The Ring Finger (3.5 stars)
Director: Diane Bertrand.
Stars: Olga Kurylenko, Marc Barbé, Stipe Erceg.
Surreal and often baffling, Diane Bertrand's The Ring Finger is nevertheless beguiling and intriguing, an otherworldly tale of romance and submission, recalling in certain ways an almost supernatural version of Secretary.
When Iris (Olga Kurylenko) cuts her finger on a bottle at the lemonade factory where she works, it throws her whole life into chaos. She quits the factory and wanders aimlessly until she comes upon a strange laboratory in an old boarding house. She takes a job as secretary for the mysterious man (Marc Barbé) who runs the facility. His work consists of preserving "specimens"—items that represent painful or sad memories—for people so that they can move on with their lives. Once he gives Iris a fetishized pair of shoes and the two start having sex on the office floor, you know it's only a matter of time before he wants to preserve her, too.
At least that's how it seems. Bertrand doesn't offer any easy answers, but she creates an incredibly effective sense of both dread and excitement, and the movie is creepy and sensual, often at the same time. There is something touching about the way that people come to make peace with their bad memories, and something hopeful yet disturbing about Iris' relationship with her boss. The film ends on that feeling, leaving you dazed but satisfied.
Lies & Alibis (2.5 stars)
Directors: Matt Checkowski, Kurt Mattila.
Stars: Steve Coogan, Rebecca Romijn, James Marsden.
It's amazing that a cast as packed with recognizable, distinctive performers as that of Lies & Alibis can produce such an unexciting, mediocre film. Directors Matt Checkowski and Kurt Mattila get the likes of Sam Elliott, Henry Rollins, Debi Mazar and Jon Leguizamo to join their supporting cast, but all they can come up with is a warmed-over caper movie that plays like it's based on a bad Xerox of an Elmore Leonard novel.
Even the usually charismatic stars are rendered colorless, with popular British comedian Steve Coogan as Ray Elliott, a former con man who now runs a business providing elaborate, high-tech cover stories for rich people cheating on their spouses. It's a clever concept, and the first 15 minutes or so set it up in an entertaining way, with Ray's crack team of phone operators pretending to be secretaries and police officers all in the name of abetting adultery.
Ray's latest employee is Lola (Rebecca Romijn), a former high-powered executive of some sort who comes in to handle some of the business' top clients as Ray retreats from field work. Before he does, though, he takes on one last assignment, protecting the son (James Marsden) of a millionaire (James Brolin) as he engages in a weekend tryst before his wedding. Of course, things take a turn for the criminal, and before long Ray is caught up in an elaborate plot involving numerous quirkily unsavory characters, as is the standard for the genre.
Even in a film like this, one that's full of jokes and meant to be taken lightly, there needs to be some sense of genuine danger for the main character, and Ray never seems to break a sweat about all the bad stuff going on around him. Consequently, we're never worried that things won't work out. None of the quirky supporting characters are particularly funny, and there are so many of them that the cast just seems cluttered.
Coogan is a national treasure in his home country, and Romijn spouts snappy banter every week on her underrated TV show Pepper Dennis, but the two come off as bland and chemistry-free here. The idea of the alibi service is left relatively unexplored, and what remains is neither funny nor engaging.
The Road to Guantanamo (3 stars)
Directors: Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross.
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Afran Usman.
A mix of narrative and documentary footage, The Road to Guantanamo tells the story of three British citizens of Pakistani descent who were arrested with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in the weeks following 9/11, and who ultimately spent more than two years detained at Guantanamo Bay. The three were never charged with any wrongdoing and maintain their complete innocence, claiming that they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross mix present-day interviews with Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul with re-enactments of what the three experienced, starting in September 2001, less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Along with another friend, the trio traveled to Pakistan to see Asif get married, and after U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, they decided to travel there to offer aid to those affected.
Through what seems to be simple misadventure, they end up stuck in a remote outpost of Taliban resistance. They are rounded up along with genuine resistance fighters, interrogated by the military and eventually sent to Guantanamo. All three are articulate and rational in their interviews, laying out what happened to them in a matter-of-fact way that makes the treatment seem all the more brutal.
