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Whip It – TIFF Review

By Dennis Kucherawy - 2009.

Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s impressive directorial debut, is an entertaining coming-of-age comedy/romance/drama set against the popular “rock ‘em/sock ‘em world of the Roller Derby. A popular hit at this year’s TIFF, this movie stars Canadian actress Ellen Page, known for her break-out performance in 2007’s Juno. It’s a sweet and often funny story of Bliss Cavendar (Page), a young girl growing up in the Texas town of Bodeen where nothing much ever happens.

Working at a barbecue restaurant called the “Oink Joint,” 17-year-old Bliss is a misfit who is bored and disgruntled with dead-end, small-town life, especially with her mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) insistence that she compete in beauty pageants with the wish that her daughter can fulfill her own dreams.

On a trip to the nearby big city of Austin, Bliss meets some wild-looking, short-skirted, fishnet “stockinged” women on roller skates distributing flyers for an upcoming night of Roller Derby. They are members of the “Hurl Scouts.” Theydress in Girl Scout uniforms and highlight their eyes with heavy mascara. With terrific pseudonyms such as Maggie Mayhem (Saturday Night Live’s Kristin Wiig), Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve) and, of course, Drew Barrymore as the comical, injury prone Smashley Simpson, these ladies are punker, rock ‘n’ roll hellcats on wheels. Bliss is immediately attracted to the fast-paced sport despite its violence and body-checking. She joins the team and adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless. Her petite size makes her perfect to become a jammer, the player that must soar past all the other players to score.

Soon, Bliss becomes a local hero and a fun-loving member of this team of tough, beer drinkers. She starts dating and develops self-esteem in the spirit of the “girl power” ethic associated with Drew Barrymore who, of course, was the producer of the two Charlie’s Angels movies. However, Bliss begins lying, about her age to join the team and to her parents to cover for where she is actually going. As one might suspect, the roller derby championship against the Holy Rollers, led by Bliss’ nemesis, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), falls on the same night as the Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant, creating a showdown between mother and daughter. Yet, the movie’s climax is not what one might suspect from a Hollywood adventure story. Nevertheless, Bliss goes from being a meek nobody to a confident athlete.

Barrymore, the god-daughter of Steven Spielberg and descendant of theatre titans John and Ethel Barrymore, directs with confidence and flair, especially in the exciting roller-derby sequences with its verisimilitude, especially the violence. Barrymore also excels as Smashley Simpson who crashes recklessly into opponents and guard rails alike, yet survives as the audience chuckles with its own schadenfreude.

Based on Shauna Cross’ autobiographical novel “Derby Girl,” Whip It features a strong cast led by the superb Page, who received an Oscar nomination for Juno. The Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as her stubborn and frustrated mother Brooke while Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father, Earl, mixes comedy with warmth, wisdom and pathos. The women who play Bliss’ teammates are all terrific while Jimmy Fallon brings humor to his minor role as the track announcer “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket. Andrew Wilson, older brother of Owen and Luke, is comical as the ladies’ coach, Razor, who takes his job a bit too seriously.

This is a heart-felt film that depicts women as strong and independent individuals, unlike the 1972 Raquel Welch camp Roller Derby flick Kansas City Bomber. As Drew Barrymore said, “it’s all about going out in the world and finding your tribe, your family.”

The Invention of Lying – Film Review

By Dennis Kucherawy - 2009.

Take my word. Wait to rent this one. That’s no lie.

The new romantic comedy The Invention of Lying features a clever and promising premise that, unfortunately, the script by British comedian Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson cannot sustain. The first 15 to 20 minutes are hilarious, but the movie soon peters out in confusion, not knowing whether it wants to be a love story or a clever satire about society and religion. Yet, it stars a terrific cast including Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Louis C.K. and Christopher Guest.

Lying is set in an idyllic American city, a parallel universe, a place where The Twilight Zone meets Norman Rockwell, where no one has the ability to lie. When Gervais, as a portly, mild-mannered ,snub-nosed schlub named Mark Bellison, arrives for a date with Anna (Garner), she answers the door proclaiming “Hi! I was just masturbating.” On their date at a restaurant, the hostess admits she is threatened by Anna and the waiter advises Mark that she is out of his league. Anna says that although she enjoys his company, she doesn’t want to have “chubby, snob-nosed kids.”

Advertising slogans in this strange world include “Coke. It’s very famous.” Its competitor replies “Pepsi. When They Don’t Have Coke.” A sign in front of a senior citizen’s home describes the institution as “A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People.” Yes, indeed the truth is really out there.

Sad sack Mark is a screenwriter who works for Lecture Films. Since there is no fiction, the movies are boring narratives of historical events such as the black plague. Needless to say, devoid of action, romance, violence, sex and so on, they are dull. His secretary, Shelley, (Tina Fey) and rival writer Brad (a pompous, sneering Rob Lowe) lose no opportunity to constantly remind him that he is a fat loser.

Mark is fired and, in his effort to survive, he tells a lie....the first person in history to do so. He visits his dying mother, Martha, (Fionnula Flanagan) who tells him she is scared. To comfort her, he concocts a story about a Utopian afterlife, ruled by “the Man in the Sky,” where everyone gets a mansion and ice cream and so on. Nurses are amazed by the story and word spreads about him. Soon, crowds gather outside his home and he addresses them, referring to two pizza boxes that stand in for the Ten Commandments tablets.

