Hilary Brougher's 'Stephanie Daley': A Preview

I cannot remember the last time that I anticipated a film as much as I am anticipating the April release of Hilary Brougher's Stephanie Daley. When I read the plot outline, I worried that the material could easily become a very special presentation on Lifetime. But judging from the small amounts of available footage, Brougher has created an appropriately somber and understated tone. The trailer promises a soul-crushing, Lars von Trier-ish affair. I anticipate comparing the labor scene to Bess's taunting and stoning in Breaking the Waves or Bill demanding that Selma kill him in Dancer in the Dark, trying to determine which is more heartbreaking.

Brougher has three very strong actors in Tilda Swinton, Timothy Hutton, and Amber Tamblyn. Even though Swinton and Hutton are amazing actors and over 20 years her senior, I think the stand-out performance of the film will belong to Tamblyn. Though she did not win, Tamblyn was recognized with an Independent Spirit Award nomination. (She lost to Frances McDormand who is fabulous, but I think that Tamblyn's performance in this film might overshadow McDormand's in Friends With Money.)

I think that Amber Tamblyn will prove to be the Jodie Foster of my generation.

I actually don't know what that means, but I thought it sounded good. I don't mean to imply that anyone will shoot a president for her. Though hmmm...that is a thought.

Though her adult acting resume is as yet quite short, Tamblyn has displayed enormous talent as both Joan on Joan of Arcadia and Tibby in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (I'm giving her a pass on The Grudge 2. She did what she could with a script that gave her nothing interesting to do.) Her characters do not run together — Joan is not Tibby, who is not Aubrey, who is not Stephanie — and she shows a remarkable amount of restraint for an actor her age.

I struggle how to phrase this next thought because I do not want to sound insulting. I love Amber Tamblyn's averageness. Don't get me wrong — she is very pretty and can break out the sexy sexy, but she has the ability to appear entirely familiar. And then five minutes later she looks striking. She has a normal body, and she hasn't slimmed down drastically after gaining some notoriety like many actresses do. But again, Tamblyn is still bringing the sexy sexy. AND — I know, you thought it couldn't get any better than the reading glasses — and she really seems to be a good example for young people. I like that in two of her projects, Joan of Arcadia and Stephanie Daley, she portrays young women negotiating sex and not in a superficial way. (Though JoA does take the typical route of suggesting that the only pathway to sex jumps from fully-clothed, vertical kissing to naked, horizontal intercourse.)

Conclusion: Having only seen the trailer for Stephanie Daley, that image of Stephanie pressing her arm to her mouth and leaving a smear of blood hasn't left my mind for over a week. Its April release date cannot come soon enough.

You know, I cannot decide if I really like Amber Tamblyn or if I find her kind of obnoxious. Either way I don't really think that she cares, which I have to respect.

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris's 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006)

I finally saw the surprise sleeper hit that earned itself four Oscar nominations, the film that was recommended to me by everyone whose opinion of film I value. And I have to say: WHAT? Am I the only one who recognizes that writer Michael Arndt merely combined every indie movie cliché into one film? Oh, thank goodness – I'm not. Let's count the clichés, eh? A (1) dysfunctional, mixed family comprised of quirky characters takes (2) a road trip fraught with wacky mishaps that brings to the surface hidden suffering and happily ignored problems, but (3) the physical journey across the land mirrors the emotional journey of the family, which (4) culminates in the confrontation of social norms. There's even (5) a transformation of a symbol of struggle into a symbol of ascendancy.

I do not wish to dwell in aspersion, because I think that critical hype interfered with my ability to experience the film. Little Miss Sunshine is a solid film and worth a viewing, however I do not find it deserving of the praise and critical attention that it has received. The acting is solid though not particularly outstanding. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette turn in workman-like performances. Abigail Breslin avoids the cute overload from which some child actors suffer, Steve Carell delivers an understated, funny performance, and Alan Arkin displays his perfect comedic delivery. Also very good but not as lauded, Paul Dano makes a lot out of a role with very few lines. Despite some conceits, the script is strong. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are able to handle both the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film, and the emotional climax is heartwarming without being cloying.

