Kooky 'Sunshine' cast outshines plot
By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
By Terry Lawson
They're calling it the "Little Movie That Could" in its Academy Award campaign, and while "Little Miss Sunshine" is the sort of movie Oscar usually bypasses — a comedy — it is, like the ancient Volkswagen bus that serves as its chief metaphor, picking up speed with a lot of help.
It picked up seven nominations in the annual Broadcast Film Critics Association voting, including one for best picture, and Golden Globe nominations for best comedy or musical and best actress (Toni Collette) in a comedy or musical.
Unlike most of the big award contenders, the movie is conveniently available on DVD (Fox). It's one of those "little" films that might be more suited to the small screen than the big one — even if that small screen is a big and wide TV. It's another picture that begs the Academy to add an ensemble acting award, because more than any single performance, the chemistry of the cast elevates "Little Miss Sunshine" above the average dysfunctional family comedy.
This cast is composed of a would-be motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear) who drives his family crazy; his more grounded wife (Toni Collette); his irascible, heroin-snorting dad (Alan Arkin); his depressed gay brother-in-law (Steven Carell), and his sullen, resentful son (Paul Dano).
In that wasted VW bus, they drive from Texas to California, to a children's beauty pageant that the nerdy and unduly optimistic daughter (Abigail Breslin) has no chance of winning.
"Little Miss Sunshine" is directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris; Michael Arndt wrote the script. All provide commentary and the DVD contains four alternative endings, one of which some viewers (OK, this one) might find an actual improvement.
Some major studios, with great backlogs of films unreleased on DVD, have taken to polling buyers, on cards included in purchases and online, to find out which films they would most like to see escape from the vaults.
The process has yielded some unexpected titles, including five released this week.
1969's unsatisfying yet always intriguing "The Illustrated Man" is an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story with Rod Steiger as the title character. The man's tattoos, inked by the mysterious Claire Bloom, have lives of their own.
"Operation Crossbow" is an almost forgotten World War II spy thriller from 1965, made for the international market with a cast that includes Sophia Loren, George Peppard and Trevor Howard.
The war is also the backdrop for "Up Periscope," with James Garner as an underwater demolitions expert who goes after a Japanese sub.
"Presenting Lily Mars," a 1943 musical, really has but one thing going for it: a young and irrepressible Judy Garland as a little Illinois girl with big, show biz dreams.
The diamond in this mining excursion is 1970's "There Was a Crooked Man ..." a Western-comedy by David Newman and Robert Benton with a superlative cast headed by Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda. It's sly and witty and endlessly entertaining.
AND THERE'S MORE
Not too many filmgoers fell under the spell of M. Night Shymalan's recent "Lady in the Water" (Warner), but I was one of them. It's a fable about the power of storytelling, starring Paul Giamatti as a sad-sack apartment superintendent who discovers a mysterious lady in the swimming pool.
Also failing to find an audience was Richard Linklater's animated adaptation of author Philip K. Dick's sci-fi parable "A Scanner Darkly" (Warner) with a drawn-over Keanu Reeves as a narc cop of the future who gets hooked on the drug he's supposed to be fighting.
Faring somewhat better at the box office but suffering from its resemblance to too many films before it was "Invincible" (Touchstone), which tells the true story of a bartender (Mark Wahlberg) who tries out for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. Guess what happens? The fact that you can will not matter to folks who like their football films raw and inspirational.
TV ON DVD
Though Spike Lee's 4-hour documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (HBO) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, it was made for HBO. The cable channel gave Lee the time and support he needed to give the impassioned and detailed account of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy that followed, when the U.S. government proved incapable or unwilling to assist the victims.
Along with Lee's often angry commentary, the three-disc set includes a follow-up, the 105-minute "Next Movement: Act V," which takes the harrowing story to the near-present.