Kyle Patrick Alvarez's totally captivating "Easier With Practice" is the kind of film that can make going to the movies so rewarding. This fresh and flawless adaptation of an autobiographical story by Davy Rothbart is a joy to behold. Its people are in their 20s, but what they experience is ageless, timeless and universal.
With "The Hurt Locker" and several other key films before that, notably "Jarhead," Brian Geraghty emerges as an engaging actor of impressive range and depth and a winning understated manner. As Davy Mitchell, he is a struggling 28-year-old writer, surviving on temp jobs and currently winding up a self-financed book tour, promoting none too successfully a collection of his short stories. Along for the ride is his laid-back brother Sean (Kel O'Neill), whose fun-loving nature clashes with his brother's seriousness.
Davy is momentarily alone in a New Mexico motel room when the phone rings, and he discovers that he has been chosen at random by the seductive Nicole, who deftly leads him into a steamy phone-sex romance. Davy can never call Nicole, but with increasing obsessiveness he awaits her calls, which can happen at any time. Once returned home, he's so hooked on Nicole he finds himself ill at ease with friends yet hopes to rekindle his romance with Marguerite Moreau's exquisite and intelligent Samantha. Then, after six weeks of silence, Nicole once again calls.
"Easier With Practice" reveals the sense of loneliness and isolation that permeates modern life and the lure of fantasy in filling its emptiness. The film is unpredictable and packs a wallop yet celebrates a common bond of humanity between individuals. The cast, which includes Jeanette Brox, Jenna Gavigan, Kathryn Aselton and Eugene Byrd, is exceptional.
-- Kevin Thomas "Easier With Practice." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
Political thriller sans the thrills
Its clarifying history lessons aside, "Formosa Betrayed" is a mostly pedestrian political thriller whose basis in true events adds little to the film's excitement or entertainment value. This U.S.-Thai co-production, with Thailand suitably subbing for the picture's 1983 Taiwan setting, involves earnest FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek, in a more perfunctory than inspired piece of casting), who's sent to Taipei to help in the murder investigation of a Taiwanese American professor.
Naturally, Kelly -- part Boy Scout, part cowboy -- gets in over his head, uncovering a government conspiracy (or two) that quickly turns him into an unwanted guest. Though local authorities, including a shady U.S. diplomat (Wendy Crewson), mostly impede the young agent, Kelly persists, with help from a soulful waiter-activist (producer Will Tiao) who becomes a target as well. Meanwhile, back at the FBI office, Kelly's jerky partner (John Heard) and steely supervisor ("Mad Men's" Chelcie Ross) keep tabs on their emissary but offer little support.
Director Adam Kane, working from a talky script by Charlie Stratton, Yann Samuell, Brian Askew and Nathaniel Goodman, tries to keep things moving apace but is undermined by the film's jarring, time-hopping structure and a clunky use of Taiwanese archival footage and mind's-eye flashbacks.
-- Gary Goldstein "Formosa Betrayed." MPAA rating: R for some violent content. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In English, Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles. In selected theaters.