL OF ROCK's success, because of Castor's review. Sounds like a lot of fun and a great showcase for some really talented kids to play some awesome music. Enjoy, squirts!
Been a long time. I didn’t write reviews last year as I was working at the festival and didn’t catch as many movies. The ones I caught were Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, and Motorcycle Diaries and, as you know, all the reviewers said everything that needed to be known about those great films. This year, I’m going for as many as I can get my hands on and here are the first four that I’ve seen. So far, pretty good.
Happy Endings (3 out of 5)
This is the film to launch the festival, and thus we all had pretty high expectations. With a cast featuring the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Ritter, Sarah Clarke (a plus for all us 24 lovers), and Laura Dern just to name a few. Looking back on it, the film definitely has a lot to like here even though it tends to trip on its own feet along the way.
The ensemble piece opens with a woman running down the street, crying her eyes out and avoiding a friend that is trying to catch up to her. Moving as fast as she can, she suddenly gets nailed by a minivan out of nowhere and appears as good as dead. But this is not the case, as a bit of subtitles tell us, “No one is going to die in this film, not on screen anyway. It’s a bit of a comedy… well sort of” as we head into 3 different stories involving a number of characters.
The first is about this girl we saw at the beginning, Maimee (Kudrow). To sum up quite a bit – she had sex with a gay, non-related brother-in-law until she got pregnant and was forced to give the baby away, married a gambler who threw away almost all of their money, and now is in a relationship with an illegal immigrant Javier (Bobby Cannavale). Soon enough, a documentary filmmaker blackmails Maimee – telling her he knows her son and wants to film her meeting her son for the first time into a film to submit to the AFI.
Moving on, a son (Ritter) and father (Arnold) happen to fall in love with the same woman (Gyllenhaal). The son is an in-the-closet homosexual who is persuaded by this woman, Jude, to sleep with her not long after she joins his band as the lead singer. She soon shows a more cruel side as she pushes the son away to get closer to his rich father, screwing him enough to win his love to the point where he’s ready to propose.
And yet another story involves Charley (Steve Coogan), who was the one that got Kudrow’s character pregnant in the past. He now lives with his new boyfriend who believes that their friends (Dern and Clarke) might have used Charley’s sperm to have their newborn baby. Suspicion soon leads them to go into extreme measures to find out whether or not it’s true.
I tend to admire films that are willing to pull off a mosaic story with a huge ensemble cast, but they tend to be hard to pull off and only the great ones like Magnolia stick with us. Writer/director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) almost pulls this off and manages to keep it just under 130 minutes, but all these stories don’t move at a quick enough pace to hold your attention throughout the entire film. What’s worse is the use of subtitles, telling us about the backstories of each of these characters throughout. Before the picture, Don said this was a movie solely made for the actors, but isn’t he taking away from their performances when these subtitles are telling us more and more about their characters than the actors themselves?
But not all is to blame, as every actor here does a great job with their material when we aren’t distracted. Maggie Gyllenhaal does an excellent job with her character, Jude. She seems like someone out of Closer, only caring about what’s right for her and is downright hurtful the majority of the time. I went through the entire film almost without realizing Lisa Kudrow was the lead character. She is Maimee, and you will not see a single bit of Friends in her performance. An unknown to me before this film, Bobby Cannavale, is also very good. But I was most surprised with Tom Arnold here. I don’t know how Tom will be received for his performance here, as his character completely stabs his own son in the back, but it is a very genuine performance and there is a lot felt for him throughout. Roos said he wrote the part specifically for Tom, and I think it’s a great job on both of their parts for pulling this off.
The opening films of the Sundance Film Festival always have a lot to live up to, and rarely do they pull it off to the caliber as we’re supposed to believe. But Happy Endings is a good film in its own right, even if it tends to drag or seem to be taking on too much for its own good.
Layer Cake (3.5 out of 5)
I’ll keep this review short as most of you probably know quite a bit about this film. Matthew Vaughn helped launched Guy Ritchie’s career with Lock, Stock and Snatch – and this was originally meant to be another collaboration between the two. With Ritchie deciding to pass as director, Vaughn took the helm and brings us another London crime story about a dealer with an unknown name (Daniel Craig) who gets in way over his head as 2 million pounds of ecstasy are stolen and he appears to be the one to blame. He’s also working for the man who’s at the top of the layer cake, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) who puts him on a big assignment to find the daughter of one of his friends. Throw into the mix a bunch of friends who don’t always trust one another, and a man named Dragan who might end up hunting down our protagonist and behead him, and you have a series of double crosses and slick characters that make these movies work so well.
I didn’t like Layer Cake as much as either Lock, Stock or Snatch. It starts off very promising with some excellent fades and editing tricks that we can expect from this genre but at times it can be a little hard to follow as there are so many characters. But the thing of it is, this is a movie that is so well executed that you will most likely go along with the ride whether you’re following it or not. I loved Daniel Craig as the main character; he seems like a Steve McQueen that we haven’t seen in film for a very long time. I liked how brutal the film was able to get out of nowhere at times, instantly catching you by surprise and giving a number of “oh shit” moments. I just wish that it had something more to offer as it already feels a little too familiar with the past projects. A very easy recommendation for those that have liked Lock, Stock or Snatch, even if it’s not quite at the same caliber.
