Monthly Archives: August 2006
Slowly but surely, Little Miss Sunshine is gaining momentum as the breakout comedy of the summer. It’s gotten some of the most glowing reviews of the year and is poised to capture the hearts of not just fans of indie cinema but also patrons of the big suburban multiplexes, your red state soccer moms and NASCAR dads. After having seen Little Miss Sunshine, I feel like I must have missed the bandwagon.
Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is bursting with shriek-worthy excitement. She just found out she’s a regional contestant in the national Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her family crams into a beaten down, canary yellow Volkswagen bus and heads off on a cross-state journey for Olive. Along for the ride are Olive’s fractured family — older brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot, stressed-out but supportive mom (Toni Collette), ambitious self-help failure dad (Greg Kinnear), a potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell). It’s a long road to the pageant, especially with such an eclectic group of people whose only thing in common are their chromosomes.
I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that Little Miss Sunshine should be more. It’s not really much of a comedy. There are some funny moments, and pushing the bus is a running gag with better legs than I would have guessed, but the film has a lot of stretches where the laughs are low to nonexistent. It’s not really much of a character piece either. None of the characters are that well defined or allowed to stretch out. The family members are all archetypes of indie film weirdness: the gay intellectual, the verbally inappropriate grandparent, the self-deluded father, the frazzled mother, the loner brother, and the precocious tyke. Little Miss Sunshine does a fine job of setting up its family of cracked characters but then seems to twiddle its thumbs when it comes to development. The only character insights come in a scattered few small moments with Olive. Dad is essentially poisoning his family with his self-help claptrap, casting the world into “winners” and “losers.” There’s a heartfelt moment brilliantly played Breslin where she confesses to grandpa that she doesn’t want to be a loser because her dad would stop loving her. Aside from that, Little Miss Sunshine seems to wind its characters up and then leave them be. I wanted more of just about everything but the movie wouldn’t budge.
The movie spends quite arguably too much time at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Child beauty pageants are a well deserved, albeit easy, satirical punching bag, and they creep the hell out of me. Seriously, turning little girls into highly sexualized Barbie dolls seems cruel, unnatural, and very very creepy to me. There was a stupendous documentary that aired on HBO years ago called Living Dolls that traced the life of a six-year-old girl and her stage mother. It was a harrowing film, and the obsessive mother is one of the most disturbing villains I’ve ever seen in a movie, scripted or otherwise. In the film you see how people transform little girls into flirty, overly made-up little adults. It’s sickening.
The reason I bring this up is because Little Miss Sunshine because they lift a direct metaphor. In Living Dolls the main girl is playing one of those tiny slide puzzles where the finished result is an honest to God yellow smiley face. It’s a perfect metaphor of this child attempting to find happiness when no one seems to want her to live as a child. And then I saw the exact same moment in Little Miss Sunshine. Rip-off or accidental homage, you decide. In the same vein, every time Kinnear invokes the name of his literary agent, Stan Grossman, I kept thinking of Fargo.
In Sunshine, the family is aghast at the pageant scene but support Olive anyway. Then things get way too easy. The film concludes with the 5,785th rendition of the weirdos celebrating what makes them who they are, their weirdness, and sticking it to the thumb-nosing naysayers. Then the movie abruptly ends. That’s all, folks. Little Miss Sunshine was already built on the aching backs of two very familiar indie staples, dysfunctional families and road trips, and offers little else to justify its existence.
It’s hard to really drag this film through the mud. It was proficiently made by the music video directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight). The acting is generally good. The better actors rise to the top despite their limited character depth. Carell is a big name in comedy right now, and he gives a rather subdued, sarcastic performance that will resonate best with audiences. Kinnear is better at playing smug types than pathetic types. His character really is the villain of the piece, so it’s nice to see his transformation even if it is awfully spontaneous. Collette always looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Breslin (Signs) is pretty cute and will pierce your heart during the aforementioned talk with grandpa.
