Sunday, September 30, 2012
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star as younger and older versions of the same man in “Looper,” a time-travel action adventure that starts out interesting and becomes less so as it goes. It’s one of those futuristic movies in which, only thirty years from now, American life has become unrecognizable. The country is divided into five “zones” (it’s always zones in these pictures). Time travel is possible, but has been banned by the government. Oh, yeah, everybody’s downtrodden, but you knew that, right?
Shorts HD has released an anthology of seven short films with the highly imaginative title “Stars in Shorts” (maybe it is imaginative – has Julia Stiles been a star anytime in the last 15 years?). It’s all downhill after the first short, a mildly amusing trifle called “The Procession” with Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a mother and son reluctantly at...tending the funeral of a friend of Ferguson’s sister that neither of them knew. (Perhaps nobody else could give quite the same line reading when Ferguson asks, “Oh, that’s terrible. I’m sorry…who is Susan?”) When a red light leaves half the procession too far ahead for them to find and half blindly following them, all they want to do is exit stage left.
Saturday, September 29, 2012
A terrific September for documentaries continues with the inspirational, feel-good “The Other Dream Team,” which contextualizes the bronze-winning 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team within the country’s history of freedom, followed by Russian invasion and subjugation, followed by its heroic 1991 push for independence. For decades, not only did the people of Lithuanian live under the boot of Soviet oppression, but their sports teams (basketball has been the national pastime since Frank Lubin brought it back from Los Angeles) were forced to play for and wear the uniform of their oppressors.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
“17 Girls” tells the true story of a pregnancy cluster in a single high school class in Lorient, a seaside fishing and manufacturing town in Bretagne. In the early establishing scenes, directors Delphine and Muriel Coulin set a tone of quiet naturalism, of unpeopled seascapes and landscapes and girls’ bedrooms that look like girls’ bedrooms, not Hollywood set design.... The first half of the movie shares some of the otherworldly enigma and vibe of “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” But the filmmakers turn out to have little to say once the girls have actually gotten themselves knocked up and dig in against the rest of the world. The most interesting element relates to their knowledge of their legal rights – what their parents, teachers, and administrators can and cannot make them do.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Author Stephen Chbosky steps behind the camera for the first time to adapt his popular novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," about a troubled Pittsburgh high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who, desperate for friends, gets himself adopted by a clique of misfit seniors: flamboyantly gay Patrick (Ezra Miller), sweet, easy, unselfconfident Sam (Emma Watson), misanthropic Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), rich kleptomaniac Alice (Erin Wilhelmi). It was a mistake not to hand the project to a more experienced director. There's some good material trying to get out here, but Chbosky paces the action so that each line of dialogue gets its moment in the sun. That's not the way life works. People - especially teenagers - talk over one another. It's as simple as a scene in which the kids go home after a party. "Goodbye, Charlie," says Patrick. Pause. "Goodbye, Charlie," says Sam. Unh uh.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
“Training Day” writer David Ayer takes the director’s chair for his new script “End of Watch,” which is much better and infinitely more fun than the overpraised 2001 Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke film. “End of Watch” teams Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, LAPD partners who share more than a squad car. Each is the most important person in the other’s life, outside of family, and each would take a bullet for the other.
A lot of people read the word “documentary” and see “broccoli.” A documentary is a movie you’re supposed to see because it’s good for you – it’s educational, it’s highbrow, it’s rich in iron and calcium. Bullshit. A great documentary is as entertaining as any feature film, or more. Not two minutes go by in “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” without a huge laugh. It’s a perfect match of biographical style and subject, as witty, breezy, and over-the-top as DV herself, and as much fun as “The September Issue.”
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Sharing a basic plot outline with “The Raid: Redemption,” the worst movie of 2012 to date, isn’t a good starting point for the dreadful “Dredd 3D,” which plays like the world’s uncoolest video game. In its dystopian future America, “judges” (cops who make on-the-spot determinations of guilt and impose and execute the prescribed sentences) patrol Mega City One, an 800-mile megalopolis from Boston to D.C. Greatest among equals is Judge Dredd (of the 1995 Sly Stallone bomb, “played” this time by Karl Urban behind a mask that makes Tom Hardy’s in “The Dark Knight Rises” look positively commodious).
The staggering, draining and triumphant documentary “How to Survive a Plague” tells, through original video footage shot by the participants and carefully selected present-day interviews, the story of a band of war heroes. The war was the war on AIDS, and most of the heroes did not volunteer for the fight (though many inspiring allies, most of them women, adopted their cause despite not having the same personal stake). For the members of ACT UP New York, raising awareness of AIDS and sounding the drumbeat for federal research funding and accelerated drug testing were truly a matter of life or death.
