The top of the box office draws for 2006 would tell you that it was the year of the sequel (four of the top six earners, including top dog Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead’s Man Chest, which ran away from the rest of the field, were sequels of some variety), but do a little inspecting of your own and you’ll find that though it required a little more digging than usual, there was indeed good film to be had.
In no particular order…
Thank You For Smoking
Good cinematic satire has turned into an endangered species, but the debut effort from Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters and Stripes fame) does quite a bit more than just keep it on life support. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a grinning, wisecracking hired gun for Big Tobacco, a resilient SOB who not only stumps for the cigarette industry, but does it with whip-smart cunning and a remorseless smile. Buoyed sympathetically in his profession by his other “Merchants of Death,” or “MoD” Squad, (David Koechner and Maria Bello, keeping her clothes on here), Naylor balances life as a single father (a single father in the movies?! Get out…) as well as the moral quandary that comes with essentially advocating a person’s right to kill themselves slowly. It’s bleak and funny, but swings much wider towards the funny, thanks to Eckhart and entertaining guest shots by Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, William H. Macy as the legislation-happy Senator, and the always-fantastic J.K. Simmons playing a close variant of his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Spider-Man movies.
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center may have been the more populist of the year’s two 9/11 pictures, but Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is the one more likely to last as a direct and downright frightening historical document of the worst terror attack ever on the American mainland. Shooting almost entirely on the plane itself, and appropriately using a cast of unknowns, including a remarkable performance by actual FAA director Ben Sliney (who was actually at his first day on the job on 9/11/01), the film doesn’t flinch for an instant. Greengrass (who also directed The Bourne Supremacy as well as Bloody Sunday, a harrowing dramatization of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) ramps up the intensity almost from the opening frame, and while it never lets up, it never feels artificial or sentimental in any way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film more genuinely tense in which I already knew the ending. Everything here is as it should be. If it leaves you all the more jolted for it, then it has served its purpose.
A Prairie Home Companion
In the year’s most fitting nadir, what turned out to be Robert Altman’s final film had all the signposts of his classic work, and dropped in a beautifully-executed subtext about the prospects of facing death. Altman’s trademark long takes and overlapping dialogue fits the controlled chaos of Garrison Keillor’s live radio program flawlessly, the perfect partner to Keillor’s penchant for low-key Midwestern charm and understated wit. Kevin Kline steals the show as a tweaked version of Keillor’s fictional private detective Guy Noir, filling the role of the radio show’s offstage security manager and the film’s narrator. I’d imagine that Oscar will forget about Kevin once that time comes around, but he manages both the surface slapstick and deeper nuance with equal aplomb. The ensemble cast, with names galore, is clearly having too much fun here, and it’s only right that things wind up as warm and reassuring as they are. Even as it is still a movie about sadness and death.
The Lake House
The Lake House is not a perfect movie. In fact, it’s far from it. Some will be so bothered by the lack of explanation regarding the main plot mechanism that they won’t be able to partake in everything else without a grain of salt. Some others might be utterly consumed with the fact that Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are back on screen together. What it loses in exposition and other peripheral distractions, however, it more than makes up for in charm, a grounded spirit and some tremendously gorgeous visuals. It’s also not often that you find a realistically-framed theme of urban alienation and detachment tacked onto a revivalist romance with an old-school spirit, but The Lake House pulls it off nicely. It’s engrossing, attractive, and oddly convincing, even if it gets there in a very circuitous manner. It’s all proof that artistic achievement and imperfection need not be mutually exclusive.
After casting her as the femme fatale in his big “comeback” picture, Match Point, Woody Allen stumbled upon his most effective muse in decades. Scarlett Johansson, takes what would at first glance appear to be standard later-era Allen fare and elevates it to a film that’s about fourteen times funnier than it has any right to be. Woody himself even seems to be taking a cue from his unlikely protégé, as she one-ups the master of neuroses with a performance that stays safely stowed away on this side of parody. She may be slightly, say, “unbelievable” to some, cast as a bumbling, nerdish foil, but there are those of us who are willing to overlook such a taken liberty and use the same adjective in another context. With an able-bodied apprentice at his side, Woody’s set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down punchlines are also much more focused and sharp. The result? Something that is closer to classic Woody than we’ve seen in quite a while.
