Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews




Movie Reviews

by John Topping

published August 22, 2008


It’s easy to say, as a general statement, that mainstream studio films are more likely to suck and that independent and foreign films are more likely to be good.  There are certainly as many, probably vastly more, terrible indies than terrible Hollywood films – just go to any film festival if you need proof.  But the indies that actually overcome the odds and find distribution are more likely to be worthwhile and substantive – or, if nothing else, more original – whereas studio dreck gets shoved in our faces, pushed with big money and often prompting those who ought to know better to plunk down another dozen dollars, only to realize that they were fooled once again.


The summer of 2008 has consistently cemented the idea that independent = good, mainstream = bad.  Almost without exception, the films I saw followed this pattern as if it were a cinematic law.  Here is a handful of brief reviews for our Stage and Cinema readers to consider seeing or avoiding.  Some of the indies have already disappeared from New York and Los Angeles, but the rest of the country should pounce on them when they hit your local art house.  And do pounce.  They are not likely to last more than a week in most towns.


I’ll try to put the list from best to worst, but it’s a rough approximation. 


picture - Frozen RiverFrozen River

rated R


I understand that some people resist foreign films because they have an aversion to reading subtitles, or resist any indie shot in black and white or with a subject matter that’s too esoteric, or even because the production values are too low.  But it is aggravating when an exceptionally good film – in English, with American accents, and in color, and extremely well made – is marginalized simply because there are no big names attached to it.  There is a disturbing dearth of good storytelling in the movies these days, so when something superb comes along, it should be celebrated.


Frozen River is such a movie.  Though I would stop short of calling it a masterpiece, it is nonetheless the best film I’ve seen all year.  It deserves to be a sleeper, one of those films that emerges and garners unexpected attention and Oscar buzz.  Particularly the lead, Melissa Leo, as a mother struggling to make ends meet who becomes involved in smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into New York State.  Writer/director Courtney Hunt also deserves a nomination for best screenplay; it is both a white-knuckle thriller and contains more humanity in each second than most films are able to muster in two hours.  An absolute must.


picture - My WinnipegMy Winnipeg

not rated


Guy Maddin is not a director for everyone.  He is generally for a very specialized taste, shoots in purposefully grainy black and white, and has a quirky sense of humor that can be delightful but which can also lose steam early on.  In fact, I’ve never been totally satisfied by any of his films.  Until now.  My Winnipeg is his funniest and most consistently engaging piece of work (that I’ve seen).  What makes this more accessible than his other films may simply be the presence of narration.  Far too whimsical to be called a documentary, and yet entirely different from the now-familiar “mockumentary” genre that has emerged, we are shown a surreal and hilarious portrait of Winnipeg through Maddin’s imaginative eyes, mixing his standard grainy black and white style with found footage, and, despite the zany proceedings, we leave feeling we know both Maddin and Winnipeg quite well.  You must enter this world with at least a modicum of cinematic adventurousness, so if you’ve never seen a non-Hollywood film, you’re more likely to be confused than enthralled.  But it’s worth the risk.  If you miss it in the theaters – which you probably will (or already have) – it ought to be just as charmingly loopy on the small screen.  Do not let this one pass you by.


picture - TranssiberianTranssiberian

rated R


It’s one thing for a film like Frozen River to be overlooked, but this (also excellent) thriller has Woody Harrelson (in one of his less convincing performances, actually) and Ben Kingsley (who makes appearances in no less than five releases this summer), not to mention stunning cinematography by Xavi Giménez.  But the real standout is the performance by the less well known Emily Mortimer.  Harrelson and Mortimer play husband and wife, strangers in a strange land, struggling through their marital problems on a train ride from China to Moscow.  They become involved with a young couple on the train that leads them down a path of deception, corruption and murder.  The film takes its sweet time setting up the circumstances, but it pays off in spades once the thrills begin.  Though there are plenty of twists in the plot, mainstream films have conditioned us to expect a final surprise twist that springs up after it seems like the movie has essentially ended – you know, villain or nemesis unexpectedly popping back into the story for one final spine-tingling scare.  Here, however, since it’s not a mainstream movie, the big surprise is that when it seems like the movie is over, it really is over.  I practically jumped out of my seat when the credits rolled.



picture - The Edge of HeavenThe Edge of Heaven

not rated


Whaddya mean you’ve never heard of The Edge of Heaven?  Oh, come on, don’t you ever look in the paper to see what’s playing?  As it happens, this tremendously interesting film, which takes place in Germany when it’s not taking place in Turkey, was one of the highlights of independent/foreign films of the summer.  Six characters’ lives intersect and intertwine in a story of relationships, emotional redemption and the barrier of death.  It includes major coincidences, but they are to make an artistic point rather being the result of lazy storytelling.  What does it all add up to?  I’m not entirely sure, but it was a worthwhile, fascinating and absorbing journey.



picture - WALL-EWALL-E

rated G


What the …?  What’s a mainstream film doing this high on the list?  Well, it’s Pixar, for starters – the animation production company that, so far, has had only hits and no misses.  Critics have gone understandably wild about this – how often do you get to review a movie of which the first half has no dialogue?  How often does something have both heart and intellect and manages not to insult the viewer (although there is some relatively sharp criticism of the state of the world and the direction it’s heading).  Unfortunately, this tale of a robot in love and the re-humanization of mankind is not quite as good as everyone wants to believe it is.  But why quibble?  Enjoy, enjoy.


