We can easily tell when summer’s over. In lieu of the lazy pace of one mainstream blockbuster and an also-ran, plus perhaps one or two “alternatives,” we get seven, eight, nine new movies per week, Oscar hopefuls and box-office hopelesses. Here are some of them, some of last Friday’s, some of this Friday’s.
Ghost Town. Director David Koepp once made a pretty good straight ghost story, Stir of Echoes, and with this he has made a pretty good comic ghost story. A misanthropic dentist (bringing to mind the always-looking-down- in-the-mouth punch line) has a near-death experience under general anesthetic for a colonoscopy, which for some reason leaves him with the ability to See Dead People, as well as Hear Dead People, beseeching him en masse to act as a John Edward-esque medium to finish off their unfinished business. Much, indeed too much, of the comedy consists of the worn-out routine of the hero talking out loud to people only he can see. (Not in that category of material is the perfect comic timing of Kristen Wiig as a spray-tanned surgeon, and perfect comic inflection of Aasif Mandvi as the upbeat dental colleague.) Two things, though, will help see you through to the surprisingly spiritual and sensible ending. One is the doughy Ricky Gervais in his first Hollywood starring role, a bit more constraining than his self-fashioned TV roles in The Office and Extras, but still permitting his patented blend of the crusty and the crumbling, the tetchy and the touching, and also permitting a spot of romance. Roly-polies have feelings, too. The second thing, even steadier in influence, is the warm lighting and wide palette of cinematographer Fred Murphy, a name you can trust.
Lakeview Terrace. Neil LaBute’s neighbor-from-hell thriller, no more than mildly provocative by his toughest standards (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, et al.), details the escalating ill will between a newly arrived interracial couple (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington) and the long-ensconced, widowed black policeman next door (Samuel L. Jackson), who has definite ideas of propriety and its enforcement. Reasonably graded and reined-in buildup; unreasonably frenzied and drawn-out ending. The beginning of the end involves perhaps the neatest telephone gimmick since Wait until Dark, and the raging Southern California brush fire serves effectively as both a plot device and a symbol. The photography could use a hosing-down.
Towelhead. The directing debut of the screenwriter of American Beauty, Alan Ball, concerns itself, in a bland beige image, with the sexual experiences of an Arab-American eighth-grader in suburban Houston during the first Gulf War, and with little else. Sex and the Single-Minded Girl: pubic shaving, first period, girlie magazines, masturbation, molestation, defloration, orgasms, condoms, tampons, or in sum, more and in greater detail than you’d care to know. The heroine’s ethnicity adds a couple of extra ingredients (a Medieval father, racism), and the emergence of characters and their personalities, along with the formation of relationships and alliances between them, imparts a rudimentary narrative interest. Summer Bishil, twenty years old in real life (should you be worried about the groping and disrobing), plays the lead role with a docile inhibition that painfully underlines the vulnerability. If, after the title, you were in any doubt that this is an Edgy Indie, the dead kitten in a Baggie in the freezer will clinch the deal.
Nights in Rodanthe. Two beautiful strangers of opposite sexes but equivalent hurts (she: “That must have been hurtful”; he: “I know you’re hurting”), alone at an isolated inn on the beach; an approaching storm; a walk in the sand; a roll in the hay; a hope for a new beginning. The promise of unintended hilarity, held out by any adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel (Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, so far), remains frustratingly unfulfilled, despite the presence of Richard Gere. Directed by first-timer George C. Wolfe, the film contains nothing but sap, yet not a surplus of sap, not an overflow of sap. It can only be classed a disappointment. The eventual arrival of the storm is admittedly well done, and Diane Lane evokes a real feeling or two.
The Duchess. Fine costume piece. Well, the costumes anyhow are fine. The piece as a whole is only fairish, a predigested potage of 18th-century sexism, blueblood cold-bloodedness, paramours, bastards, the mandatory male heir, all of it “based on a true story.” Rachel Portman’s music, much more than Saul Dibb’s direction, creates the frequent illusion of something better than fairish. And Keira Knightley, unshadowingly surrounded by Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, and Charlotte Rampling, commands the screen with force and nuance and bone structure. The camera, as they say, loves her. I like her myself.
The Pool. American documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) has here directed and photographed, shakily, a fiction film in Hindi, centered around a spaghetti-thin menial at a hotel in Goa who greedily eyes a paradisiacal pool house, longs for a rightful dip in the pool, wangles part-time employment there as a handyman, and hangs out on his off hours with the rebellious daughter of the gloomy man of the house. Poky, puttery, but steeped in flavorful atmosphere. And the characters, while not particularly insinuating, are individuals, not types.
Choke. Black comedy, a bit too openly pleased with itself, a bit too hell-bent on quirkiness, revolving around a confessed sex addict and his demented mother, played (respectively) by Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston. The broadest smiles, the nearest things to audible laughs, are apt to be elicited by the tourist-trap Colonial Village where our protagonist works as an “historical interpreter,” especially by the earnest efforts of his overbearing boss (Clark Gregg, who also is making his directorial debut) to stay at all times, and under all provocations, in character: “Where dost thou go?” Rockwell, sounding disturbingly like Owen Wilson, acts more as a smile-suppressant. The general level of facetiousness is right up his, or for that matter Wilson’s, alley, but it’s a very narrow alley.
As if the calendar weren’t crowded enough already, we have film festivals stacked up like hurricanes in the Caribbean. The Seventh Annual San Diego Film Festival, with its assemblage of mostly American independent films, runs from tonight, September 25th, through Sunday the 28th at the Gaslamp 15. (Www.sdff.org.) Then the Sixth Annual San Diego Women Film Festival, films by women, including a program devoted solely to local filmmakers, runs from October 2nd through 5th, the first night at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the rest at the Gaslamp. (Www.sdwff.org.) Then the Ninth Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, larger and longer, Japanese and Chinese and Taiwanese and Thai and Filipino and Indian and so on, runs from October 9th through 16th at the UltraStar Mission Valley in Hazard Center. (Www.sdaff.org.) Prioritize as you please.