At the same time, the re-enactments are often curiously stilted, and not particularly effective as drama. The main characters don't have especially distinct personalities, and almost all of their thoughts and feelings are told in the interviews rather than shown in the narrative (and some flashbacks to an idyllic past are a bit cheesy). Some of the actors playing military officers are surprisingly wooden; Winterbottom has directed numerous successful narrative films, so it's puzzling how clumsy these portions of Guantanamo often are.
For those outraged by U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo and the Bush administration in general, this film provides ample fodder for their cause. But it's also a portrait of three naïve and just plain stupid young men without the good sense to stay out of a war zone. Their treatment was no doubt extreme, but at the same time. The film only shows one side of the story.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME (2.5 stars)
Directors: Paul Crowder and John Dower.
Pele—the one-time international soccer superstar—declined to be interviewed for Once in a Lifetime, a documentary about the New York Cosmos.
His omission is like a missed penalty kick. Also missing is Steve Ross, the master of Warner Communications, who became boss of the Cosmos and the Zeus of soccer in the United States. He died in 1994.
Those omissions leave a bothersome gap in this film. Pele and Ross appear in archival footage, but it's as though the headliners did not show up for the big game.
To fill in the gap, directors Paul Crowder and John Dower use a lot of other interviews—the most lackluster of which are those from a slew of media, generally a mediocre group of analysts. Many of the interviews are shot before a bland screen and lack liveliness.
Fortunately one-time Cosmos star and Machiavellian member of the team, the incorrigible Giorgio Chinaglia, lights up his interview, filling in the dull space with his massive ego, hulking presence and matter-of-fact, strangely engaging, cockiness. He would be a worthy antagonist for Tony Soprano.
Another effective interview is with Jay Emmett, one-time VP of Warner Communications, and a partner with Ross in the Cosmos venture. He says the story of the Cosmos will be like the movie Rashomon: "Everybody has a different view of everything." Later evidence of this is when estimates of Pele's contract range from 4.5 million to 2.7 million.
The Cosmos were formed on a wing, a goalie and a prayer. Steve Ross, itching to buy a pro team, decided to make soccer his balm. In 1971 he took the plunge and bought a dismal semi-pro team; it and its playing field were in desperate disrepair.
The transforming moment came when Ross signed Pele, the Brazilian who had led his nation to three World Cups. For more than 10 years, the Cosmos went on a giddy ride. But then midnight struck.
In 1984, having lost their national TV contract, the team dissolved, and the league and the dream came to an end.
Once in a Lifetime is like a soccer team that plays good defense but lacks offense. It misses Pele.
ARTIE LANGE'S BEER LEAGUE (2 stars)
Director: Frank Sebastiano.
Stars: Artie Lange, Cara Buono, Seymour Cassell.
This is a foul ball of a comedy—a raunchy, raucous frat party.
For his loyal fans from The Howard Stern Show, Artie can do no wrong. Before the CineVegas screening, he lovingly brayed at them, and they lovingly brayed back. After the movie there was a Q&A session with Lange, but there wasn't a single question. Artie Lange's Beer League is the kind of film about which there are no questions.
Directed by Frank Sebastiano, it is the story of Artie—a lovable slob who has a lifetime feud with a preening, wealthy rival. Artie's fate comes down to who will win a softball league, and a woman (the appealing Cara Buono) who just may change his dissolute life.
Artie Lange is like Flounder from Animal House trying to carry a whole movie. He can't quite do it, but he gives it a game effort. Anthony DeSando very broadly—and somewhat badly—plays the cartoonish antagonist.
Veteran actor Seymour Cassell can now rest easy; in the role of an old-time softball pitcher, he has completed his stellar career playing a character named "Dirt."
Lunacy (2.5 stars)
Director: Jan Svankmajer.
Stars: Pavel Liska, Jan Triska, Anna Geislerova.