There are some amusing moments and fun pieces of dialogue, and the film has its heart in the right place. The screenplay needed to go through a few more drafts to strengthen character and story. I can honestly say my favorite part of Little Miss Sunshine was listening to its very Sufjan Stevens-like soundtrack full of meloncholic horns, cellos, violins, squeezebox and electronic whispers. I would recommend the soundtrack ahead of the movie.
I feel some shades of guilt as I gather my opinion, however I cannot deny the overwhelming urge that Little Miss Sunshine should have been more. It needed more comedy, more character depth, more attention to story, and more opportunity for its ensemble of actors to sink their teeth into the material. This appointed indie darling is intermittingly amusing, has some laughs, and may be worth a free afternoon or as a rental. To me, it’s also a big example of wasted potential. Little Miss Sunshine is a beauty that needs more work before it can shine on a greater stage.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I appreciate movies that try something different. That isn’t to say I love all movies that try, like Gus van Sant’s latest collection of watch-grass-grow cinema. More often than not I appreciate stabs at originality even if it results in colossal failure. That’s why I can never beat too much on M. Night Shyamalan. When Brick came out last spring it had my attention immediately. Writer/director Rian Johnson placed a hard-boiled detective story in the contemporary setting of a high school. And true to my promise on my podcasts, I bought it the day it came out on DVD. For fans of crime fiction and excitingly bold cinema, rent this movie.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a kid that knows the ins and outs of the high school scene. He’s currently looking into what happened to Emily (Emile de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend who was last seen trying to fit in with the popular types. She was in some form of danger and contacted Brendan for help. With the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary), an old friend, Brendan must negotiate a web of unsavory characters, each with their own game. There’s Dode (Noah Fleiss), a burnout who was last seen crushing on Emily. There’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), a rich girl accustomed to hanging out with bad boys. It all leads to The Pin (Lukas Haas), the man controlling the area’s drug supply and who, we’re told, is “way old, like 26.” The Pin’s been volatile ever since a brick of heroin went missing. If Brendan’s head isn’t spinning piecing together all the clues, surely the audience’s will be.
Brick is a film that refuses to simply be an afternoon afterthought. This is a movie that demands you sit on edge, poised to decode its complicated detective jargon and twisty storyline. It takes a while to first get into the movie because of its stylized dialogue and how straight everyone plays it. Johnson has recycled the same hard-boiled talk you’d expect coming from the mouths of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I heard that some theaters actually gave a glossary of terms and verbal exchanges for people who went to see Brick. Whether that’s true or not, your brain is working overtime to decipher what is being said, and I love that. I love that Brick doesn’t take time out to explain its terminology but expects you to keep up as best you can. I don?t want to scare readers off, because even if you don’t know any noir vernacular you’ll be able to know what’s going on, but it’s just cooler to be in on the fun. The snappy dialogue is only one part of Johnson’s extremely intelligent, very meaty script.
Brick relies on a gimmick, yes, but what an inventive and clever gimmick. There’s just an extra level of fun for film noir fans, spotting the same archetypes (mysterious damsel in over her head, femme fatales, goons, underworld boss) and locations (gin joints become house parties, detective offices become teen bedrooms). Brendan even gets chewed out by his superior who wants results… his assistant vice principal (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree). There’s such a common language of film noir and its staples, and part of Brick‘s enjoyment is placing all of them. I’m fully aware that Brick will exist more as an artifact in a film class than as a film casual moviegoers will actively watch. The plot is blissfully twisty with many intriguing players, and once it’s all laid out it actually holds together. Brick is rewarding for those willing to stay attentive.
