by Tim Van Schmidt
Starting Out in the Evening ***
An aggressive graduate student puts some spark in the life of a novelist long past his prime and suffering from a crippling writer’s block. It’s unbelievable, but touching nonetheless in this slow-moving, very deliberate production.
Directed by Andrew Wagner…2007…111 min…featuring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester.
The Band’s Visit *****
Due to language problems and miscommunication, an Egyptian police band is stranded in a small Israeli town on its way to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center in another, similarly named town. The night they spend there, staying with some goodhearted locals, is at once uncomfortable and revealing for several of the characters in the band.
“The Band’s Visit” takes this situation and infuses it with humor and heart. It is one of the quietest movies in memory- interesting considering it is partially about the power of music. But what does not happen in terms of the usual tricks of the trade- busy action and a loud soundtrack- makes this movie all the more stronger. And I laughed a lot at the very human foibles of the characters as they discover there isn’t a lot of difference between Egyptian and Israeli people when you get right down to it. It’s a very wry yet sensitive production- and a delight to watch! We NEED more movies like this one.
Directed by Eran Kolirin…2007…87 min…featuring Sasson Gabai (as Tawfig,) Ronit Elkabetz (as Dina,) Saleh Bakri (as Haled,) Khalifa Natour.
I Am Legend ****
Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok…directed by Francis Lawrence…100/104 minutes…DVD 2007.
“I Am Legend” is the third film based on Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and, like “The Omega Man,” this is an action movie at heart. But Will Smith’s take on scientist Robert Neville is much more angst-ridden than Charlton Heston’s- much more like Vincent Price’s Robert Morgan in “The Last Man on Earth.” Smith’s character holds onto the routine of survival- gathering food, scavenging for useful items, working out on a treadmill- but is very close to the wrong edge of sanity, intense flashbacks interrupting his thoughts at any given moment.
A very important character in “I Am Legend” is Neville’s dog, Samantha. A dog figures into the action in “The Last Man on Earth,” but not in “The Omega Man.” In “I Am Legend,” the dog is a critical piece of what keeps Neville grounded to reality. Even though the dog just acts naturally like a dog, she is also Neville’s sounding board- someone to say things out loud to- and someone to care for. That the dog’s life becomes in danger puts all of Neville’s being in danger, finally making him face the reality that, as far as he knows, he is truly alone and that is ultimately a horrible recognition.
The first scenes in “I Am Legend” are among the best- like the opening sequence in “The Omega Man.” Smith’s Neville, like Heston’s, is first seen driving around an empty city- New York City in this version- with a hot car. But rather than any kind of joy ride, this turns out to be a hunting operation as he tracks herds of deer stampeding through the city streets. When he finally gets a deer in his sights, he finds he has to compete with other wild life for the prize. The overgrown streets aren’t littered with decaying corpses as in the other two movies and the absence of any bodies anywhere give the production a decidedly eerie edge.
Toned down from “The Omega Man” and “The Last Man on Earth” is the aspect of the main character hunting down and destroying the infected beings. Smith’s Neville seems to be tracking their “hives” but is more scared to death of them than actively trying to kill them. However, like Heston’s Neville, Smith’s character does capture infected individuals and conducts vaccine trials on them, mostly resulting in the subject’s death.
Smith’s Neville is created like a hero- he is carrying on in the name of humanity, when apparently there isn’t any humanity left to carry on for. This is key to understanding that all is not well in the character’s mind. He is a flawed hero, full of fear and angst and his blinded reason makes him ignore the gravity of what he is actually doing to the infected creatures. That he mistakes the infected’s capabilities underscores the arrogance that got the whole thing started in the first place- a cure for cancer gone terribly wrong. When the balance changes in the story, Neville is not particularly prepared to keep up with the new information, also underscoring the fragility of this hero.
The DVD version of “I Am Legend” has two different endings. While they seem radically different from each other- at least as far as the resolution of the plot goes- they end up going in the same direction: hope. That hope, however, may be in a broader sense of the word. Whether the individual can claim that hope and survive is a different question.
The Jane Austen Book Club ***
Apparently, the works of Jane Austen are ageless. The writing still attracts readers today and while her texts are the initial focus for this light, fluffy movie, they are simply a jumping off point for a look at the private lives of book club members. Austen’s writing, then, is secondary. What makes her work ageless in “The Jane Austen Book Club” is how her themes and plots continue to reflect the complications and misunderstandings of contemporary relationships.
You don’t really have to have read the Austen books to get something out of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” although there is a LOT of discussion among the members about the characters in the books and their passions and desires. Those discussions, however, all go to the same place- which is the passions and desires of the club members. That these are literary discussions elevate them from just pure gossip, but really it’s all an excuse for some kind of interaction outside their day-to-day lives.
The characters in “The Jane Austen Book Club” do not always get along- it’s kind of a cantankerous group with upsets happening with each meeting. However, they settle into supporting each other anyway and the final scenes neatly wrap up their troubles. While “The Jane Austen Book Club” doesn’t really break any new ground, and, in fact, it gets a little unbelievable when two errant husbands end up joining the Austen cult, but it’s a pleasant movie nonetheless.
