Catching up...thoughts on recently-seen movies.
Finally had a chance to catch up on a few movies.
MINOR SPOILERS below, but nothing major.
The Visitor: Richard Jenkins, a Coen Bros. regular perhaps most famous as the deceased dad in Six Feet Under, plays an aimless college economics professor merely going through the motions in life. When a business trip (that he doesn't really want to go on anyway), sends him to New York, where he maintains an apartment, he arrives to discover that a young, biracial Muslim couple that may or may not be living in this country illegally, has taken up residence in his apartment. He reluctantly agrees to let them stay for a few days until they find a new place to live, and is surprised to find himself slowly taking an interest in their lives, especially that of the male, an emigrant from Syria who plays the African drum. Of course, the requisite bad shit happens and Richard Jenkins - the Visitor - must decide between loyalty to his boring, but stable, university job back in Connecticut and his newfound friends in NYC. A good little film, from the writer/director of The Station Agent and on a similar scale with limited locations and only about 6 characters in total. Richard Jenkins - who has always played taciturn, passive characters to begin with, such as his lovestruck fitness instructor in the recent Burn After Reading - is even more restrained than usual, but it works wonders for the film. I don't think Oscar will come calling on him, as some of the critics do, but it is a good performance in a good indie worth seeking out if, unlike Coaster, you're not interested in explosions, chase scenes, and such general malfeasance. B+.
Bottle Shock: Another indie, this one likely to have never been picked up - or even made - if it weren't for the success of 2004's Sideways. The story goes all over the place with numerous characters making mistakes and falling in love along with way to eventual success, but the basic premise is the true story of how Napa Valley wines from California earned their place in the world as true competitors to French wines, thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime competition arranged by a snooty British oenophile (Alan Rickman) living in Paris. Light and sweet - if not quite as memorably funny as the aforementioned Sideways - the cast also includes Bill Pullman as a struggling vineyard owner, Freddy Rodriguez as his trustyworthy (or not) right-hand man, Eliza Dushku in her usual bad performance as a local barkeep, and Dennis Farina as Rickman's only friend, a wine-loving American who lives in Paris and who sports a very obnoxious wardrobe. The best moments come from the strained father-son relationship between Pullman and his hippie son (don't recall the actor's name, but he's good), who have differences of opinion on how to run the family business. B+.
Religulous: I soooo wanted to love this movie, but Maher comes across as an arrogant I'm-better-than-you jerk even more so than he does on his HBO talk show and stand-up routines (in which he is usually quite funny). Maher's documentary-style dissection of what's wrong with religion just rubbed me the wrong way. Maher begins to ask a probing question: why do people who are otherwise so intelligent then believe such utter nonsense as taught by Catholicism, Judaism, Scientology, Islam, Mormonism, and Evangelical Southern Christianity (I think I covered them all)...but never really answers the question. The film is directed by Borat's Larry Charles and, in fact, feels like one of Borat's mockumentary interviews, but this time it's for real. Some interesting moments, especially when Maher goes to a "Holy Land" theme park in Orlando and interviews an actor playing Jesus - who really thinks he IS Jesus and who is surprisingly well-versed in the Bible, but too often, these probing moments are cut short by split-second cuts to scenes from cheesy 1950's Charlton Heston-style Biblical epics that serve only to mock the audience. Sorry Bill, I still love your HBO show but on this one I gotta say, Borat did it better. C.