Friday, September 21, 2012
In the formulaic and crushingly predictable studio movie “Trouble With the Curve,” Clint Eastwood portrays Gus Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who doesn’t let a little macular degeneration get in the way of his Luddite misanthropy. The “get off my lawn” orneriness from “Gran Torino” has crusted and begun to scab; “Curve” isn’t offensive in the same way as “Torino,” but it’s equally unpleasant.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The high-school-reunion comedy "10 Years" got lost in the shuffle of new releases this weekend, which is a shame. It's an audacious amount of fun, about as good as a movie of its aspirations could be. Sure, some of the cast are old enough that maybe it should have been called "15 Years" (there are a few Gabrielle-Carteris-on-"90210" moments), but you'll be too caught up in its combination of sharp dialogue and sweet nostalgia to mind.
"Arbitrage" is a well-made and perfectly watchable financial-world thriller that ultimately doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Richard Gere turns in a solid lead performance as Robert Miller, a Wall Street wizard who, it turns out, made a big bet on a Russian copper mine that's dried up. To plug the hole, he borrows $400 mil from a fat-cat crony, finesses the books, and goes on with the show of success. Meantime, he cheats on his philanthropically minded wife (Susan Sarandon) with a would-be French artist who ends up dead one night under circumstances that, if made public, could imperil the life-saving acquisition of his firm by a conglomerate. Tim Roth tightens the screws as the police detective who believes Miller was involved in the death and "shouldn't get away with it just because he's on CNBC."
A little documentary with the unlikely title "Planet of Snail" is as winning and quietly brilliant as its unassuming subjects, a skyscraper of a Korean man named Cho Young-Chan who was born with limited sight and hearing but is now fully deaf and blind, and his wife Soon-Ho, a short little thing with a heart full of love who looks at Young-Chan and sees only accomplishment and possibility. The two communicate via Finger Braille, a painstaking form of sign language in which they tap out words on each other's hands. Young-Chan speaks with the purity and clarity of vision of a born poet, describing the deaf-blind as astronauts abandoned in space.
Monday, September 17, 2012
There’s a great movie to be made about a 13-year-old Russian girl named Nadya who sees modeling as her ticket out of Siberia (though she’s not totally sure she wants to leave). Out of hundreds of girls, a modeling scout named Ashley, who freelances for a Tokyo agency, believes Nadya best fits the current Japanese aesthetic, which boils down to “you can never be too thin or too young.” Ashley signs Nadya to an adhesion contract (it can be revoked if any of her dimensions changes by one centimeter and its terms can be changed “on a day to day basis”) and flies her to Tokyo, where she gets lost for hours in the subway system, doesn’t speak the language, and knows only the other, wealthier Russian girl with whom she will share a tiny apartment.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
"The Inbetweeners" is excrement with a British accent, the kind of gross-out who-can-get-laid-most teen comedy that doesn't grasp the difference between vulgarity in the service of inherently funny material and vulgarity as the source of the laughs. I mean, yeah, I've always hung out with the smart kids, but after about age twelve I think all of us are past the point of giggling anytime some stunted teenager tosses off an F-bomb or some braggadocious sex talk. If "The Inbetweeners" had been made in America by a Hollywood studio, it would have a single-digit fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anybody who says he liked it has been told he is supposed to like it. (Its view of women is so retrograde it's hard to imagine a self-respecting woman claiming to like it.) Smarmy and cynical, it plays like a sixth or seventh sequel to "Porky's."
Who’d have thunk it? A film uniting Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis, and Geoffrey Rush would be one of the most boring, depressing and suffocating of the year. Rampling stars as Elizabeth Hunter, a senescent Australian matriarch who feels it’s unbecoming for a lady to die before she chooses. That’s bad news for her two money-grubbing children, Basil (Rush), a once-knighted thespian whose King Lear has made him the laughingstock of London, and neurotic, unhappily divorced Dorothy (Davis), who married a prince and only got to keep her title. They’ve come to Sydney to pack Mummy off to an old-age home, but she seems to relish their frustration. She’s not going anywhere.
Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” wrote, directed, and stars in the new collegiate romantic comedy “Liberal Arts,” about Jesse Fisher, a bibliophilic 35-year-old admissions director in New York who’s invited back to his Ohio alma mater (Kenyon? Oberlin?) by Professor Peter Hoberg, a friend who’s retiring (Richard Jenkins). Since Hoberg asks him on a day that ends in “Y,” he accepts. While he’s there, some current parents who are also friends of Hoberg’s introduce him to their daughter, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), an improv trouper who brings Jesse out of his shell by teaching him the cardinal rule of improv: you must say yes to everything.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
A powerful sense of letdown hangs over the pseudonymous Scientology prehistory “The Master.” It’s impossible not to wonder what more might have come of the mating of director Paul Thomas Anderson with the self-made myth of the certifiable failed science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson has made several terrific films and at least one masterpiece, “Magnolia.” He’s a director of towering, Tarantino-esque vision, but throughout “The Master” his set pieces lack the impact to match their solemnity. At 138 minutes, I couldn’t wait for it to end.
The deeply touching documentary “Somewhere Between” introduces us to four exceptional young women, Ann, Fang, Haley, and Jenna, each of whom was born in China and adopted by an American family. For the most part, their lives here mirror the experiences of other teenagers, but they must also confront particular issues of culture and identity, of abandonment and belonging. For some, this means working against astronomical odds to find their birth parents; for others, it takes the form of a perfectionism meant to compensate for the “1% failing” they have always felt for being born girls in a society that (especially under the one-child policy) prioritizes sons. To call these ladies articulate is to do them a disservice; they’re absolutely brilliant, with insights beyond the grasp of most adults. Heartbreaking in parts, full of hope and joy in others, and leavened by the humor and warmth of its subjects, “Somewhere Between” provides nourishment for the soul.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
The grossly incompetent thriller "The Cold Light of Day" stars Superman-designate Henry Cavill as a struggling young businessman who joins his family for a week's boating vacation in Spain. Returning from a short errand ashore, he finds their vessel has been commandeered and his kinsmen kidnapped. This sets in motion a plot of coincidence and contrivance, in which he learns his father (Bruce Willis) isn't really a "business consultant" but a CIA agent, who's given an important briefcase to some unsavory folks.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
The specter of an infinitely superior predecessor also haunts the new comedy "Bachelorette," a wan "Bridesmaids" wannabe. I recently re-watched "Bridesmaids" (and the other comedy on my 2011 top-ten list, "Carnage"). Just as funny the second time, and Melissa McCarthy's role remains one of the freshest and most original comic characters in memory. There's nothing of that caliber in "Bachelorette," though it does contain a few chuckles and a couple of scattered laughs. Rebel Wilson, Kristen Wiig's skin-crawling roommate in "Bridesmaids," plays the bride here, but Kirsten Dunst gets the lead as her ultra-competent, type-A maid of honor.
A bit of critical distance would well have served the fawning and overindulgent biodoc "Beauty is Embarrassing," about the painter and "Pee Wee's Playhouse" puppeteer Wayne White. The more time we spend in White's company, the less interesting he becomes: vulgar, smug, self-aggrandizing. (He's the kind of person whose mother probably called him a prince growing up.) He talks about wanting to bring fun and humor into the art world, but I leave it to you whether painting profanities over thrift-store landscapes (see below) doubles you over with laughter. The movie only really takes off when it gets to the "Playhouse" part of White's life, and then primarily because of the people he worked with. The filmmakers take a brief time-out from their lovefest to showcase the generic, unfunny work of White's wife, the cartoonist Mimi Pond. As David Spade might say, I liked this movie better 17 years ago - when it was called "Crumb."
|Word Paintings by Wayne White|
Monday, September 10, 2012
The gay encounter-turned-decade-long romance "Keep the Lights On" would have been better without its been-there-done-that drug-abuse storyline. It introduces an appealing protagonist in Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish documentary filmmaker in NYC who spends his nights in bars and clubs and the blue-balled frustration of abortive phone sex. One night he hooks up with Paul (Zachary Booth), an attorney at Random House, and the connection is deep and instantaneous, sexual but more as well. (They keep saying they should get out of bed, but don't.) They become a couple, but over the course of years Paul turns to crack, and the movie becomes just too much drama, with interventions between the myriad break-ups and reunions. Erik is cute and puppyish, but Paul is underdrawn and unappealingly femme-y, and some of their tiffs are downright girly. "Keep the Lights On" becomes repetitive and boring, and doesn't work as a character study because Erik and Paul remain creatures of the script: We see Erik work on his films only fitfully and never with much enthusiasm, and Paul's in-house position in publishing goes nowhere.
