A periodic assessment of what the postman brought — in other words, a monthly series of mini-reviews of what was in my Netflix queue.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
On its surface, this well-reviewed contender for the Best Picture Oscar from co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is an underdog movie about a plucky little butterball of a girl who wants to win a beauty pageant. As circumstances make her eligible to compete for the eponymous beauty title, her family rallies, under darkly humorous adverse circumstances, to get her to the contest on time. An excellent ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Toni Collette keeps this from descending into bathos. Abigail Breslin as the erstwhile beauty queen and Alan Arkin as the drug-snorting grandpa have both earned Oscar nods in the supporting actor categories.
Unlike most films about underdogs, this one isn't about winning in spite of insurmountable odds. It's about the human beings who make up this dysfunctional family, human beings who are sometimes admirable and sometimes… well, not so much. They are people who hug each other, cry with each other, yell at each other, and occasionally tell each other to fuck off. What matters in the end is not that these people are winners — or losers — it's that they're family, and they do for each other what family members are supposed to do for each other. This movie is about having a soft place to land; it's about what Robert Frost meant when he said that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Written and directed by Shane Black, this film is part hard-boiled detective story and part Pulp Fiction-styled comedy. Starring Robert Downey Jr. as an unsuccessful crook who accidentally (and successfully) finds himself auditioning for a movie, this film is an exercise in style over substance. Downey is always enormously likable, and his performance in this film is no exception. Val Kilmer is the least annoying he's been in years playing the gay private detective with whom Downey forms an alliance.
Since Black had a hand in penning the Lethal Weapon movies, it should come as no surprise that snappy banter is the big draw here, and while the verbal sparring between Downey and Kilmer is great fun, the plot is convoluted and unbelievable. Voiceover narration is a device frequently used in the detective genre, and this film often has Downey speaking directly to the camera. It's kind of an annoying device, but Downey's so likable, you won't care. You aren't going to come away from this thinking it's one of the best movies you've ever seen, but it's not exactly a waste of time, either. A good choice for those evenings when all you want out of life is a few laughs and a bowl of popcorn.
Kinky Boots (2005)
If you already know that everyone deserves to be treated with respect, even drag queens, and that in order to be really happy you need to be true to yourself, and that you owe something to the people who helped make you successful, then this slight offering from director Julian Jarrold doesn't have much to offer you in the way of enlightenment. Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton ) inherits his family's shoe factory (where they seemingly turn out nothing but brown wing-tips) and reluctantly sets about running it. Along the way, he meets drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and gets an inspired idea about how he can revive the company's flagging sales. Yup, they re-tool the factory to make ladies shoes for men who like to dress like ladies. The romantic entanglements are entirely predictable, as is the story's resolution. Based on a true story, this is one you can skip.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
I should start out by admitting that if Al Gore has been preaching to the choir in his series of lectures on global warming, then I'm singing in the choir and was prepared to like this one from the outset. This film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, documents the tour that Gore undertook to publicize the issue of global warming, and shows the Al Gore I wish we could have seen during the 2000 presidential campaign. Funny, relaxed, and wholly in command of his material, Gore has managed to transform himself from a wooden politico into an interesting lecturer that could have held your attention in class with the best of them. The film presents portions of Gore's now-famous presentation intermingled with some biographical material. The subject matter could have been boring, but isn't. It did leave me wondering rather wistfully what the last six years might have been like with a thoughtful and intelligent man in the White House.
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
This exercise in film noir is from Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in post-World War II small town America, it's filmed in jaw-droppingly beautiful black and white — this is truly one of the more visually arresting films I've seen in a long time. The story is narrated by its central character, barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who seems almost to sleepwalk through his own life, cigarette constantly in hand. Ed's entire life seems to have happened to him by accident, without much intent on his part, and when circumstances set in motion by others finally inspire him to act, we follow him through a series of plot twists and turns that I won't divulge here, except to say that the familiar noir devices of a faithless wife and a money-making scheme gone awry come into play.
Thornton does a good job of portraying the laconic Ed as an outside observer of the events that propel his life story on to its foregone conclusion, and the other performances are fine as well. These include Frances McDormand as Ed's wife, a department store bookkeeper who's better at her job than is ultimately good for her, Michael Badalucco as the brother-in-law, loquacious as Ed is taciturn, who owns the barber shop in which Ed plies his trade, and Tony Shalhoub as a slick, big-city defense lawyer (if your sole exposure to Shalhoub has been through the excellent Monk, you owe it to yourself to seek out some of his other work). The deliberate pace of the film matches the somnambulistic manner in which Ed lives his life, giving you plenty of time to ponder what comes next and enjoy the scenery.