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SUNDANCE ’08! Grib’s Got A Threefer! THE LAST WORD And DOWNLOADING NANCY And PRETTY BIRD, Oh My!

Published at: Jan. 24, 2008, 4:32 a.m. CST by Moriarty

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Grib’s working hard up there in Park City, and the first review he’s got for us today is for THE LAST WORD, a film I haven’t heard much about so far:

Hey Harry, Grib here with a review of longtime cinematographer Geoffrey Haley's directorial debut "The Last Word," which screened for a full house at the 1200-seat Eccles Theater this morning here at Sundance. This is the finest comedy/drama I've seen in a couple of years, and it has the most satisfying ending I've ever seen. The film stars Wes Bentley (ironically, Haley shot the famous videotape of the plastic bag that Bentley shows to Thora Birch in "American Beauty") as Evan, who is a professional author of suicide notes. He meets with his clients, gets a sense of what they want, then asks them to keep a journal of their thoughts for a few weeks, after which Evan produces a poetic, client-customized suicide note for the soon-to-be-departed. He has become so prolific that one of his clients won a national poetry prize for Evan's note; the ever-mordant Evan is quick to add that the prize was, of course, awarded posthumously. Evan estimates that 30% of his clients actually kill themselves; one who does is a young man named Matt Morris. When Evan attends Matt's funeral---he often attends the graveside service to evaluate the effect of his note on those in attendance---, Matt's sister Charlotte (Winona Ryder) follows him out of the service and asks him if he was a friend of her brother's. Evan lies that he went to Cornell with Matt, and soon he and Charlotte are dating. Trouble ensues when Evan eats dinner at Charlotte's house with the whole surviving family firing questions at him. Meanwhile, we meet Evan's newest client, Abel (an excellent Ray Romano), an acerbic misanthrope with a death wish. They develop an unlikely bond, and there are some extremely touching (and hilarious) exchanges between the two as they work on Abel's farewell (in one such conversation, Abel, encouraging Evan to pursue Charlotte, tells him to buy her a puppy: "Girls love puppies. They're like heroin with fur!"). Things get complicated between Evan and Charlotte as he has must go to increasingly absurd lengths to conceal his true occupation and the real reason that he knew her brother. I won't reveal any more of the plot, because this is a ride truly to be enjoyed by the moviegoer. Bentley fulfills the promise he showed in "American Beauty." He manages to imbue his characteristic monotone and piercing gaze with enough hints of emotion to reveal the depths of grief churning below his icy surface. Romano shows surprising dramatic range while retaining his trademark wit; it will be interesting to see if he continues to try to stretch his acting range. (On a side note, he admitted in the post-film Q&A that his psychiatrist reads the script before Romano will commit to any project.) Ryder is the only weak link here. She does a competent job, her doe eyes signaling the hurt over her brother's death that is only worsened by Evan's seeming callousness, but her acting doesn't rise to the level of her co-stars. Thankfully, it is really Bentley and Romano's film, and they make the most of it. This is an astounding first feature from Haley, who wrote the screenplay in his trailer during breaks while lensing the final season of "Six Feet Under." Although he hasn't yet struck a distribution deal, potential buyers in yesterday's audience could not ignore the thunderous ovation that met the closing credits. Go see this one when it comes out in a theater near you, which it will. You won't be disappointed.

This one, on the other hand, has gotten a fair amount of coverage so far, and it sounds to me like a brutally punishing viewing experience, whether you like it or not.