picture - GonzoGonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

rated R


The most comprehensive exposé  I’ve ever seen of the life (and work) of Hunter Thompson.  From seeing movies like Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (both featured in this film), as well as reading the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Thompson, I totally did not get what he was about, beyond being a drug-addled crazy person (not that there's anything wrong with that).  This documentary finally shed the light on his importance and significance, and why he would have been so vitally essential if he'd lived to continue writing journalism in our current political landscape.


picture - Chris and DonChris and Don. A Love Story

not rated


A documentary about the relationship between author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy, a Los Angeles gay couple who were out before being out was in.  Initially it seems like it’s going to be a tiresome ride, but eventually it becomes engrossing and, ultimately, profoundly moving.  Isherwood was many years older than Bachardy, and when his health started deteriorating, one friend, expecting to see him practically at death’s door, tells the story of being astonished to arrive to see Isherwood relatively robust.  Wasn’t he supposed to be dying?  “I was, but…” Isherwood points to Bachardy “…he’s not ready yet.”  Isherwood’s eventual process of dying is documented by Bachardy’s drawings.  It might make you cry but it’s not a depression-fest.


picture - Tropic ThunderTropic Thunder

rated R


The beginning is extremely funny – add it to the endless list of feature comedies that would be perfect if they didn’t go beyond the first quarter of an hour.  It’s got great performances from Robert Downey, Jr., Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise.  Jack Black’s character is underdeveloped and his talent is wasted.  Ben Stiller’s presence is far less annoying than in Zoolander or Dodgeball.  The pacing is slow, despite constant explosions and gunfire.  The satire on Hollywood isn’t particularly sharp.  Aren’t there any movies out there being greenlighted that were written by someone who’s attended Robert McKee’s story seminar?


picture - Pineapple ExpressPineapple Express

rated R


Minutes 1-20 are an endearing love letter to marijuana.  Then the inciting incident – pothead witnesses a murder – and it’s all downhill from there, as it turns from a sweetly stoned comedy into an ugly violence-fest.  A stoner action comedy!  Whoa!  That is, uh … far out.  What were we talking about?  Oh yeah.  The movie.  It sucks, mostly.  Danny McBride – the guy with the neck brace in the poster – is hilarious.  Seth Rogen is adorable.  James Franco is getting a lot of press for appearing to really stretch himself as an actor; but that is only true for those who have only seen him in Spiderman(s) but not the single-season TV series Freaks and Geeks, where he played - guess what? a stoner! – and of which any single episode is better written, funnier and more satisfying than this and Tropic Thunder combined. 



picture - The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight

rated PG-13


In the same way that the neocons made any criticism of the president seem un-American after 9/11, so it seemed that one would suffer a similar retaliation to express anything less than ecstatic enthusiasm for The Dark Knight.  You could almost already hear the arbiters of taste taunting “Why do you hate movies?” to the minority of dissenters on opening day, as bat fever swelled to monstrous and potentially perilous proportions.  Fortunately, we live in a society where we are allowed to disagree with popular opinion (how could Stage and Cinema survive otherwise?), and my outright rejection of TDK as a good film does not make me un-batriotic (I will perhaps always prefer the original 1966 Batman – and it’s my right as an American cinephile to do so).picture - Batman


For the remaining twelve people who intend to see The Dark Knight but haven’t yet done so, a word of caution – do not wait for it to appear on DVD.  It is so dark – that can be taken in many ways, but in this case I mean the actual imagery – that the thought of watching it on video is painful to even consider.  The plot is more or less incomprehensible.  In fact, the only reason to see it is for Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as The Joker (for which it is already assumed that he has a best supporting actor Oscar waiting to be accepted by someone on his behalf).  If only his scenes could be strung together back to back and we could be spared the monotony and nihilism of the rest of the film, then it would be boffo entertainment indeed.


picture - Journey to the Center of the EarthJourney to the Center of the Earth 3D

rated PG


If you are not going because you are interested in the current state of 3D technology, then there is no reason to see this non-movie.  It’s more of an amusement park ride, and amusement parks, not theaters, are where it ought to be exhibited.  I thought the 3D technology was a step backward after being impressed with The Polar Express and Monster House; however, I have to give it the benefit of the doubt because I did not see it in a state-of-the-art theater, and a friend more impressed with technology than storytelling said it was the best he’s ever seen.  (I think he’s wrong but there’s, like, no way I’m going to see it again to find out for sure.)  There is one imaginative sequence involving magnetic rocks that rocks; the rest of the film, such as it is, is so empty of imagination that it makes even Mamma Mia! seem extremely well thought-out.  It should also be noted that the movie is not carried by Brendan Fraser, but rather by the teenage actor who plays his nephew, Josh Hutcherson.  This is particularly remarkable considering that the characters are so poorly developed, and yet he pulls it off, already a seasoned professional at age 15.  Still, unless you’re desperately trying to cast a film with teenagers, that’s not enough reason to go.


johntopping @


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