Tag Archives: First Look Studios

Smiley Face (2007, Gregg Araki)

Smiley Face is something of an endurance test. How long can the film keep going before falling apart due to its own flimsiness. Thanks to star Anna Faris, it pretty much does make it to the finish. The third act–thanks to the bookending device (the film is told in flashback, narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, who Faris is imagining talking to her)–lacks momentum but there’s only so much the movie could do. It is just about Faris getting too stoned and messing up her day. There’s nothing more to it.

After Browne introducing Faris, the film flashbacks to her morning. She’s got a busy day–an audition (she’s an actress) and she’s got to pay the power bill in person. So she gets a stoned before starting out, only to get more stoned after she eats her roommate’s cupcakes. Turns out they’re pot cupcakes. Now, Smiley Face does a fine job with the attention span and the erratic hold on reality of a stoned protagonist, but there are some leaps–would Faris actually remain conscious after eating so much pot, would she still be stoned ten hours later as the story wraps up. She narrates most of the first act and implies her tolerance isn’t extreme… but whatever.

During the first act she also introduces the roommate, Danny Masterson; they hate each other and he psychologically terrorizes her. He’s one of the film’s many leaps in logic. He’s there to be a punchline (in Masterson’s case, a repeated, non-emoting one). The most exceptional thing about Faris’s performance is she manages to navigate the film’s anti-character development and succeed anyway.

We also meet her dealer, Adam Brody. Who’s a white guy with dreads. Fake dreads, but it’s not clear if the dreads are supposed to be fake (they’re obviously fake). He’s done giving Faris a free ride on her pot, so she’s got to bring him money at a hemp festival–pre-marijuana legalization pot culture is going to be hard to explain someday soon–see, since she ate all the cupcakes, she needs to make more. And then she’s got to pay the power bill and get to her audition.

Smiley Face uses, occasionally, superimposed text cards enumerating Faris’s tasks for the day. It forecasts the story. Maybe the funniest and smartest thing about the script, as the protagonist is debilitatingly stoned, her to do list ain’t getting done.

Besides a mishap getting on the bus–Faris is too stoned to drive (the film, at least until the second act, is often just showcases for her physical comedy skills)–she basically follows the plan. Though she does burn up all the weed and doesn’t have money to buy any more. The audition, with Jim Rash as the receptionist and Jane Lynch as the casting agent (the film’s rife with cameos, mostly in the first half), is pretty funny. Definitely could’ve gone longer but the film’s already started backing up a bit from being through Faris’s perspective, narrative distance-wise, to being about Faris’s experiences.

Eventually John Krasinski comes into the story–he’s a friend of Masterson’s who has a crush on Faris, which is summarized in a hilarious montage–because she needs a ride and someone who can lend her money to pay Brody. They just need to go to Krasinski’s dentist appointment first.

Things don’t go as planned–actually not a single thing in Smiley Face goes as planned; it’s not really a comedy of errors because things going well doesn’t seem remotely possible. It’s just how is Faris going to screw it up. Though she’s decidedly passive in most of her problems in the second half. For example, when she goes to hide at an old professor’s house and his mom–Marion Ross in a fun cameo–mistakes her for the new teacher’s assistant… well, it’s not like Faris can tell her the truth, not given the situation.

The scene with Ross changes the narrative trajectory all the way to the finish, even though there’s some attempt at acknowledging Faris’s original plans. There are talking dogs, there’s John Cho and Danny Trejo as sausage delivery drivers, there’s a workers of the world unite speech, there’s a ferris wheel. There’s even a Carrot Top cameo.

Dylan Haggerty’s script gets real lazy in the third act. The movie needs to be over and the whole journey aspect has gotten slowed way down thanks to all the narrative tangents. So there’s a perfunctory deus ex machina, which comes early enough the narrative could recover. It just doesn’t. Time for the movie to be over.

The film’s competently executed. Shawn Kim’s photography is fine. Director Araki does a little better with the editing than the direction, but Smiley Face doesn’t need a lot of direction. It just needs Faris to be funny; she obliges.

Supporting cast-wise… Krasinski is best, but only because he gets the most screen time. No one’s bad. Not even Masterson. The film figures out how to utilize his driftwood presence. Cho’s actually a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s the part more than the performance.

Smiley Face is eighty-five sometimes long minutes, but there’s always something ranging from funny to hilarious just on the horizon. Until the finale, unfortunately.