Gervais returns to Lecture Films and pitches a movie with ninjas and aliens. His former boss (Jeffrey Tambor) and colleagues are knocked out and the picture is green-lighted.

In his effort to satirize religion, morality and faith, Gervais never makes it clear whether he is saying that God and the afterlife is a lie and the script sputters while Mark, now a celebrity, meets up again with Anna. This is the movie’s winkest link. Gervais can’t decide whether Lying is a social satire or a romance.

Another weakness to his conceit is that having to tell the truth does not necessarily mean blurting out whatever is on your mind regardless how socially inappropriate that comment might be.

Regardless, Gervais is a very talented, witty comic and Jennifer Garner turns in a very sweet and vulnerable performance.

Up in the Air – Film Review

By Dennis Kucherawy - 2009.

With critical and popular accolades from film festivals in Toronto and Telluride to London and Rome, Up in the Air is a highly-entertaining romantic comedy with a dramatic edge that is bound to be a major player at next February’s Oscars. It opens on December 4th, ironically just in time for the holiday season.

The global acclaim is well-deserved. Directed by Jason Reitman from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sheldon Turner, this is his third film and his first since his 2007 hit Juno. It’s destined to grace many top-10 lists at year’s end. Air stars George Clooney, in one of his best performances ever, as Ryan Binghman, a Corporate Transition Counsellor, a euphemism that means he travels throughout the United States doing what executives hate to do themselves... firing employees. He’s a hired gun, an executioner, masquerading as a grief counsellor.

He is on the road 322 days a year, renting cars and living in airports, airplanes and upscale hotels. He cherishes his top-level status as a member/preferred customer. He is obsessed with achieving his goal, earning 10 million frequent flier miles.

On one of his trips, a pilot sits next to Bingham and asks him where he lives. Ryan replies “Here.” Novelist Walter Kirn, from whose novel Air was adapted, describes this reality: “I call it Airworld: the scene, the place, the style." "My hometown papers are USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club rooms broadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather. My literature – yours, too, I see, -- is the best-seller or the near-best seller, heavy on themes of espionage, high finance and the goodness of common people in small towns. In Airworld, I’ve found, the passions and enthusiasms of the outlying society are concentrated and whisked to a stiff froth. When a new celebrity is minted in the movie theatres or ballparks, this is where the story breaks – on the vast magazine racks that form a sort of trading floor for public reputations and pretty faces. I find it possible here, as nowhere else, to think of myself as part of the collective that prices the long bond and governs necktie widths."

“Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency – the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form.” Novelist Don DeLillo’s described this phenomenon in Mao II as “the Esperanto of jet lag.”

Bingham loves this life of non-commitment and admits he is only miserable the other 43 days when he is home at head office in Omaha. He occasionally delivers motivational speeches about how one should be able to fit all that’s important to them into a backpack. He practises what he preaches, toting only one carry-on bag on his travels.

In a lounge one night, he meets a beautiful and dynamic businesswoman named Alex (Vera Farmiga in a terrific performance). She is cut from the same cloth and he begins a casual affair with her. “Think of me as you with a vagina,” she tells him. On their PDAs they compare their schedules to discover when they will be in the same city so they can continue their carnal liaison.

Suddenly, Bingham’s ideal life is threatened by Natalie (a wonderful Anna Kendrick), a smart,pursed-lip, know-it-all, twenty-three-year-old, just out of college, who arrives at head-office in Omaha. She impresses his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman) with a new proposition that would slash thousands of dollars in airfare, per diems, rental cars and hotel bills...downsize people by teleconferencing.

Bingham immediately becomes incensed. This high-tech upstart is threatening the good thing he’s got going and, worse, could lead to his own dismissal. To make matters worse, Craig assigns Bingham to go on the road with Natalie, to show her the ropes, how he counsels...fires...people, letting them down easy. They are like oil and water. Bingham is a happily unmarried, independent man without children. The humourless, ever-organized Natalie has her life all planned out...career, relationship, marriage, children...the whole nine yards. Ultimately, they both learn from each other.

Natalie, ironically and comically, discovers that as John Lennon sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” We meet Bingham’s family when he attends the northern Wisconsin wedding of his youngest sister and deals with the conflict between family and his independence. Throughout the movie, Bingham carries on his romance with Alex, which reaches an inevitable revelation.

Clooney is slick, comical, handsome and, despite his character’s profession, likeable. His is a balanced performance about a man who is lost but doesn’t realize it. He keeps us interested in Bingham, a character who could be considered a 21st-century poster boy for the human condition.

Director Reitman avoids sentimentality, especially in Bingham’s romance with Alex and the many sad, clips of terminated employees expressing their fear, bewilderment, anger, despair and hopelessness, scenes filmed with real life victims of our times.

Reitman is uncompromising and that’s what makes Up in the Air an exceptional, entertaining, award-worthy and timely picture in our era of economic upheaval and rampant unemployment. Michael Moore take note.

More film reviews by Dennis Kucherawy:

Reel Injun
Creation
The Road
An Education

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