By Neil Pedley
Providing the requisite stopgap between showy Thanksgiving distractions and award season stragglers, female directors and assorted indie debutantes are making a strong showing this week.
“The Black Balloon”
‘What’s Eating Elissa Down?’ is the question to ask as the award-winning director of Aussie shorts makes the jump to features with this semi-autobiographical tale of a frustrated adolescent on the verge of manhood weighed down by his responsibilities to his autistic younger brother. Daytime soap star Rhys Wakefield takes the role of the Gilbert Grape-esque Thomas, a burdened army brat charged with his brother’s care while his parents drag the two up and down the country until he meets Jackie, a free spirit who teaches him how to shed his bitterness. The always impressive Toni Collette anchors this teenage ensemble as the boy’s mother, Maggie. Luke Ford and Gemma Ward co-star.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles.
These days, it’s safe to assume that an Oscar season without a music industry biopic set circa 1960 can be taken as one of the signs (along with an indie film winning a golden guy for anything besides best screenplay) of the coming apocalypse. Making us safe (at least for this year) is writer/director Darnell Martin’s portrait of hugely influential record executive Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and his Chicago blues label, Chess Records. While Chess was also the subject of the recent Toronto Fest entry, “Who Do You Love,” with Alessandro Nivola playing the famed producer, Martin’s film focuses less exclusively on Chess and finds time to pay homage to some of the great musicians who helped put him over the top, including the likes of Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and soul icon Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).
Malaysian-born filmmaker Yen Tan directs this tale of love and mourning about a man who receives a visit from his best friend’s Italian boyfriend, whom he’d met and only known online, a few days after that friend’s death.
Opens in New York.
At a time when 24/7 cable news networks and the Internet have rendered political scandal as almost passé, leave it to director Ron Howard to transport us back to a time when the country was still innocent enough to be shocked. In an adaptation by “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan from his own stage play, Howard recreates the infamous 1977 televised face-off between two titanic egos. Fresh off a Tony win for playing the disgraced but prideful former president, Frank Langella reprises his turn as Richard Nixon alongside his stage adversary Michael Sheen as David Frost, the wily, opportunistic British broadcaster who brings him down.
Opens in limited release; opens wide on December 25th.
With a big question mark still hanging over the future of Guantánamo Bay, British helmer Steve McQueen’s poignant debut is a timely reminder of the harrowing story of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who starved himself to death in a British prison in 1981 in protest of the denial of his political status. In an unflinching retelling of one of Britain’s most shameful hours, McQueen chronicles the rampant prisoner abuse and widespread political apathy that caused Sands (Michael Fassbender) and nine other prisoners to sacrifice themselves to bring light to the desperate hopelessness of their situation.
Opens in Los Angeles for a one week Oscar-qualifying run; opens in limited release on March 20th.
“Let Them Chirp Awhile”
There’s an unwritten law in the script business (Hey! Pun!) that every struggling young screenwriter must churn out at least one script about a struggling young screenwriter (after all, a slightly older Charlie Kaufman got an Oscar nom for it). Choosing to get his out of the way early, writer/director Jonathan Blitstein debuts with the dilemma of Bobby (Justin Rice), an aspiring Dalton Trumbo who realizes he’s too terrified to get a real job and too happy to be a tortured artist. While sweating out his latest script, Bobby gets caught up in a blackmail scheme involving his best friend (Brendan Sexton III) and a pompous theater director (Zach Galligan — Billy from “Gremlins”! One-time IFC.com blogger!) — who wants to steal Bobby’s ideas for his own play.
Opens in New York; opens in Chicago on December 12th.
Before entering into a successful career of writing buddy action comedies such as “Midnight Run” and “Bad Boys,” George Gallo was an aspiring painter, an experience that is the basis for this latest life-affirming, coming-of-age offering. Financed entirely on the goodwill of his friends, Gallo’s autobiographical story stars “Off the Black”‘s Trevor Morgan as John, a headstrong teen with a talent for the brush who tracks down an eccentric artist (Armin Mueller Stahl) at his idyllic Pennsylvania retreat in order to pester him for an apprenticeship and a few life lessons. Samantha Mathis, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Charles Durning and Diana Scarwid co-star; check your cynicism at the (screen) door.
Opens in limited release.
Following their feel-good underdog comedy “Bottle Shock,” Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku reunite with husband and wife writer/director team Randall Miller and Jody Savin for this darkly sardonic kidnap caper. Rickman delivers another trademark Grumpy Gus performance as Eli Michaelson, a self-absorbed Nobel Prize-winning chemist whose newfound notoriety leads to unwelcome knocks on his closet crammed with skeletons. Armed with only his unflappable narcissism, Michaelson must juggle a host of enemies with their eyes fixed on his $2 million in prize money, including his blackmail-minded students and the kidnappers of his only son (Brian Greenberg), while fending off the suspicions of his forensic detective wife (Mary Steenburgen) and her partner (Pullman).
Opens in limited release.
“Punisher: War Zone”
Hit-and-miss factory Marvel Studios proves once again that while they might be able to put together a digital fireworks show to compete with the best of them, their so-called “darker characters” have all the psychological complexity of an emo kid’s Halloween costume. After the universally panned Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane editions, Ray Stevenson slips into the skull-emblazoned T-shirt of psychotic vigilante Frank Castle for The Punisher’s third go-round on the big screen. With the cheery disposition of the Terminator and a fraction of the personality, Castle turns his guns on Dominic West’s mob boss Jigsaw under the direction of Lexi Alexander, the “Green Street Hooligans” director and a former world champion in both kickboxing and karate, who hopefully knows how to stage an action sequence or two. Otherwise, this could be a late but worthy contender for worst film of 2008.
[Photo: “The Black Balloon,” NeoClassics Films, 2008]