The movie succeeds because of how committed everyone is. The gimmick seems doomed to fail but the movie has creativity in spades. Of course it’s all highly unrealistic but it all works splendidly within the world it creates. Because the filmmakers play it all straight, you never look at the movie from an outside perspective. You’ll never laugh at it unless you’re giggling about how much fun it is. Unlike other recent brainteasers like Syriana, you do have an emotional connection to the movie and you do care about the characters and are interested to see where the story goes (and it’s not nearly as confounding as Syriana). I love that Brendan outsmarts everyone and sometimes he does it by taking a pounding. I love that he takes so many beatings that he actually gets sick from swallowing so much blood. It’s the attention to details like that where Brick shows its commitment to the world it has created. Brick is reveling instead of deconstructing the detective genre, like the audaciously cheeky Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
There are some humorous winks that remind you of Brick‘s gimmick, which is surprisingly easy to forget. The Pin’s mother serves juice to her son’s “friends;” The Pin walks along a beach discussing the details of his operations and then drops a peculiar non-sequitur, asking Brendan if he’s ever read J.R.R. Tolkien (“His descriptions of things is really good. He makes you want to be there.”) That moment has haunted me still months after I viewed Brick in a theater. The Pin is a scary bad guy but it’s that line that makes me go back and say, “Yeah, but they’re just kids.”
Johnson masterfully handles his actors. Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most versatile young actors. He’s the moral anchor of the movie and Levitt carries the film on his back. He’s great handling the dialogue but even better making Brendan seem human in a highly stylized tale. Zehetner leaves quite an impression as a smoky seductress who may be the biggest player in the film. Haas plays his villain role to eerie perfection.
Brick is an exciting, disarming, demanding, vibrantly different movie that is stone cold cool. This is not the easiest movie to get into, but once you open up to its freshly retro wavelength then Brick is one greatly rewarding movie. Johnson has built a movie around a gimmick but it all holds together so well thanks to his total commitment. The dialogue is heavy in noir slang and the story is crammed with twists and surprises. I loved this movie from the first frame to the last. Johnson has found a refreshingly original movie by going back in time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Nate’s Grade: A
When it comes to clowning around, no one does stupid more smartly than Will Ferrell, a man perpetually in a state of arrested development. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby succeeds both as a satire on uplifting, redemptive sports movies and on the culture of NASCAR. The product placement is obscene in this movie, but then again, the same can be said with NASCAR racing. PowerAde had a contractual obligation to be cited at every family meal prayer, which itself turns into a competitive sport. Title buffoon Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is so arrogant that he gets an ad for Fig Newtons on his windshield (“This ad is dangerous… but I do love Fig Newtons.”). Even the title is a perfect send-up. The redneck riffs are never very mean-spirited, but I like that the Southern bar keeps disco on the jukebox to “profile.” The sports clichés are picked apart, like the absentee father (Gary Cole) reappearing to learn the error of his ways. There’s a heavy reliance on slapstick and pretty much everyone in the movie is either a cad, a buffoon, or a jackass, so there are limits to that comedy.
True to 2004’s Anchorman, this movie hits its high points with the spontaneous moments of tangential weirdness, from sports announcers explaining how to put out invisible fire to Ricky Bobby learning to drive with a live cougar as a co-pilot. Talladega Nights doesn’t quite hit the absurdist highs of the infinitely quote-able Anchorman, and the movie spins its wheels all too often, but it’s got a greater number of solid belly laughs than most any movie out there today. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Jean Gerard, the gay, French Formula-One driver that upsets the stock car world. Cohen has great fun in an English language mangled performance Peter Sellers would have loved. When Ferrell and Cohen are face to face, you feel like anything can happen between these two quick-witted comedy titans. Ferrell has assembled another game cast of gifted improvisational artists and their blend of loony comedy feels like jazz. The downside with such a huge cast of very funny people is that not everyone gets the face-time they deserve (Oscar nominee Amy Adams comes to mind).
Talladega Nights is a big broad comedy with a great cast and some inspired chuckles. What other movie this summer could climax so perfectly with a man-on-man smooch and the observation, “You taste like… America”? Only one, baby, and it’s Ricky Bobby.
Nate’s Grade: B