Jan Svankmajer's Lunacy opens with the filmmaker speaking directly to the camera about his philosophies of government, embodied in the two possible ways to run an insane asylum: with total freedom or with total control. He also mentions a third way that combines the worst qualities of both systems, and names that as the world we live in today.
The film then proceeds to illustrate these ideas in an often very obvious way, and for all its bizarre and shocking moments, is little more than an explication of the point that Svankmajer makes at the beginning. He follows naïve young Jean (Pavel Liska), who, on the way back from his mother's funeral, makes the acquaintance of a man called the Marquis (Jan Triska). The Marquis dresses like an 18th-century nobleman and is pretty much a lunatic, and he eventually traps Jean at his secluded home and later in an asylum literally run by the inmates.
Svankmajer has an often inspired sense of the grotesque, and the narrative is interspersed with stop-motion animation of tongues, brains and various viscera slithering about manically. The depravity is sometimes entertaining, but the political allegory is simplistic and the plot, adapted very loosely from two Edgar Allan Poe stories, drags on way too long.
Damn Yankee Day (2.5 stars)
Director: Robert Shupe.
Stars: Doug Ecks, Sean Clark, Robert Shupe, Petar Spajic.
Given the overall quality of local feature films, to say that Robert Shupe has made the best local feature I've ever seen might be damning him with faint praise. But even though Shupe's Damn Yankee Day has plenty of faults, it still does a great deal with its small budget and limited resources, and marks Shupe as a talent to watch. Whether you'd want to watch his movie is another matter.
Damn Yankee Day starts off with a very well-executed opening credits sequence, aping the style of classic film in a way that complements the film's black-and-white, 35mm cinematography. We meet foreign exchange student Kimmo (Doug Ecks) in an airport in an unnamed American town, waiting for a host family that never shows up. As soon as a friendly airport employee offers to help him, Kimmo gets thrown into a shadowy conspiracy involving a pair of police officers, a couple of low-level criminals and a potentially supernatural agent of something called F.A.T.E.
It's all delivered with a deadpan, David Lynch-ian tone, and Shupe has acknowledged Lynch as his biggest influence. All sorts of weird things happen, but no one acknowledges them as weird, least of all Kimmo, who barely speaks through most of the film. Shupe's penultimate shot is a pan over the American flag, and it seems clear that he means the film as a heightened metaphor for American culture.
The social commentary is too often overshadowed by the murky plot, though, and Ecks makes Kimmo a rather uninteresting protagonist. The middle portion of the film drags, and the ending, while more eventful, fails to tie up all of the bizarre happenings in any meaningful way. Shupe makes good use of his limited budget, with some evocative locations that make Las Vegas look like Anytown, U.S.A., but too many scenes feature static camera work, and much of the acting is uneven (Shupe himself, as one of the criminals, is probably the best actor in the film).
Still, Shupe has a developing personal style, and his effective use of a soundtrack full of oldies music and those distinctive opening credits suggest a knowledge of film history that could be put to good use should he get the chance to make another movie.
ONE LAST DANCE (3 stars)
Director: Max Makowski.
Stars: Francis Ng, Vivian Hsu, Harvey Keitel.
I normally don't mind subtitles, but with One Last Dance, reading the dialogue can be a lot like reading about the Grand Canyon in a tour book while flying over it at Mach 10. You can look at the sights or you can read what they're all about, but there isn't time to do both.
Much of the dialogue reads like a rapid-fire, Hong Kong version of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine. And since the storyline plays around with time and picks up and drops subplots at a moment's notice, you'd better be speed-reading if you want to keep up. But then you'll be missing the visual feast of comic-book style with its touches of Tarantino flavor and sprinklings of Zatoichi's cartoonish violence. If you read the lyrics of the opening credits song, you'll even notice thematic color coding throughout the film.
Fortunately, when the soft-spoken and utterly affable hitman, T (Francis Ng), shows up, things slow down a bit, allowing you to enjoy his subtle and bizarre love story amidst all the madcap crime-caper shenanigans. T's clever executions are often a delight to watch, so it's a good thing he doesn't gab too much while on the job.