Saturday, January 20, 2007

Seriously, enough with the gunshots already

After two full days of festival screenings, I've seen seven of the 16 U.S. Dramatic Competition films. And three of them begin exactly the same way: With a gun being fired, immediately followed by a flashback to x-number-of-days-or-weeks prior, so that we can learn the events leading up to said gunshot. Weapons, Snow Angels and now The Good Life all go Chekhov one better by firing their gun in the first five minutes, then waiting around to show it hanging over the fireplace sometime in the third act.

The Good Life, from writer/director Steve Berra, is one of those movies that throws a mountain of crap at its protagonist -- in this case, dead-end 25-year-old Nebraska lad Jason (Mark Webber) -- then expects us to find it uplifting because it shows one scene in which he defiantly takes a shower. It gets kind of ridiculous watching literally everyone around poor Jason turn out to be either crazy, or desperately self-obsessed. At least he has Bill Paxton around as your Convenient Random Expository Dude, whose sole plot function is to know precisely the obscure facts that will shine a light on earlier events. Even the ever-fetching Zooey Deschanel isn't enough to rescue this trite swipe at small-town ennui.

There's a whiff of the familiar, too, about Broken English -- though fortunately, not due to the presence of any firearms. Parker Posey takes the latest Sundance stab at neurotic urban singletonhood as Nora: She's 30-something, over-educated, under-employed and prone to panic attacks. Quite a catch, eh? Her anxious romance with a visiting Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud) has its charms, but writer/director Zoe Cassavetes (yes, of those Cassaveti) flails about a bit in trying to capture Nora's self-discovery. Next time, spend less time on fish-in-a-barrel stuff like the narcissistic, philandering actor, and more time on what makes this train-wreck of a woman who she is. (Scott Renshaw)

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