Rock School (5 out of 5)
Wow. This is one hell of a documentary.
Anyone that has seen School of Rock, meet Paul Green – the real Jack Black. Paul is a teacher of 120 students; all kids under the age of 17 who want to learn how to play rock. Not some pansy 311, Sheryl Crow, shitty punk band music as they will all tell you – real rock and roll. They’ll start off learning some Black Sabbath, work up a bit to some more advanced Van Halen and AC/DC with some serious solos, and end playing some of the top of the line Frank Zappa where the best of the school hope to go on to Germany to play at a 5 day Zappa fest. You might not be a fan of some of the music, but I dare anyone to see these kids and tell me they aren’t impressed.
Paul and the kids are all a perfect choice for any documentary. Any parent that would want their kids to learn how to play the guitar or drums would likely never send their kids to Paul’s school – as he’s more of an in-your-face coach dropping the F bomb every other word and screaming his lungs out at any kid that argues with him. But he’s also hysterical. You question if he’s just putting on a show in front of the cameras or he’s always like this, but his comments and remarks fly out at a Robin Williams pace and you’ll simply be shocked by half of what he says. Even if he comes off as a complete asshole half the time, you can see that he is just a kid at heart and I found it very hard not to like him – even if I would never agree with half of his teaching methods.
Out of all the kids, the one that will likely stand out the most is CJ. This kid is destined for fame, fortune, and Playboy models – he is single handedly one of the best guitar players you could imagine seeing and he’s only around 12 years old. His fingers fly up and down the guitar and he could carry a 10 minute solo with every single member of an audience with their jaw on the floor. Simply amazing.
The documentary has an excellent structure as it shows us the starting point for some of these kids and the all-stars that head off to Germany. As a filmmaker, you couldn’t be luckier to see this story unfold in front of your camera as it would be such a remarkable story for Hollywood that they likely wouldn’t believe it. Sure, these are just kids playing rock and roll – but what we see look like little prodigies kicking their feet through the doors and sticking it to the man better than anyone could imagine. A number of kids grow up and want to become rock stars, but none of them would ever expect to be this good and be able to handle the caliber of music as the ones featured here.
Simply put, Rock School is the Super Size Me of this years Sundance. It’s a simple story told wonderfully and could not have been executed better.
Ellie Parker (2 out of 5)
Back when Mulholland Dr. came out, you might remember hearing how hard it was for Naomi Watts to get started. She was turned down for years and years and it seemed like she would never get a break, until David Lynch looked upon her. Her story is not much different than 99.9999% of the aspiring actors that go to LA in hopes of becoming famous. So you would hope that a film dealing with this so up close and personal would be easier to recommend, but sadly it falls apart not long after the first twenty minutes into the film.
Ellie Parker (Watts) is shown at the beginning trying out for a period piece, auditioning in front of a table of producers and the director as they act like something out of a Coen brothers picture, giving her directions as they sit, stand, and crawl under the desk as Ellie tries to understand what it is they want. Soon enough, she hits the LA freeway, yapping her head off on the phone, doing her makeup, and changing her clothes all at the same time while driving to another audition in hopes of playing a Brooklyn whore. This all starts off almost perfectly as you get to hear Naomi Watts repeatedly sputter out the lines of the scripts on her steering wheel, “Yeah, I sucked his fucking cock and I sucked your fucking cock,” debating whether to try it with another accent, does it again, and then tries it completely different every time.
But the main problem here is the history of the production of this film. Before Watts became famous, she acted in four shorts with this same character four years ago as they were released around to festivals ever since. They were well received and the director decided to combine them all together and fill in the blanks for a feature film, using the same equipment that he had previously and tell the whole story of this character.
For starters, this character isn’t very interesting. I’m not denying Naomi Watts’ talent here, as she does a very good job to what has been given to her. But the little events throughout the film are what we find interesting, and the time spent away from them just feels like complete filler. The auditions at the beginning are funny, her acting school is funny, the scene where she talks about retiring to her agent (Chevy Chase, surprisingly enough) all work pretty well but everything in her personal life does not seem to carry any weight at all. I could care less how much pot she smokes or if her boyfriend is cheating on her, we’ve seen it all and delivered far superior before in countless films and it drags the story, or lack thereof, along as we check our watches to wonder when it’ll be over.
The hardest thing to pull off for new filmmakers seems to be their choice of style. We seem to have a lot of people trying to go for the quoted “documentary style” of filmmaking and trying to be intimate and raw with the story as much as possible. But the more I watch these independent films at Sundance, I seem to realize that there is such a thin line between doing this documentary style or doing something that looks amateurish or cheap. This film was shot on a Sony camera that you can pick up at Best Buy or Circuit City (I’ve actually used a better camera on the shorts I made in college) and it wouldn’t be a problem if they were used properly, but sadly when it fails it looks like a bad home movie. I can only imagine how small the budget was on this film, and how it should be promising to us to see something like this at Sundance, but it just doesn’t work.
To those that have ever wondered the real difficulty of getting started as an actor in Hollywood is like, you might find something that will interest you here. But the movie itself is a misfire, with only moments that work well and it would be best to just find the short films that this feature was created from.
OK Harry. Hope to be back soon with more in a few days.