'Joan of Arcadia': A Season One Retrospective

Joan of Arcadia began its short, two-season run to a good amount of critical acclaim. By the end of season two, both ratings and acclaim had waned, but despite the weak writing that caused its decline in both quality and appreciation Joan of Arcadia distinguished itself as a member of a very short list of television shows that actually inspire people. The show tackled the topic of spirituality in an inclusive, exploratory manner, intending not to tear down either the religious or unreligious rather to celebrate wonderful aspects of humanity, aspects in which one might find God.

Strong characters and strong actors carried the show even when the writing faltered. Many writers would be content with a central character who talks to God played by Amber Tamblyn, who brings compassion and complexity to a character who easily could have become a caricature at times. However, creator Barbara Hall did not stop with Joan, developing engaging and multidimensional characters who surround her: Helen, Kevin, Luke, Grace, Adam, and even the many avatars of God. While I could say great things about everyone's performance, I think that Mary Steenbergen, Chris Marquette, and Becky Wahlstrom also deliver performances of particular note.

The only character that occurs as a misstep is Will. I do not fault Joe Mantegna's portrayal, rather the concept of the character. Barbara Hall has stated that she intended Will as a complement to Joan: she is a spiritual warrior while Will is a physical warrior. Will also has a very clear sense of right and wrong, while Joan is developing her moral compass and recognizing ambiguity. Because of these qualities, Hall chose to make Will a cop, which created the inclusion of the ineffectual police/detective B-plots. The show's greatest weakness lies in the police storylines, which are never very compelling. The rotating cast of secondary characters (Eric Palladino, April Grace, Mark Totty, Annie Potts) also fails to stimulate the viewers' investment in the case of the week. Because of his involvement in these storylines, Joe Mantegna's character often seems separate from the core of the show, i.e. Joan's changing relationship with her friends and family as she accepts her role as an instrument of God. That choice of Will's profession was, no pun intended, a cop-out and too obvious. Will as a character is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get – none of his opinions or reactions surprise me, which isn't a good thing.

Joan. Joan, Joan, Joan. OK, back it up. Amber Tamblyn – I cannot say enough good things about this young actress. (Ha! "Young actress." She is a couple of months older than I am. Anyway.) I first encountered her work through The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a surprisingly good movie that both my mother (pretty easy-to-please film-goer) and myself (slighty cyncial film critic) enjoyed. Even partnered with other strong, young actresses like Alexis Bledel and America Ferrera, Tamblyn distinguished herself as an actress to look out for -- the scene in which Tibby's cynical exterior dissolves is heartbreaking. Tamblyn plays Joan with just as much aplomb, but the writing does not always deserve her skill. Barbara Hall has said that she wishes Joan to be as normal as possible. But if Joan is Hall's example of a normal teenager I really, really do not want the teenagers that Hall knows to become voting adults. In season one, Joan suffers from an excess of both self-absorption and stupidity. Yes, teenagers do tend to think that their world is the world, but not quite to the extent of Joan's egotism. And next to characters like Adam, Luke, and Grace, Joan can look like a real jerk. Joan also falls victim to the writer's penchant for the sitcom comedy, which prevailed during the middle of the season. I think that some of her erratic and, uh, dumb behavior was explained by her Lyme's disease, but evidence of, er, un-common-sensical thinking appears in season two as well.

Highlights of Season One:
  • "Pilot"
  • "Bringeth On" - nice handling of a sensitive topic and Adam is, like, the cutest thing ever
  • "Death Be Not Whatever" - nice bonding scene between Adam and Joan, interesting client character in Rocky, and an excellent conversation about death between Joan and God
  • "The Devil Made Me Do It" - Joan smashing Adam's art is probably one of the most powerful scenes of the series
  • "Jump" - Adam and Joan sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! Oh, and there's some other good stuff involving a deepening of affection and emotion between the two of them, but did I mention the kissing?!?
  • "The Gift" - though I have misgivings about the somewhat strange, black-and-white vignette, I liked that God challenged Joan to address the topic of sex with Adam and make a choice
  • "Silence" - I thought it was really brave of the writers to allow the audience to question the entire premise of the show

Francis Lawrence's 'Constantine' (2005)

I don't understand why this film has received such bad word-of-mouth. I mean, no one would confuse it with Kieslowski's Trois Coleurs trilogy, or maybe even the much lauded and more comparable Sin City. But director Francis Lawrence takes chances, and even though not all of them pay off, when they do work they work well. I would rather watch a risky film than a safe one.

