January 7, 2010

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Indies are On-Demand
With last Friday not seeing any new releases at area theaters, I took the lull as an opportunity to check out the packed selection of new films over in the “Same Day As Theaters” option in Comcast’s On-Demand library.

Two film companies — IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures — offer some of their edgier films for release via this cable option at the same time as (or in some cases even before) they are released in theaters. In this case, “released in theaters” often means released into a limited number of theaters, often in New York and Los Angeles, though some of these films do eventually trickle down to us in the smaller markets. The foreign film Summer Hours, the whip-smart British comedy In the Loop and edgy The Girlfriend Experience were available via cable in 2009 before you could see them in area theaters.

Recently, I checked out the options in the Magnolia Pictures queue.

Wonderful World (which is rated R for language, some drug use and sexual content) is scheduled to open in very limited release on Friday, Jan. 8, but will be available at least through Thursday, Jan. 7, on On-Demand.

Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) was once a family-music singer, similar to New Hampshire’s own Dan Zanes (who makes an appearance in the movie). But trouble with his record company and, well, life, has turned him into a guy who not only sees the glass half empty but is pretty sure that the glass is just part of a corporate plot to lull you into complacency. He wallows in his dull job, his small one-room apartment and his general misery. He’s so fixated on the negative that his regular visits with his daughter Sandra (Jodelle Ferland) generally end early when she asks to be taken back to her mom’s (Ally Walker) house after being thoroughly bummed out.

Ben’s angst is (thankfully) not a pose; he seems to be a man on the search for true things — true friendship, true kindness, relationships that have no other strings attached. Perhaps it is this core goodness that won him what appears to be his sole friend, Ibu (Michael K. Williams, Omar to fans of The Wire), an immigrant from Senegal. Though Ibu is struggling with some financial hardships and with diabetes, he is joyful. He can see what he calls “the magic” in the world and urges Ben to see it too and to be a little more forgiving of people.

All of this sounds, I know, hopelessly sappy, but perhaps because of the seemingly misanthropic way that Ben is written or perhaps just because of Broderick’s very strong performance (think his character in Election at his lowest point) the movie isn’t sappy. When Ibu’s sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) arrives, the movie doesn’t so much surprise you with what happens as it does with how it executes that which you are expecting to happen.

If you count “occasional-to-frequent grump” among your personality quirks, this is the kind of heart-warming movie that will actually feel heart-warming to you. B-

Serious Moonlight (rated R for language and some threatening behavior) is the strangest thing you’ve seen Meg Ryan do in a long time.

All strange lips and creepily wide eyes, Louise (Ryan) is a go-getter professional yuppie who arrives at her country home a day earlier than her husband Ian (Timothy Hutton) is expecting. He’s been filling the house with flowers and sprinkling the floors with flower petals for a romantic evening with Sarah (Kristen Bell), his young mistress. But it’s Louise who gets there first, Louise who finds him writing a break-up note to her including the line “please don’t forget to feed the fish,” and ultimately Louise who conks him over the head with a vase and tapes him to a chair with duct tape to keep him from leaving her.

You’re going to sit there until you love me again, she tells him. And, yeesh, does she mean it.

There is, maybe, a funny black comedy in there — something very dark and sharp that touches on how couples deal with difficulty (Louise and Ian failed in their attempts to conceive) and how desperately some people will hang on to even a scary relationship. But the movie goes deep into uncomfortable without the honesty or the humor to back it up. It’s been at least seven or so years since Ryan wasn’t shrill and ill-fitting in a role and she continues that trend here. You can’t help thinking, while watching her, that this is in fact what those desperate-to-marry romantic comedy characters she played might look like 20 years later. Not a terribly flattering image.

This movie, more than anything else, is a curiosity for fans of Adrienne Shelly, the writer/director (and co-star) of Waitress, among other movies, who died violently in 2006 shortly before the film came out. She’s credited as the writer here and Cheryl Hines, Larry David’s wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm and fellow Waitress costar, directed. You sense as you watch the movie that the story behind Serious Moonlight is better and more enjoyable than the movie itself. C-

Red Cliff (rated R for sequences of epic warfare) is the answer to anybody who has ever said “I want a two-and-a-half-hour Chinese epic.” Well, voila — and you get John Woo in the director’s chair.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, Red Cliff is fantastically expensive by Asian film standards ($80 million) and was released in two parts, Kill Bill-style, in Asia. In the West, we get the one 148-minute movie packed with 200 AD-era battle scenes and lots of information about Chinese history and the Han Dynasty that you’ll likely not keep up with. Luckily, one can easily over-simplify: Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) is the power-mad villain attempting to conquer southern kingdoms in part because he has the hots for Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), the wife of southern kingdom ruler Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The southern kingdoms don’t have particularly large or well-equipped armies but they are crafty and they have Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a very clever strategist, and Sun Shangxiang (Vicki Zhao), Zhou Yu’s sister, who’s a bad-ass.

Red Cliff has the look of an epic (grand vistas, massive armies — perfect for everybody who got an HD TV for the holidays), and once you get over the hump of the movie’s initial explanation-heavy hour, the action kicks in and the fact that you don’t always want to read the screen during your battle scenes isn’t really an issue. And, despite the language barrier, the performances are solid with glints of humor and emotion sprinkled throughout to keep you interested in the people as well as all the cool bows-and-flaming-arrows fighting. B