Hello AICNers, Grib here with a review of a very dark Sundance flick, "Downloading Nancy," which I saw last night at the Racquet Club Theatre. "Downloading Nancy" is an undeniably well-made, well-acted film. Whenever I walk out into the world after a film like this, I wonder why these films get made. I am at a loss to tell you what the target audience for this film would be. Suicidal sadomasochists? People who enjoy watching ritual cutting? Oh well, marketing this piece of cinematic torture is not my job. This is not to say that the film is devoid of merit. Quite to the contrary, it is one of the better examples of filmmaking I've seen at this year's Festival. Maria Bello gives an award-worthy performance in the title role as an internet entrepreneur who is so alienated from her husband Albert (Rufus Sewell, in another solid performance) that she is engaging in a very violent and sexual cyber relationship with Louis (Jason Patric). Unfortunately, for a performance to win awards, someone has to see it, and I cannot receommend that anyone see this film. As the film opens, Albert returns home to find that Nancy is gone. As day turns to night and night turns into the next day, he waits. He does not call the police. We have no backstory on Nancy, but Albert does not seem too surprised that she's gone. Meanwhile, Nancy has taken a bus to meet Louis, who arrives at the station with his Italian greyhound, which appears to be the only living thing upon which he does not wish to inflict pain. Nancy and Louis go to his house and have some rough sex; there are few sadomasochistic elements left out here (blindfolds, physical violence, bloodletting, etc.) Then something curious happens. Louis goes to Nancy's house, pretending to be a computer repairman, and Albert asks him to "forward some emails," which leads to the discovery of the nasty exchanges between Nancy and Louis. Then things get really strange. I won't reveal any more, but trust me, there's plenty more plot and almost all of it is the viewing equivalent of removing a Band-Aid from a really hairy arm. This is such a hard movie to review, because I admire the craft with which director Johan Renck has adapted what is actually a true story. Truth is not always an absolute defense, however; some stories really don't need to be committed to film. The only serious flaw I found with the film from a technical standpoint was the lack of backstory on Nancy; we do get some flashbacks to therapy sessions (Amy Brenneman does a nice job as a therapist facing a truly insurmountable task), but all we really know about the source of Nancy's fathomless grief is that Albert ignores her and she does not think divorce would solve anything. Bello does a wonderful job of portraying Nancy's pain, but I needed more understanding of its source to buy that she would go to the lengths she goes to relieve it. If you are ready for an excruciatingly painful viewing experience, this is your film. You will be rewarded with excellent performances from all, especially Bello and Patric, who has managed to create a performance even more repulsive than his turn in Neil Labute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," which is something I had not previously thought possible. This is, quite frankly, the most disturbing movie I've ever seen. I admire Renck's tenacity in not compromising an iota of his vision for this work, but I would no sooner sit through it again than I would volunteer for an evening of prostate exams. View at your own peril. And I hope enough award-givers see it to give Bello the prize she deserves. But don't count on it.

This next one is an amazing line-up of people in front of the camera and behind it, and I hope it’s awesome. I really do:

Hey there, Grib here with a review of "Pretty Bird," Paul Schneider's directorial debut, which I saw this morning here at Sundance. Billy Crudup stars as Curtis, a fast-talking entrepreneur whose seemingly boundless self-confidence has a huge blind spot: he is very ashamed that he didn't go to college, and he becomes apoplectic almost immediately when someone questions his intelligence. As "Pretty Bird" opens, Curtis arrives in a New Jersey town and pays a visit to his friend Kenny (David Hornsby), who has a successful mattress store, whose ample profits Curtis covets as seed money for his latest get-rich-quick scheme: a rocket belt that people can use to fly. Kenny, who obviously has had a crush on Curtis for years, agrees to put up the money, and soon the two are looking to hire an engineer to build the rocket belt. They find their man in Curt (Paul Giamatti), an out-of-work aeronautic engineer whose wife wants him to return to the workforce. Curt, who claims to have had several big ideas stolen from him in his 20 years in the industry, is understandably wary of the manic Curtis, who has a habit of misquoting famous people and often reads his attempts at inspirational pitches straight from his ever-present notecards. But the possibility of bringing personal flight to the masses wins him over, and soon he, Kenny and Curtis are setting up a manufacturing space and Kenny's money is buying very expensive supplies. The relationship quickly sours as Curt's paranoia gets the best of him and he accuses Curtis of stealing his work. (He also has no problem regularly questioning Curtis' intelligence.) Kenny won't stand up to Curtis as his money dries up and his once-lucrative mattress business begins to go under; Curtis has found the perfect patsy. In the midst of all this partnership angst, the rocket belt tests successfully, bringing joy briefly to the three principals of the newly-minted Fantastic Technologies. Emboldened by the test flight, Curtis hits the venture capital circuit with renewed zeal, but his overcooked presentation doesn't net any investors. I won't reveal the rest of the plot; suffice it to say that there are several more twists and turns. Schneider has done a nice job setting up a very entertaining scenario: the age-old desire of man to invent a personal flying machine has built-in fascination for the audience, and Giamatti's superb acting carries the film for its first two-thirds. He is on top of his eye-rolling, barb-tongued game here, and his performance is a marvel to watch. Things get pretty messy toward the end, as it becomes clear that it was easier for Schneider to put the characters into their predicament than to get them out. I also had the nagging feeling throughout that Crudup is the wrong man for this job: he tries way too hard to capture Curtis' zaniness and huckster appeal, and I kept wishing that Sam Rockwell had been cast in the role instead. Hornsby, on the other hand, is a delight as the heartbreakingly vulnerable Kenny, who sits passively by and watches his own demise. In the end, "Pretty Bird" is an entertaining near-miss that holds the viewer's interest until it unravels in the final act. It's worth checking out for Giamatti's performance, and it will be fun to watch the talented Schneider mature as a writer/director.

Readers Talkback

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  • Jan. 24, 2008, 8:28 a.m. CST

    Can't Stand

    by BigFo

  • Jan. 24, 2008, 8:35 a.m. CST

    Cant't Stand

    by BigFo

    When we get an "amazing performances,amazing directing etc. But I don't recommend anyone see this film" review. There may be someone in the world that could handle Downloading Nancy. Just stick to the facts and leave out the moral judgments....please.