Visually, the film is stunning, an effective blend of film noir and supernatural elements, and it features some strong performances. Keanu Reeves, fresh from his stint as Neo, draws on that experience to present Constantine as a world-weary skeleton of a man, fighting demons out of obligation rather than compassion. Rachel Weisz turns in a strong performance as Angela and Isabel Dodson, but the stand-out supporting actors are Tilda Swinton at her most androgynous as Gabriel and Peter Stormare as Satan. Stormare does go a little over the top at some moments, but his performance is one that is entirely unlike any characterization of Satan and at the same time pitch perfect. Props to the wardrobe department for Satan's white suit. I just imagine Satan saying to his tailor, "Make me one just like God's." Shia LaBoeuf grates in the small and, frankly, useless role of Chas and Djimon Hounsou's talent is wasted as Midnite.

I think that the film's biggest weakness is the script. Screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello demand too much suspension of disbelief at times and the climax lacks enough of an emotional punch. The film's ending feels truncated and leaves the viewer with the taste of cheese in her mouth.

Petter Næss's 'Mozart and the Whale' (2005)

Ronald Bass, who won an Oscar for his Rain Man screenplay, really likes autism. On the very self-assured commentary track that came with the Mozart and the Whale DVD, Bass explains that he thinks people with autism exhibit the emotions and awkwardness of social interactions that non-autistic people are so good at hiding. And he may have a point. However, do not expect this film to provide great insight into the human condition. In fact, don't expect this film to provide any great insight into relationships, romance, and courtship either. Expect this film to provide some moderate entertainment and an interesting portrayal of people with Asberger's.

Despite some strong acting from leads Radha Mitchell and Josh Hartnett and supporting character actors like John Carroll Lynch and Rusty Schwimmer, the script never manages to go anywhere and the film seems to move very slowly. Mitchell and Hartnett also fail to generate any real chemistry, limited perhaps by the nature of their characters. However, I must take pause to celebrate Hartnett's excellent work. His portrayal of Donald is his finest acting that I have seen, comparable perhaps with Hugo in O. Hartnett changed his voice, physicality, even his presence for this role, but he never becomes too showy. The direction by Norweigan Petter Næss is actually quite good — Mozart and the Whale does not look like a typical American romantic comedy. The film was shot in Spokane, Washington, which provides a moody backdrop for this story about two emotionally charged characters. What does not work is the soundtrack and Deborah Lurie's score, which are too literal and saccharine, causing the movie to dwell further on the script's sentimentality.

Although I find the pace and plotting of the script very disappointing, I do recommend this film. Hartnett and Mitchell work very hard to create realistic and sympathetic portrayals of people with Asberger's, offering audiences a glimpse into the struggles of people with this developmental condition.

Ridley Scott's 'Matchstick Men' (2003)

I am not a Nicholas Cage fan. He's a decent enough actor and he generally does not embarrass himself, but I have never thought that he really owned a performance, that I could not see another actor performing the role as credibly or more credibly. My reaction to his performance in Matchstick Men is congruent with that assessment. He was fine and he did all of the OCD standards well, but I think that Jack Nicholson's performance in As Good as It Gets displayed more depth. And I don't even like Jack Nicholson or As Good as It Gets that much.

Honestly, I didn't care much for or about Roy until Alison Lohman appeared in the film. Her performance and interaction with Cage lights up the screen. Lohman brings such energy and subtlety to her character, especially for such a young actress. For me, this film is all about Lohman and not Cage. Sam Rockwell is also a nice addition to the cast as Roy's partner.

I liked this film more than I anticipated. From the first hour or so of story, I expected a typical father-daughter bonding movie with the Cage character overcoming his mental disease through his relationship with his daughter. I suspected that Frank was a little shady, but I did not expect the twist involving Angela, which elevated this film beyond that typical father-daughter bonding storyline. And the twists hold up pretty well after the film is over and the viewer has time to reflect, which is always nice. Yes, I'm looking at you, Rob Thomas.