Peter Saraf

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The Kings of Summer Review


Excellent

This is the kind of American independent comedy-drama that restores our faith in the cinema, combining a talented cast, witty direction and a razor-sharp script to reboot the coming-of-age genre. It's an original approach that completely wins us over; even the film's slightly too-wacky touches are genuinely hilarious. And it's all grounded in realistic characters we can identify with, especially when they're in amusingly awkward situations.

The story centres on Joe (Robinson), a teen who is fed up with the way his widowed father Frank (Offerman) takes out his grief on anyone at hand. Joe's sister (Brie) has already escaped, moving in with her goofy boyfriend (Cordero), and now that school has let out for the summer, Joe decides to build a bolt-hole in the woods. He finds a collaborator in his best pal Patrick (Basso), whose inane parents (Mullally and Jackson) are so annoying that he has broken out in hives. Then Biaggio (Arias), a strange kid no one really knows, joins them to build a secret cabin where no one can find them. And they love this independent lifestyle so much that they never want summer to end.

Along the way, the film takes a wonderfully honest look at the horrors of adolescence. Joe's and Patrick's parents always say the most embarrassing things imaginable, so getting away from them is like a blast of freedom. And there's a very strong female lead in Kelly (Moriarty), the girl Joe fantasises about even though she has eyes for other boys. Robinson and Basso are excellent in the lead roles, playing characters we can easily identify with and root for. Arias is hilarious as the rather ridiculous Biaggio, making the most of a role that's perhaps the film's only false note: he's just too nutty to be believable.

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Safety Not Guaranteed Review


Essential

With a low budget but a lot of imagination and talent, director Trevorrow and writer Connolly create a deceptively simple comedy that's one of the most entertaining films of the year. It's so cleverly written that every moment of the film is hugely engaging, and it's so perfectly played by its cast that we can't help but fall for the likeable, flawed characters.

Set in Washington state, the story centres on Darius (Plaza), a sardonic Seattle magazine intern whose life derailed when she was 14, after her mother's death. So her interest is piqued when she hears about a classified ad asking for an assistant on a time travel mission ("Bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed"). She accompanies arrogant journalist Jeff (Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Soni) to a seaside town to write up the story for the magazine, but once they track down the ad's author Kenneth (Duplass), nothing goes as expected.

Each of these three magazine reporters has a full-bodied story, expertly set within the larger investigation of whether Kenneth is nuts or not. All of these characters are caught between their past and the present, exploring who they once were, who they are and who they want to be, which makes them easy to identify with even as they do some amusingly silly things. And the filmmakers cleverly refuse to play into our expectations, keeping us guessing about where the movie is heading. So each scene bristles with possibility, and each twist and turn of the plot and side-plots is both thrilling and hilarious. 

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Away We Go Review


OK
This gentle comedy examines at how we set priorities, plan our futures and make our families. It's sweet and superficial, but the meandering pace and lively characters make it just about watchable.

Burt and Verona (Krasinski and Rudolph) are a sparky couple looking forward to the birth of their first child. But when Burt's nutty parents (O'Hara and Daniels) announce that they're suddenly moving to Belgium, Burt and Verona realise that nothing is holding them in Colorado. So they hit the road, visiting friends and siblings in Arizona, Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami. In each place, they see things they want for their own family home, but everyone they visit is full of surprises.

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Sunshine Cleaning Review


Excellent
With a very funny script and a terrific sense of black humour, this quirky family comedy keeps us laughing even as it gets strongly emotional. And the cast creates some terrifically memorable characters along the way.

Rose (Adams) is a single mother struggling to make ends meet as a cleaner.

She's dating a married man (Zahn), and knows she shouldn't. And she wants to put her son Oscar (Spevack) into a better school but needs money for that. So she launches her own crime-scene clean-up business, drafting her slacker sister Norah (Blunt) to work with her. Meanwhile, their father (Arkin) tries to make some cash through a series of get-rich-quick schemes, drafting Oscar as his partner.

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Away We Go Review


Weak
The fifth film by British theater director Sam Mendes, Away We Go, is the most unkempt movie the director has made so far in his career. It was made while he was still in post-production for last year's excellent adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, a film that was dependent on its form and staginess, and there's a sense that Away was made as a sort of counterpoint not only to the familial dread of Road but also to its style.

It is also the screenwriting debut of the wildly post-modern novelist Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, novelist and co-founder of literary zine The Believer. Being the recent parents of two children, there's certainly a self-reflexive quality to their script, which tells of the travels of a pair of expecting parents attempting to find a proper home for their awaited progeny.

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Is Anybody There? Review


Grim
In John Crowley's Is Anybody There? Michael Caine is Clarence -- a bitter, retired magician slipping into senility and consigned to a family-run old age home. Upon arrival he surveys the landscape of human decrepitude sitting and twitching in the downstairs parlor and mutters, "A lot of jabbering simpletons... You live alone all your life and then they think it's a great idea to shove you in with a bunch of strangers." Clarence, once a popular touring magician with his beloved wife Annie, is now an angry and hateful widower raging at the world.

But there is another lost soul at the old folks home, ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner), angry at having to give up his room to the dying tenants. His Mum (Anne-Marie Duff) and Dad (David Morrissey) run the facility out of their home in an English seaside town. The recent resident of Edward's room has just died and Clarence has now arrived to take the dead man's place. Edward is obsessed with death and ghosts. When asked why he is so morbid, Edward shouts back, "Because I live here!"

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Sunshine Cleaning Review


Good
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt make uncommonly convincing sisters in Sunshine Cleaning, shrinking what is actually a ten-year age difference down to three or four. It's not that they look or act particularly alike; Rose (Adams) is a caring single mother struggling to stay optimistic (she keeps an encouraging post-it on her bathroom mirror), while Norah (Blunt) is a surly layabout, living with the girls' father Joe (Alan Arkin), getting fired from menial jobs, and sleeping in her clothes. Adams and Blunt are both beautiful, of course, even (or especially) with unshiny hair and imperfect skin, but they nail their characters' broken-down shorthand, the way even their impatience itself seems worn out and familiar.

Adams, especially, commands attention as she dials down her natural sunniness, her chirpy voice slightly deflated and her smiles a little more forced. Rose has a shabby apartment, an eight-year-old son, and a job with a maid service to pay for both. She also has motel-room trysts with a local cop (Steve Zahn), who suggests, offhand, that she might parlay her maid skills into a crime-scene clean-up business. In need of money to send her son to private school, Rose seizes on the idea, and drags Norah along with her.

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Little Miss Sunshine Review


Excellent
The most visited genre in film may be the family drama. It's probably popular to produce because it's something everyone can relate to - having a family with issues not fit for public consumption and seeing them resolved in two hours with some great acting thrown in for good measure, hopefully. Whether it's got some laughter during the course of events or not, it's getting quite difficult to come up with original ideas that force a family to change, or work together, or learn about each other, in an entertaining fashion.

And now, here's Little Miss Sunshine. You're not quite sure what you're in for during the Sundance-touting trailer as you see snippets of a family dinner. You know they are going to be quirky, based on their remarks and the quick cuts. You also know the acting will be dependable because of the stellar cast, including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin. Plus, it's got a cute girl with glasses you know you're going to cheer on because the title is based on her.

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Little Miss Sunshine Review


Excellent
The most visited genre in film may be the family drama. It's probably popular to produce because it's something everyone can relate to - having a family with issues not fit for public consumption and seeing them resolved in two hours with some great acting thrown in for good measure, hopefully. Whether it's got some laughter during the course of events or not, it's getting quite difficult to come up with original ideas that force a family to change, or work together, or learn about each other, in an entertaining fashion.And now, here's Little Miss Sunshine. You're not quite sure what you're in for during the Sundance-touting trailer as you see snippets of a family dinner. You know they are going to be quirky, based on their remarks and the quick cuts. You also know the acting will be dependable because of the stellar cast, including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin. Plus, it's got a cute girl with glasses you know you're going to cheer on because the title is based on her.Combining these reliable creative forces with outstanding dialogue and appropriate timing, Little Miss Sunshine is an engaging experience. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris not only make a long dinner scene interesting, but an interminable drive through a visually boring landscape also never gets old.Little Miss Sunshine is the road trip story of how little seven-year-old Olive gets to a competition she's been trying to reach for years, the titular subject. Normally each member of the family has their own self-centered focus, but Olive's achievement of acceptance takes precedence and they pile into the car to spout wit aplenty and deal with themselves.Everyone has their own fault or weakness, of course, and each comes to light in its turn, with an intelligent grace instead of an easy resolution. For instance, when Richard's (Kinnear) book deal does not come across as planned, his verbally horny father (Arkin) gives a brief acknowledgement of his efforts, which is stilted due to lack of practice but no less sincere. Richard's response matches it, quietly but no less thankfully. The entire film has this wonderful balance of handling emotional issues without ever getting precious or melodramatic.Olive (Abigail Breslin) is thankfully not the perfect child, either. One of the first comments she makes is to her uncle, who recently attempted suicide (Steve Carell) because of an unrequited, homosexual, affair, which she calls silly. Also, instead of making her say something cute, she simply places her arm around her brother's shoulder to make him rejoin the family after an outburst.Little Miss Sunshine is enjoyable because it's moving without being pedantic, it's funny while being honest about how family members treat each other, and it takes everything about being human with a smart affection sorely lacking in current filmmaking.DVD extras include two commentary tracks, alternate endings, and a music video.You can steal her sunshine.

The Truth About Charlie Review


Terrible
It's possible to pinpoint the exact scene where the wheels come off director Jonathan Demme's rickety, pointless remake of the 1963 Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade, where the whole ride comes to a screeching halt. Following an ill-timed hit-and-run accident that eliminates a crucial character, a hubcap actually rolls down the street and stops by Thandie Newton's noggin. Subliminal? I think not.

We may never know the truth about Charlie. Demme fills his European vacation with endless lies fed to us by self-serving criminals. The result circles endlessly around a thin mystery that the director punches up with inspired visual tricks, though logic would have been preferred.

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Everything Is Illuminated Review


Grim
The trick with movie adaptations is that they must stand on their own, without relying on a viewer's familiarity with the source material. In fact, a filmmaker's sensitivity with film form can be gauged by how well he or she molds non-cinematic elements into their cinematic counterparts while retaining the essence of the source -- its meaning and effect. For his debut as writer-director, Liev Schreiber tries to get his arms around a difficult novel -- Jonathan Safran Foer's own debut, the remarkable Everything Is Illuminated. Considering the actor-turned-director's inexperience behind the camera, Schreiber might've been better off choosing a less complicated book-to-film project.

Foer's novel pitches the reader between the past and the present, between a magical-realist historical chronicle and the first-person reflections of a Ukrainian translator who makes hilarious mincemeat of the English language. Foer's story follows the journey undertaken by an obsessive personal historian -- named Jonathan Safran Foer -- from New York to the remote Ukrainian village from which his grandfather escaped under the shadow of the Nazis. Accompanying him are the malapropism-prone Alex and Alex's irascible and eccentric grandfather who has ghosts of his own to bury. For all its stylistic bric-a-brac, the ideas of reconciling with the past and of survivors struggling to exorcise themselves of guilt resonate eloquently throughout the novel.

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Ulee's Gold Review


Good
One of the worst titles for a film of all time, Ulee's Gold (about a beekeeper named Ulysses and his gold [honey]) is ultimately very touching, though a bit dry and overly serious.

The Agronomist Review


Excellent
The Agronomist, a documentary from director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), works for the same reason his previous non-fiction cinema (Stop Making Sense, Cousin Bobby) does. He picks an interesting subject, and then steps out of the way. Here he profiles the inimitable voice of Radio Haiti Inter, Jean Dominique.

In 1968, native Haitian Dominique bought Radio Haiti Inter and turned it into the one source of information unfiltered by the government. He broadcast his anti-establishment message in Creole, unprecedented in his country as all other stations catered to the wealthy by speaking French. This demonstrated his mandate to use the station to "serve the people" by being a consistent voice for democracy.

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