Directed by Robin Swicord…1 hr. 46 min…2007…featuring Amy Brenneman, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smitts
The Good Shepherd ****
Without fail, I should immediately mention that the soundtrack for this movie is excellent, adding tension and texture throughout every minute. Credited to Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler, the music provides an exceptional backdrop for a story that in itself is fairly static. The action revolves around the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), going back to roots in the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, through World War II and into the Cold War. It’s a lot about secret meetings, suspicion and ultimate risk.
This all-star cast is lead by Matt Damon, who plays Edward Wilson, a character who claims steely passion for his work, but is cold and stiff in his personal life. Memorable roles are created by Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Cradup, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton and many others to support, incidents of international intrigue offset by personal interactions. A fair level of tension is maintained throughout the production directed by Robert DeNiro. 2 hrs. 48 min. 2007.
Eden Log ****
Can you call a movie that is as dark and gritty as “Eden Log” a gem? If not a gem, this sci-fi/horror production is at least riveting as the main character makes his journey of horrible discovery from the depths of a freezing, watery subterranean chamber to the heart of a city unaware of where its power comes from. The mud and grime is only the beginning of what this guy encounters.
While there are certainly speaking parts throughout “Eden Log,” a lot of the production gets along with just the heavy breathing and grunts of a man without a memory making his way out of a futuristic hell. I haven’t had to watch the screen as intently as I did for “Eden Log” in a long time. It is an intense and surprisingly effective story.
Directed by Franck Vestiel…2007…98 min…featuring Clovis Cornillac, Vimala Pons.
When Did You Last See Your Father ***
There isn’t much room for anything other than disease, death, confusion and angst in this weeper. The whole thing starts out with the declaration that the protagonist in the story, an English poet, held his father, a doctor, in high esteem as a child, then the rest of the movie recounts all the reasons why his father was not such a great guy. Persistent needling, name-calling and boorish behavior in general help tarnish the father’s image- and nagging questions about what exactly was happening between the father and other women.
Directed by Anand Tucker…2007…92 min…featuring Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Bradley Johnson.
A teenaged girl channels intense grief over a family tragedy into a crusade to establish new, broader boundaries for girl athletes, particularly soccer players. This movie plucks the expected heartstrings in a retelling of the true efforts of star Elisabeth Shue when she was young.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim…2007…95 min…featuring Carly Schroeder, Andrew Shue, Elisabeth Shue, Dermot Mulroney.
The Unseen Beatles ****
Tons of concert and interview footage, including amateur shots of the Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966, make this a worthy production without the commentary. It’s all revealing about the band, perhaps some of the most scrutinized entertainers of all time, and treated with the dignity and gravity of history.
But there wasn’t much gravity to what happened to the Beatles when they were on tour making live appearances- the hysteria took on a life of its own, and also turned against the group. In a way, it’s hard to feel sorry for international celebrities who make fortunes from mass adoration. At the same time, though, you kind of wish it had gone differently for the Beatles. What began as a popular phenomenon became an ugly backlash that eventually dissolved the group as a performing unit. Still, the evidence that’s left- like this jumble of early home movies, press conferences, television appearances and interviews with Beatles insiders- says there was plenty there while it lasted. BBC…2007
My Boy Jack ***
“My Boy Jack” is a study in patriotism and naivety. Both work together to create a personal tragedy for famous English author Rudyard Kipling, who is a cheerleader for World War I- so much so that when his teenage son is rejected from the armed forces because of poor eye sight, he pulls strings to get him accepted. At first, this produces pride on the father’s part, but finally it rips a hole through the entire family’s heart. The pain is underscored at home by idyllic scenes of the Kipling estate. It is underscored at the front by the frayed nerves of the young soldiers who must sacrifice themselves by attacking a superior German force. The juxtaposition of the two sends the message that no matter how much theory and philosophy you apply, no one is really ready for the horror of war and loss.
Directed by Brian Kirk…2007…93 min…featuring David Haig (as Rudyard Kipling), Daniel Radcliffe (as John Kipling), Kim Cattrall, Carey Mulligan, Richard Dormer.
Days of Darkness **
A weak zombie gore fest, which tries to add some new elements to the standard zombie story- a parasite sucks the life out of the host while the host tries to eat anything else left alive.
Directed by Jake Kennedy…2007…89 min…featuring Tom Eplin, Sabrina Gennarino, Travis Brorsen.
Irina Palm *
Unsavory and harsh, “Irina Palm” follows the misadventures of a woman driven by a family medical emergency to seeking work without any skills or experience. She gets those alright, in the basement of a sex shop offering masturbation through a hole in the wall. Then it becomes a guttural love story- go figure, if you have nothing else to do.
Directed by Sam Garbarski…2007…103 min…featuring Marianne Faithfull, Miki Manojlovic, Kevin Bishop.
I Am Omega **
A man who has escaped an infection that turns humans into voracious, flesh-eating monsters deals with mental instability while having to constantly fight to survive. Added to this, it turns out he’s not the only uninfected person after all, which doesn’t stop some of those individuals from being monsters too.
There are direct references to “The Last Man on Earth”/”Omega Man” stories. For example in “The Omega Man,” Charlton Heston blocks ringing telephones out of his mind by yelling “There are no telephones.” Here, it’s a madly swirling radio.
Directed by Griff Furst…2007…91 min…featuring Mark Dacascos, Geoff Meed, Jennifer Lee Wiggins.