Bart Got a Room
South Florida native Brian Hecker's uncomfortably strained directorial debut — a semi-autobiographical comedy about a high school senior who can't find a prom date — foolishly believes that Windsor fonts, swing-era songs, and Jews are enough to invoke Woody Allen's wit. It's a quirky indie, you see, as nerdy class vice prez Danny (young Patrick Dempsey look-alike Steven Kaplan) lives in a retirement community overrun by lizards (reinforced ad nauseum by too many shots of herons by the side of the road). Going through the easy motions of rejection after rejection, Danny's quest to get his picture taken with a nice girl plays as a polite coming-of-ager (tonally, it's a poor man's Brighton Beach Memoirs as helmed by a John Hughes fanatic), except when incongruously interrupted by fellatio innuendos, a masturbation scene, and a flatly executed gag about taking a prostitute to the dance. With 19 producers, one wonders how many rich Floridians invested in what might be the year's most unambitious comedy, which somehow managed to pull in cameos by Jennifer Tilly — and, as Danny's divorced folks, Cheryl Hines and William H. Macy, the latter of whom effortlessly steals every scene as a pathetically horny dad in a Ronald McDonald 'fro. Why couldn't the movie have been about him instead?
The Cake Eaters
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There's no kind of wonderful in Mary Stuart Masterson's directorial debut, yet however slight her ensemble drama — about two distressed families in the Rockwellian framings of time-forgotten rural America — it's at least convincing in its genuine sweetness. When wandering musician Guy Kimbrough (screenwriter Jayce Bartok) learns his ailing mother has finally died, he stumbles back home to the passive-aggressiveness of his awkward younger brother, Beagle (Aaron Stanford), who hasn't forgiven him for abandoning the clan. Grieving patriarch Easy (Bruce Dern) has been secretly schtupping the mildly kooky grandmother of Georgia (standout Kristen Stewart), a sexually curious high-schooler who slurs and walks shakily as she suffers the neural disease Friedreich's ataxia. Like their pop, the Kimbrough boys both have their own romantic complications (Beagle and the years-younger Georgia want to hook up in spite of her mother's disapproval, and Guy reconnects with the ex-fiancée he ditched in his exodus), and because everyone here broods instead of speaking his mind, the perfunctory moments of quiet indie revelation actually add up. Bungee-strapped to her new beau on his scooter, Georgia extends her arms to draw in the sunshine (see also: the forthcoming DVD cover), and as we fade out with Easy and sons bonding over steak and beers, our cockles are warmed — the movie forgotten.
Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008, Russian actor/director Nikita Mikhalkov's masterful, engrossing 12 is finally finding its way into theaters. A revamp of 12 Angry Men that takes place in post-Communist Moscow, 12 takes some liberties with both the original material and its new setting: The jury is now deciding the fate of a Chechen youth accused of murdering his adoptive father, a Russian officer, and the story adheres to the pretext of a unanimous vote, although the Russian system does not require it. Despite the abridgement of the title, however, Mikhalkov's updated jury doesn't include any females — various sectors of modern Russian society are uniformly represented by late-middle-aged males, with Mikhalkov himself playing the foreman. It's a fitting choice in that the working men, despite having adapted to both "democratic forces" and capitalism, also embody Russia's past; over the course of a remarkably fleet 159 minutes, each one shares how that past has shaped him and his perspective on a case loaded with nationalist baggage. Mikhalkov keeps 12 tops spinning at all times in the school gymnasium that serves as their deliberation room, and though the speech/conversion pattern grows a little pat, the movement toward consensus raises the further, richly complicated question of how to decide not only what is right but what is best.