As a film buff living in Florida, I try to console myself with the mystifying fact that we’re a third-tier distribution market, which is to say that, it could be a lot worse if I lived in the heartland. But it never stops me from bemoaning the dozens upon dozens of notable films that open in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other hip urban markets each year but bypass the Sunshine State altogether. As a critic I receive many of these titles on screener copies and, for the second year in a row, I present a few of the notable films of 2007 that you had no choice but to miss at the theater but in most cases are ready for play on DVD.
Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore
Manufacturing Dissent is a notable exception from the spate of anti-Michael Moore documentaries that fuel the fire of the far right (like Michael Moore Hates America, Michael and Me and Fahrenhype 9/11). By contrast, Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s film is not a political hit job but an exposé of Moore’s ethically dubious documentary techniques from the perspective of two (Canadian!) admirers of Moore’s ideology. A remarkably evenhanded account of Moore’s questionable tactics from his early muckraking adventures with Mother Jones magazine through Fahrenheit 9/11, Manufacturing Dissent is as entertaining as Moore’s slick, pop-culture polemics and often more intellectually illuminating. Caine and Melnyk cleverly center their film on Moore’s “Slacker Uprising Tour,” along which the filmmakers’ travel. Visiting college campuses across the country in anticipation of the 2004 presidential election, Moore is always too busy to offer Caine and Melnyk even the shortest interview, ironically giving these filmmakers the same shaft Moore allegedly received from former General Motors CEO Roger Smith. I love Moore’s left-wing populism to death, but after viewing Manufacturing Dissent, it’s hard to look past his hypocritical charlatanism. (R)
The humor of The Office is extended into the milieu of first-year high-school faculty in Mike Akel’s revealing Chalk, a Morgan Spurlock-produced pseudo-documentary that channels the unending frustrations of the underappreciated profession of teaching. The characters, who intermittently narrate their thoughts to the camera, include a nervous and unprepared first-year history teacher, an aggressively rule-conscious gym teacher, a deceptively likable third-year teacher obsessed with winning a Teacher of the Year award and a former teacher-turned-administrator whose extended hours (waking at 6 a.m., arriving at home past 10 at night) are taking a toll on her private life. Having lived with a first-year teacher, I can attest to the movie’s authenticity. Hilarious, heartfelt and uncomfortable, it’s an essential primer for anyone even considering entering the profession. Its only flaws are its unnecessary linking montages and an out-of-place dream sequence that tend to remind viewers that they’re watching a movie. (PG-13)
The Hottest State
As a director, Ethan Hawke’s movies are anchored by a sense of leaden lethargy that all but made his dreary debut Chelsea Walls as enjoyable as a night spent passed out and choking on your own vomit on the floor of the Chelsea Hotel. But in the case of his latest film, The Hottest State, an adaptation of his own novel, critics have been unreasonably harsh. The movie’s first half – an exploration of a whirlwind love affair between an aspiring young actor (Mark Webber) and a talented singer (Catalina Sandino Moreno) on the streets of New York – does border on the unbearable, with one awkward moment of the couple predicting the lines they’ll use for a hypothetical breakup serving as the only moment of genuine conflict. The film finally gets interesting when Moreno’s Sarah leaves Webber’s William, and the movie becomes a therapeutic case study in post-relationship management. The stinging honesty of autobiography transcends the sometimes pat screenplay, with support from Laura Linney, Michelle Williams and Hawke himself. (R)
I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With
I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is part Larry David and part Woody Allen, without enough personal distinction from its writer, director and star Jeff Garlin, to register as anything but a finely tuned copycat. Garlin, most known for his role as David’s best friend on Curb Your Enthusiasm, directs this story of a struggling actor looking for love with the same visual textures and speech rhythms of a Curb episode – even the music ambles along with the same structure and pacing as the HBO series – a paradigm that makes zero effort to be cinematic. The plot’s cutesy, self-referential crux is a locally produced remake of Marty that Garlin’s James would give his life to star in. He bemoans New Hollywood’s bastardization of the Old Hollywood staple – the Ernest Borgnine role is ultimately given to Aaron Carter – but I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is, of course, a reimagining of Marty itself in modern-day Chicago. The movie has its uproarious moments, mostly when it strays from its protagonist’s love quest and presents scenes that feel like improvised sketches, clearly Garlin’s artistic forte. (R)
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