1/4

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Gregg Araki; written by Dylan Haggerty; director of photography, Shawn Kim; music by David Kitay; production designer, John Larena; produced by Araki, Steve Golin, Alix Madigan, Kevin Turen, and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Anna Faris (Jane), John Krasinski (Brevin), Danny Masterson (Roommate Steve), John Cho (Mikey), Adam Brody (Dealer Steve), Marion Ross (Shirley), and Danny Trejo (Albert); narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne.


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The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog)

At some point during this response, I’m going to say nice things about Eva Mendes. Just a warning.

I used to hate on CG, starting in around 1996 and ending about six years later, when I just gave up caring. It wasn’t ever going to stop and it had gotten to a point where there was good CG (Star Trek is a fine example). I rail against digital video a lot too. I think it’s now, with Port of Call New Orleans, gotten to the point where I need to give up that fight too.

It’s an ugly looking film. It looks cheap, it looks amateurish. There’s absolutely nothing scenic to its setting, nothing picturesque. It’s not even visually horrific in the way other post-Katrina stories are done. It’s simply disinterested.

It’s also brilliant. Herzog’s made maybe the finest American cop movie a German’s ever made, but I’m sure having William Finkelstein (veteran of many a fine cop show) write it helps. Nicolas Cage turns in an amazing performance, an irredeemable bad guy surrounded by worse guys, and shows why he’s such a waste most of the time.

It’s a shame he doesn’t get these good of scripts more often.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Val Kilmer and Mendes. Kilmer isn’t in it much but he’s great when he is present, but Mendes is always around. The quality of her performance’s shocking. Brad Dourif’s great. Xzibit and Jennifer Coolidge too. Not enough Fairuza Balk though.

It’s amazing stuff.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Werner Herzog; screenplay by William M. Finkelstein, based on a film written by Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrera and Zoë Lund; director of photography, Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Toby Corbett; produced by Stephen Belafonte, Nicolas Cage, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Edward R. Pressman and John Thompson; released by First Look Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Terence McDonagh), Val Kilmer (Stevie Pruit), Eva Mendes (Frankie Donnenfeld), Jennifer Coolidge (Genevieve), Fairuza Balk (Heidi), Brad Dourif (Ned Schoenholtz), Michael Shannon (Mundt), Shawn Hatosy (Armand Benoit), Denzel Whitaker (Daryl), Shea Whigham (Justin), Xzibit (Big Fate), Katie Chonacas (Tina), Tom Bower (Pat McDonough), Irma P. Hall (Binnie Rogers) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (James Brasser).


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Birds of America (2008, Craig Lucas)

The sub-ninety minute indie film is practically becoming a genre (I’m assuming these short lengths have a lot to do with sales to commercial cable–ninety minutes fits perfectly into a two hour slot on TNT). Birds of America is both a part of this burgeoning genre and the post-Little Miss Sunshine indie dysfunctional family comedy genre. But it isn’t actually funny, which sets it apart. It starts out like it’s going to be funny and the abbreviated opening is one of the big problems.

Matthew Perry is the lead, even narrating the opening (which makes the film sound like a sequel to a sitcom he never made but could have–a teenager has to take care of his eccentric siblings following their parents’ deaths), but he’s absolutely ineffectual for the first fifteen minutes. In a film running, not including the end credits, eighty minutes, fifteen makes a big difference. He’s fine, but he’s not doing anything special. Worse, the supporting cast is more centrally featured in the opening and there isn’t a strong performance among them. Hilary Swank’s got a strange small role as an annoying neighbor, but Swank’s not funny enough with it (Parker Posey would have been much better). She’s nowhere near as bad as the guy playing her husband, Gary Wilmes. Wilmes seems like an infomercial presenter (for what, I can’t imagine), not someone who ought to be acting in a scene with Matthew Perry, even a disinterested Matthew Perry.

As Perry’s wife, Lauren Graham’s annoying. The characters are all poorly defined in the opening and, while Perry gets to come around into a fully drawn person, Graham’s big change is too abrupt. She does better in the end than she does in the beginning, but Elyse Friedman’s script is particularly unkind to her.