Allen Coulter’s biopic of sorts, about original TV Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and his fall from grace, brings the goods in terms of setting and mood, but it’s what you don’t expect that sets it apart. Most refreshingly, it resists the trappings of the conventional murder mystery by keeping the emphasis squarely on the players, and using an unconventional and uncanny sense of order to spin the story around once it approaches standardist territory. Adrien Brody, after the inevitable post-Oscar lull, gets in a punchy turn as Louis Simo, a fictional private investigator whose moxie and determination clashes with a clear lack of initial instinct. He almost steals the film entirely out from under the likes of Bob Hoskins and Diane Lane, which is no small feat in itself. Don’t go expecting any answers, because you won’t get them. You will, however, find yourself hard-pressed to not get wrapped up in such a compelling group of characters.
Little Miss Sunshine
The year’s most genuinely likable film by a rather wide margin, Little Miss Sunshine was a refreshing breath of humanity in the midst of a year that found filmmakers running away in droves from pictures that weren’t meant to be mere distractions from our horrendously oppressive society. Boasting a weary, melancholic worldview and group of actors who have a wonderful chemistry together (the unlikeliest being Steve Carell in full-on depressive mope mode, and thoroughly convincing at it), Little Miss Sunshine coagulates into the ideal screwball road movie, a pitch-perfect portrayal of a family of deeply-flawed people fighting like hell against themselves and their circumstances just to give one of them a chance at success. Think of it as “The Pursuit of Happyness” for the ever-so-slightly-cynical crowd, a crowd who would never in good conscience bring themselves to go see that movie in the company of other folks who might actually see them.
Stranger Than Fiction
After a handful of halfhearted attempts to play Will Ferrell against his traditional school of generic frat-boy comedy, Stranger Than Fiction is the first film to catch that understated, off-kilter charm in a bottle. He plays it straight as Harold Crick, a mildly (that is to say, completely) reserved auditor for the IRS, who wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Call it Kaufman-lite if you want, but it is nonetheless observant and keen to the foibles of everyday modern life, as well as the plight of the struggling artist. It’s a decidedly grown-up comedy-drama in the best sense of both terms, mincing neither themes nor comedic opportunity, keeping the story fully in focus while dolloping out the quirk in fair enough measure. Ferrell’s normal audience will be left baffled (think Adam Sandler with Punch Drunk Love), but anyone who is willing to warm up to a Ferrell movie that features the likes of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman will enjoy it to the hilt. [Read our review]
It’s hard to say exactly when the Bond movies became irrelevant, but it’s not a stretch to say that the franchise needed a facelift after Pierce Brosnan winked his way through four of them in seven years. After hemming and hawing that seemed far too self-involved for a series seemingly on its deathbed, Daniel Craig was chosen as the new Bond, and boy, did they get it right. Craig (above), along with the best new Bond girl in a couple of eons, Eva Green (oy glaven!), and even a smashing variation on the theme by Chris Cornell represent a return to a more natural, effervescent, even gritty sensibility that had been lacking at least since Sean Connery left the first time. It revels in Bond’s arch Britishness, rather than pointlessly softening it for American audiences. The action setpieces are exquisite, and the icy, understated exchanges (they’re more staredowns, actually) between Bond and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) have a lingering Cold War-ish flavor to them. It’s all more than enough to make one forget the first, “unofficial” version of Casino Royale from 1967 with David Niven and Peter Sellers. Wait, they already did.
Speaking of arch Britishness, hiding inside what would otherwise be a starch-ridden, straight-faced docudrama of British government circa Princess Diana’s death lies a surprisingly funny and compelling portrayal of pride and history clashing with charisma and progress. You’ve heard enough about Helen Mirren’s performance to know that she was more or less born to play Queen Elizabeth, and everyone is right, but she gets inspired help from Michael Sheen as an earnest, newly-elected Tony Blair. Watching the political dynamic between the Queen’s staid, conservative Monarchy and Blair’s aggressively modernist administration is nothing short of fascinating, as is the surprising evolution of attitudes between the two. Forgive yourself the initial trepidation of seeing something that on the surface appears to be dry and humorless, because in the end it very convincingly proves itself to be very much the opposite on both counts.
Film Review: Booksmart
Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.
The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.
The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).
Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).
Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.
So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.
Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.
Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins