Embracing the Melodrama #56: Fierce People (dir by Griffin Dunne)

Fierce People

Much as how Inside Out is a perfect example of how one bad plot twist can ruin an otherwise good film, the 2007 sin-among-the-wealthy melodrama Fierce People shows how one good actor can partially redeem a really bad movie.  That actor’s name is Donald Sutherland and Fierce People is worth seeing for one reason: his performance.

Fierce People tells the story of a teenager named Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin).  As a character, Finn Earl is almost as annoying as his cutesy name.  He’s a permanently sarcastic 16 year-old who goes through life with the same judgmental smirk on his face, while the whole time delivering some of the smuggest narration ever recorded for a voice over in an American film.  Finn’s mother is Liz (Diane Lane), a massage therapist with a drug problem.  Finn’s father is some jerk who spends all of his time in South America, studying cannibal tribes.  (Actually, he’s studying a real-life Indian tribe known as the Yanomami, or the Fierce People.  However, I prefer to assume that he was actually studying a cannibal tribe because that means it’s entirely possible that he was eaten at some point and therefore, Finn will never get a chance to spend any time with father.  That’s the type of reaction that Finn, as a character, inspires.)

Liz and Finn are invited to spend the summer living the guesthouse of the fabulously wealthy Ogden Osburne (Donald Sutherland).  At first, Finn is weary of Ogden and assumes that he must be sleeping with Liz.  However, in a scene that works only because of the performance of Donald Sutherland, Ogden very graphically shows Finn why he’s not interested in having an affair with Liz.  Instead, Ogden is just a nice, rich eccentric.  Unfortunately, the other wealthy people who live around Ogden are not quite as nice and they soon, they start to resent the presence of Finn and his mother.  Finn does manages to befriend Ogden’s decadent grandson (played by Chris Evans) and even starts a tentative romance with Ogden’s granddaughter (Kristen Stewart) but the rest of the Osburne clan is not prepared to be so accepting.  Soon, the film goes from being an annoying comedy to being an annoying drama with a burst of violence and murder.

Fierce People is not a very good movie.  It’s based on a novel and, even if you didn’t know that beforehand, you would guess just from the way that the film tries and fails to present a lot of themes that undoubtedly work better on the page than on the screen.  The film’s attempts to draw parallels between the Yanomami and the wealthy (They’re two tribes and they’re both fierce — OH MY GOD, MIND BLOWN!) are way too obvious and the film’s sudden lurch into drama is handled rather clumsily.  It’s interesting to see Chris Evans before he became Capt. America and Kristen Stewart before she became Bella (and both of them, by the way, give good performances) but Anton Yelchin’s performance as Finn alternates between being smug and being whiny.  (In Yelchin’s defense, he’s developed into a pretty good actor and I loved him in Like Crazy.)

And yet, Fierce People works as an example of what a truly great actor can do with so-so material.  As played by Donald Sutherland, Ogden becomes the jaded moral center of the universe.  Sutherland plays Ogden with a perversely regal air and yet also makes us totally believe that Ogden actually could be helping the Earls out of the kindness of his heart.  It’s a great performance and every minute that Sutherland is on screen, Fierce People works.

If the film had simply been called Fierce Ogden, it would have been a hundred times better.

Donald Sutherland and Kristen Stewart

Embracing the Melodrama #55: Inside Out (dir by David Ogden)

Eriq La Salle in Inside Out

Eriq La Salle in Inside Out

Welcome to the suburbs!

It’s a world of secrets and lies, where friends spend their time exchanging gossip and no one’s marriage is that happy once you get behind closed doors.  It’s a place where any sign of nonconformity is viewed as being a threat and where everyone is desperate to be a neighborhood insider because being an outsider is Hell on Earth.

The suburbs have also been the setting of a countless number of Hollywood melodramas.  I’ve reviewed a few of them, like Sin In The Suburbs, over the past two weeks.  The 2005 film Inside Out continues the cinematic tradition of casting a skeptical eye on the suburbs and it actually works pretty well, up until about the final 10 minutes of the movie.  Yes, Inside Out is one of those movies that basically starts out strong and then ruins it all by building up to a thoroughly ludicrous final twist.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love twist endings when they work.  When they don’t work, they lead to something like Inside Out.

Inside Out starts out well enough.  Eriq La Salle plays a mysterious man who moves into an idyllic suburban neighborhood in the middle of the night.  When his neighbors attempt to greet him, he simply responds with a cold glare and then proceeds to alienate them even more by loudly mowing his lawn in the middle of another night.  When he decides to hold a sudden garage sale, everyone is surprised to discover that he’s not selling the usual second-hand stuff.  Instead, he’s selling expensive and new electronics and valuable antiques.  When one neighborhood woman asks why he’s selling all of it, La Salle simply replies that they once belonged to his son.

Finally, La Salle does start to socialize with one neighbor (played by Steven Weber) but the friendlier that La Salle is, the more suspicious Weber becomes.  Weber cannot bring himself to trust his new neighbor and instead, he starts his own investigation.  As Weber finds out more and more about La Salle, he starts to grow more and more paranoid….

And, up until the final 10 minutes, the entire movie is actually kind of working.  Director David Ogden is keeping things nicely off-center.  Weber is both sympathetic and somewhat frightening as he grows more and more paranoid.  Best of all, Eriq La Salle creates a character that seems to radiate a very genuine sort of menace.  You really want to know what La Salle is hiding in his basement and you worry what will happen to Weber once he inevitably breaks in La Salle’s house to investigate…

And then, out of nowhere, the film launches one of the biggest and stupidest twists in the history of the movies.  No, you won’t see it coming.  Yes, you will be shocked.  But not because the twist is effective or surpising.  No, the twist is shocking because it makes no sense, it comes out of nowhere, and it is just amazingly stupid.

And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of talent on display in this film.

Is the film worth seeing despite the twist?  Perhaps.  It shows up on Encore occasionally and  I would recommend it on the strength of Weber and La Salle’s performances.  As I said, there’s a lot to appreciate during the first 80 minutes of the film.  But, before it reaches that twist, you might want to stop the film and come up with a better ending of your own.

Embracing the Melodrama #54: Where the Truth Lies (dir by Atom Egoyan)


Atom Egoyan’s 2005 showbiz melodrama Where The Truth Lies is a historic film for me.

First off, it’s the first film that I ever saw at the wonderful Dallas Angelika theater, which would quickly become my favorite place to watch movies in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex.  And I have to say that, as much as I love the Alamo Drafthouse that opened up last year, the Angelika will always hold a special place in my heart.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Where The Truth Lies was the first NC-17 film that I ever actually watched in a theater.  In fact, I went into Where The Truth Lies knowing next to nothing about it.  I just saw that it was an NC-17 film that was playing in a “real” theater and that was pretty much all I needed to call up some friends and head down to Dallas.

I felt terrifically grown up until I tried to buy the ticket and I was asked to show ID.  I handed over my driver’s license.  The ticket seller stared down at it for what seemed like an eternity.  She looked up at me and then back down at the license a few times.  Finally, she said, “Are you sure you’re 19?”

“I’m going to be 20 in November,” I replied.

She squinted at me for a few minutes and then said, “If you say so,” before handing me my license and a ticket.

And so, on that day, I managed to cross one goal off my list (See an NC-17 movie in a theater) and replaced it with another (Buy a ticket for an R-rated or NC-17 movie without being asked for ID).  I’m still working on that 2nd goal but I have to admit that I’m starting to dread the idea that one day, I’ll be able to pass for an adult.

But what about Where The Truth Lies?

Well, the main question that I had, in 2005, as I sat down to watch this movie was why exactly was it rated NC-17.  Having watched the movie in the theater and then on cable a few times after, I still honestly have no idea why the rating was as harsh as it was.  Yes, there’s a lot of sex in the movies.  You see a lot of boobs and you see a lot of bare asses but — well, so what?  It’s really nothing wore than what you have seen in countless red band trailers for various R-rated comedies.  Add to that, in Where The Truth Lies, all of that skin is on display for a reason.  The film may be explicit but it’s never gratuitous.

As for the film itself, it’s technically a murder mystery but the mystery is really only an excuse for Egoyan to take a look at the seamier side of show business.  In the 1950s, entertainers Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) are the nation’s top comedy team.  However, after co-hosting a 39-hour polio telethon in Miami, Lanny and Vince fly to New Jersey to do a few shows at a hotel owned by a local mobster.  When the naked body of Maureen O’Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) is found in their room, the scandal destroys both of their careers.

Fifteen years later, in the early 1970s, Lanny Morris has written a book about his life and career.  Vince decides to retaliate by writing his own book.  Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) is hired to be his ghostwriter.  Karen, however, has her reasons for being obsessed with Lanny and Vince and she is also determined to discover whether Maureen truly did die of a drug overdose or if she was murdered.

Where The Truth Lies is, in many ways, an uneven film but I like it.  The mystery of who killed Maureen is intriguing and, unlike a lot of viewers (check out the film’s entry at the imdb if you really need to know how much some people hate this film), I actually appreciated Egoyan’s hallucinatory and disjointed approach to telling his story.  Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth both give excellent performances, both cast in the type of roles that you might not normally expect to see them playing.  As a character, Karen is frustratingly inconsistent but Alison Lohman does the best that she can with the role.

Finally, Where The Truth Lies does contain one undeniably brilliant scene, in which a drugged Karen watches as an actress dressed to look like Alice in Wonderland sings White Rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully strange scene, all the more so become it comes almost out of nowhere.

Where The Truth Lies is not a perfect film but, for my first experience seeing an NC-17 film in a theater, it wasn’t bad at all.

Where The Truth Lies