The Cure. Directed by Peter Horton. I remember when Brad Renfro died. I was on the computer late at night and there was an announcement on the right side of the IMDb main page. I only vaguely recognized his name but I knew that he was pretty young (25, as it turned out). Exactly one week later Heath Ledger died, overshadowing Renfro’s equally sad passing. Fast forward to seven months later: August 2008. I watched The Cure with my brother. Renfro was great, as was Joseph Mazzello, who was one of the go-to child stars of the early-to-mid-90s; he was also in Jurassic Park and The River Wild, and more recently I saw him in The Social Network. The Cure deals with AIDS in an honest, understandable way that makes it an easier topic for children to deal with. In the last year I watched The Client, which was Renfro’s first film, and the 2006 episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that reunited him with his The Cure costar, Annabella Sciorra. The L&O episode was especially powerful; Renfro deserved an Emmy nomination for his haunting performance as a disturbed yet somehow sympathetic serial killer. I suppose I am drawn to actors, singers, writers and other artists who died young, but in many cases my interest is justified because the work they created was worthy of attention.
Living in Oblivion. Directed by Tom DiCillo. This was the first film I watched in my college Intro to Cinema class. For a film whose plot revolves around the many ways in which an independent film production can be undermined by its neurotic actors, director and crew members, the film succeeds as both comedy and social satire. The cast is brilliant: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros and Peter Dinklage (his film debut, in which his character is named Tito and mistakenly referred to by Buscemi’s character as “Toto”). I was already a fan of Buscemi, Keener and Dinklage, so Mulroney and LeGros were new discoveries. Mulroney’s cool/pretentious cameraman Wolf wears a killer ensemble including an eyepatch, beret and leather vest, but his best scenes involve him emoting and crying. LeGros is absolutely hilarious as the Brad Pitt knockoff Chad Palomino, whose other famous roles include that of “rapist whom Michelle Pfeiffer falls in love with” and “sexy serial killer who shacks up with Winona Ryder.” Palomino’s attempts to commandeer the film set earn plenty of laughs.
Persuasion. Directed by Roger Michell. I was lucky enough to see Persuasion at a screening at Brooklyn College which star Ciarán Hinds attended. He took part in a Q&A and then generously stayed onstage and took the time to sign autographs, leaning on my Latin textbook as he did so for mine. It was a really nice experience. Anyhow, Persuasion is a great Austen adaptation, filled to the brim with strong character actors. Amanda Root is the right mix of plain and pretty, just right for the part of Anne Elliot. (To be fair, I did enjoy Sally Hawkins in the 2007 BBC remake, but a lot of that had to do with my being a big fan.) Hinds is quietly dashing as Captain Wentworth, perhaps not as swoon-worthy as Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice or Mr. Knightley from Emma but still intensely romantic in his humble way. She and Hinds are ably supported by a host of fine actors: Susan Fleetwood, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw (a sorely underrated talent), Phoebe Nicholls, Samuel West and Robert Glenister, to name a few. Even if you’re not an Austen fan, you’ll love this film.
To Die For. Directed by Gus Van Sant. This was my first Gus Van Sant film and I was truly impressed. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Nicole Kidman, given how wooden she was in the regrettable Batman Forever from the same year, but her cutesy voice and creepy detachment helped make Suzanne Stone Maretto a really compelling character. Illeana Douglas is great in everything, so I was not surprised by how terrific she was in this. Similarly, Matt Dillon is a pretty dependable actor so I enjoyed his performance. The big surprise in To Die For was 19-year-old Joaquin Phoenix, who was heartbreaking as the lovestruck Jimmy. By the end of the film you really feel sorry for him, despite what his character does over the course of the film. On the other hand, while I thought Alison Folland and Casey Affleck were good, their characters were clearly not as well-drawn as Phoenix’s. Still, the film is a gruesome hoot and the mockumentary style works well.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Directed by Beeban Kidron. I enjoyed Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing and Point Break and John Leguizamo was quite good in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, so naturally I wanted to see this film. I wasn’t disappointed; it was impressive how natural the three leads felt as drag queens. (I have never seen anything else with Wesley Snipes, so I can’t really comment on his supposed super-masculinity.) The script by Douglas Carter Beane is sharp, bursting with witty jabs. It’s not a particularly realistic story – would a drag queen really want to be in full makeup and costume while on a road trip? – but it is an fun, fantastical story nonetheless. The film also features Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Arliss Howard (he looked so much younger in 1988’s Plain Clothes!), Jason London, Chris Penn, Melinda Dillon, Beth Grant (loved her on “Pushing Daisies”), Alice Drummond, Michael Vartan (some years before he became famous) and RuPaul, among others (including two cameos by notable stars). Director Kidron has done some interestingly varied work – Vroom, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” Antonia and Jane, Used People, Great Moments in Aviation, Swept from the Sea, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason – but To Wong Foo is probably her best and most successful film.