When Ben Foster and Ginnifer Goodwin show up as Perry’s siblings and Birds of America forms its trinity, it finally works. It’s not revolutionary–even though Foster and Goodwin have interesting story arcs (Goodwin in particular), Perry’s tenure-obsessed teacher story is lame–but it’s solid. The trio works great together. Foster’s amazing, Goodwin’s excellent and Perry’s subtle but assured transition to leading man makes the opening weakness hard to remember.

Birds of America takes a place in that missing American genre–the family drama. If it weren’t for the recognizable from television faces–not including Foster, who’s got to be the only character actor of his generation–Birds would be almost entirely unassuming. It presents its story straightforwardly and lets it play out for the viewer. Some things work, some things don’t. More work than not. The film’s best when it’s taking place over one night, which cuts the short running time a little slack. But the direction really doesn’t hurt.

Craig Lucas shoots Super 35, but his widescreen composition is one of the best I’ve seen for that medium (maybe even since Mann and Manhunter). Lucas is in love with the frame and since most of Birds takes place indoors–being that family drama–he composes some fantastic shots.

Birds of America isn’t any kind of singular film event, but it’s a solid picture in an era without many solid pictures.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Lucas; written by Elyse Friedman; director of photography, Yaron Orbach; edited by Eric Kissack; music by Ahrin Mishan; production designer, John Nyomarkay; produced by Jana Edelbaum, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Lundberg Taplin; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Matthew Perry (Morrie), Ginnifer Goodwin (Ida), Ben Foster (Jay), Lauren Graham (Betty Tanager), Gary Wilmes (Paul), Daniel Eric Gold (Gary), Zoë Kravitz (Gillian) and Hilary Swank (Laura).


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Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

The train thriller has been a film standard for seventy years, probably longer. I can’t remember the last one, as the genre’s sort of fallen off in the last ten years. The naive American tourist is trouble genre is younger, but not by much. Transsiberian combines the two–a natural combination–but it’s far more of a character study than a thriller, as much of the film hinges on Emily Mortimer’s decision process. Accordingly, the whole thing rests on her and she really isn’t up for it. It’s kind of strange, since she’s a fine physical actress, she’s just never once believable as the recovering substance abuser who’s married an Iowa hardware store owner (Woody Harrelson). Maybe the American accent just put up a wall for her….

Brad Anderson’s approach, both to the storytelling and the direction, is very inventive and not really mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood. So the script itself being as unoriginal in its constant use of standard Hollywood thriller mores is a little strange. It starts with the mysterious, are they or aren’t they bad fellow travelers (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). Well, actually it starts with the first Woody Harrelson is a rube because he’s from Iowa joke. There are four or five of them and it’s kind of strange to see a film mock its ostensible protagonist. The film does start differently, however, with an uncritical churchgoers opening scene. It’s kind of nice… maybe all the rube jokes were to make up for it.

Harrelson barely resonates in the film (his character is so one-note), with Noriega dominating the first half as the male presence. Noriega isn’t even particularly good, he just isn’t supposed to be mind-numbingly boring… which is exactly what attracts Mortimer to him.

Here’s where Transsiberian is so interesting–Mortimer’s not at all a good person, which makes her an interesting protagonist. Except the script saddles her with all this unbelievable backstory and it’s all very simplistic. Without the backstory, the film would probably run ten minutes shorter and be a lot less expository.

The script splits the film into two halves–the naive tourist thriller and the train thriller (even though the train’s in the whole movie)–and it works toward making the film more interesting as Mortimer has a lot more to do on her own in the second half and she really just doesn’t cut it.

Ben Kingsley’s got a decent part. Kate Mara isn’t bad. Thomas Kretschmann’s good in what should have been an uncredited cameo.

Alfonso Vilallonga’s score is so good it gets its own paragraph.

As Mortimer essayed the big revelation scene (the first big revelation scene, the last one is actually very quiet as the film excuses all of Mortimer’s actions in the end so she can have a Hollywood ending), I wondered if she was bad or the script was bad. Then I imagined Rose Byrne in her role and Transsiberian would have been excellent. Or really good anyway (Byrne would have been great). Anderson’s always been a competent, cute filmmaker and this one is no different. He usually just casts a little better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Anderson; written by Anderson and Will Conroy; director of photography, Xavier Giménez; edited by Jaume Martí; music by Alfonso Vilallonga; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Julio Fernández; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Roy), Emily Mortimer (Jessie), Kate Mara (Abby), Eduardo Noriega (Carlos), Thomas Kretschmann (Kolzak) and Ben Kingsley (Grinko).


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