Cusack takes center stage as Filmfest opens | AspenTimes.com

Cusack takes center stage as Filmfest opens

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado

John Cusack is Stanley Phillips in James C. Strouse's GRACE IS GONE.

ASPEN ” The run of mid-’80s films that brought us the collection of actors known as the Brat Pack tended to be about outsiders: “The Break­fast Club,” ” Sixteen Candles,” and, of course, Francis Ford Cop­pola’s “The Outsiders.”

John Cusack was a bit of an outsider himself to the group. While core Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe were having funda­mental coming-of-age experi­ences, Cusack had sideline roles in “Sixteen Candles” and “Class.” It seems to have turned out for the best. While most of the Pack members turn up on occasion, often prompting “Whatever hap­pened to … ?” profiles, Cusack has been a consistent presence on the big screen, with a career marked by variety.

In a way, Cusack is still something of an outsider: His most memorable roles have usually come portray­ing quirky characters in films with at least one foot outside of the mainstream. In the utterly original “Being John Malkovich,” he played a struggling puppeteer who was transported into the head of actor Malkovich. In “High Fidelity,” he was a strug­gling music junkie, trying to transport himself into adulthood. He starred in Woody Allen’s vast­ly entertaining mobster comedy ” Bullets Over Broadway,” play­ing a lefty, intellectual play­wright. Cusack hasn’t exactly failed as a traditional leading man, but in such films as “Must Love Dogs” and “Serendipity,” it felt as if his truest talents weren’t being used.

Cusack is back on more appro­priate ground in “Grace Is Gone,” which opens Aspen Filmfest 2007 with a screening at 7:30 Tuesday at the Wheeler Opera House. The film, set for release in December, earned a pair of awards at the Sundance Festival: the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for writer/director James C. Strouse. The film, Strouse’s directing debut, shows in Filmfest’s New Voices segment.

In “Grace Is Gone,” Cusack stars as Stanley Phillips, whose dreams of a military career are dashed by poor eyesight. Instead of serving his country, he mans the counter of a home-supply store, and watches his wife head to the front lines in Iraq. Tragedy forces Stanley into another role he is ill-prepared for, as an affec­tionate and comforting father.

“It’s a very different perform­ance than anything I’ve ever seen him in,” said Aspen Film execu­tive director Laura Thielen, who saw a screening of the film at Sundance. “What’s interesting is, he plays a very ordinary person. It’s a very understated character. His life hasn’t gone where he thought it would go. In terms of emotion, it’s truly subterranean. It’s the least glamorous, least hip role I’ve seen him in, and it’s appropriate to the subject.”

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Those looking for another side of Cusack won’t have to wait long. Cusack ” who starred in the horror film “1408” this sum­mer ” stars as the adoptive father to a 6-year-old who thinks he’s from Mars in “Martian Child,” due out in November.

The family seems to be taking the leading role in Filmfest 2007.

Two of the higher profile films in the program emphasize family issues. “The Savages,” the festi­val’s Closing Film, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings jolted out of self-absorption when they are forced to care for their ailing father. Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” is about the tragic outcome of a trip in the Alaskan wilder­ness, but much of the puzzling life of adventurer Chris McCand­less is told through the eyes of the relatives he leaves behind.

“Beauty in Trouble,” by Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk, focuses on a young mother forced by the Prague floods of 2002 to live with her own mother, and her abrasive stepfather. In “Starting Out in the Evening,” an aged novelist (Frank Langella) finds himself in a semi­romantic relationship, carried out under the eye of his own daughter. The Kurdish film “Half Moon” tells of an ancient, legendary musician who gathers his 12 musician sons for a final concert.

Julie Christie will be honored with the Independent By Nature Award, and the screening of her latest film, “Away From Her,” about a long-last­ing marriage invaded by Alzheimer’s disease.

The True Stories segment of Film­fest includes “Souvenirs,” about an Israeli father and son on an trip to Italy and the Netherlands ” and into the father’s past; and “My Kid Could Paint That,” about a 6-year-old prodi­gy artist and her parents’ effort to pro­tect her from controversy.

Other festival highlights include “Across the Universe,” director Julie Taymor’s fashioning of a ’60s-era story out of the songs of the Beatles; “Control,” a portrait of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of British band Joy Divi­sion; “Chicago 10,” a partly animated documentary about the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Conven­tion and the ensuing riots; and “Sleuth,” starring Michael Caine and Jude Law in a remake of the 1972 mystery.

Aspen Filmfest runs through Sun­day, Sept. 30, with events in Aspen and Carbondale.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e- mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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