Melanie Lynskey, who first came to Americans' attention as a teenager in Peter Jackson's excellent 1994 "Heavenly Creatures" (opposite an equally green Kate Winslet), returns in "Hello I Must Be Going," a romantic comedy sprinkled with sadness and truthiness. Lynskey plays Amy, an anything-but-gay divorcée who's "staying" with her parents (or, as they call it after three months, "living" with them). Her husband left her; she'd given up her master's program in photography when she married him; and now she hasn't left the house or changed her oversized t-shirt in weeks. When her dad's important new potential clients come to dinner with their 19-year-old son Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), there's an instant May-December connection - but will it turn her life around or bring her to a new rock bottom? There are four or five big, out-loud laughs in "Hello I Must Be Going," an appealing vehicle for Lynskey with nice work by Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein as the 'rents (though you'll feel ancient remembering Rubinstein as Pippin). At times, though, the movie feels overwritten - movieish (we don't need to hear five times how everything will turn out fine if only Dad lands this account) - and, taking place among the elite of Westport, Connecticut, comes fully coated in an embryotic sac of assumed privilege.
"The Words" leaves you at a loss for words. There's nothing about it that's highly objectionable, but nothing about it that's particularly noteworthy. The script's structure has generated a fair amount of negative comment, but it's actually really simple: A celebrated author (Dennis Quaid) gives a reading from his new book, about a writer (Bradley Cooper) who finds a long-lost, anonymous manuscript that's several orders of magnitude better than his work. He palms it off as his own and becomes the darling of the literary world, only to be tracked down by an old man (Jeremy Irons in slab-thick makeup) who knows the real story. Zoe Saldana plays Cooper's wife, an offensively underwritten part; we know nothing about this woman except by relation to him and in reaction to him. (The same is true of the woman in the manuscript's love story.) None of the performances are especially fine or poor; the whole thing just sort of exists. Sometimes, when filmmakers think they have a prestige picture and don't (as is the case here), the effect can be vaguely embarrassing, but "The Words" is so pretty to look at you almost don't mind that it's as generic and insubstantial as its title.
Monday, September 3, 2012
A character study in search of a character, the badly overheated medical drama “The Good Doctor” stars a toned-down Orlando Bloom as Martin Blake, a young doctor from Britain starting an assignment at a hospital in West L.A. Martin quickly – and inexplicably – becomes obsessed with Diane Nixon, a barely-legal kidney patient (blank-faced Riley Keough), hurdling doctor-patient boundaries like Edwin Moses: he first accepts her family’s invitation to dinner, then switches out her meds so her condition worsens (she seems rather glad of it), then worse, much worse. (He also turns his apartment into a pharm lab to make Oxy to placate the orderly who gets hold of Diane’s diary.)
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Give me a well-made genre movie any day of the week over a capital-F Film with unrealized pretensions to art. “Lawless” knows exactly what it is: a family-of-moonshiners crime saga set in the Prohibition-era mountains of Virginia, with a good simpering fop of a villain, a love interest or two, and a healthy helping of humor. Shia LaBeouf makes a serviceable lead as Jack Bondurant, the keen, puppyish younger brother to Tom Hardy’s Forrest, the opaque and obstreperous leader of this stilling syndicate (Forrest doesn’t so much talk to another person as grunt in his or her general direction). Hardy, hamstrung by his mask as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” has the chance to show command of the screen here, and does.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
Hours after the show, I think I’ve figured out why I hated Mike Pandamiglio, the autobiographical would-be comic played by Mike Birbiglia in the NPR comedy “Sleepwalk With Me” (besides that name, of course): whiny and nasally, feckless and ineffectual, perpetually clad in sweatpants, slouched over as if to hide his height, he’s the quintessential Haverford man. What Lauren Ambrose, as his girlfriend of eight years, sees in him I’ll leave to a keener imagination; then again, she’s got nothing going for her, either. Throw in some truly unfunny stand-up (only some of it intentionally so), and an egregious performance by James Rebhorn as Mike’s no-shades-of-gray asshole dad, and 81 minutes have rarely felt longer. Everything about the picture is undergraduate – it’s never as sophisticated, funny, or wise as it thinks – except the daft sleepwalking scenes, seemingly patched in from another movie and unworthy of a good high school theatrical troupe. Only a rare Carol Kane sighting keeps “Sleepwalk With Me” from a place among the year’s worst.
There are many exquisite images in the trancelike “Samsara,” as well as several that are highly unpleasant to view, but what keeps the movie from the level of, say, Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi” trilogy is the nagging sense that director Ron Fricke lacks trust in his visuals and feels the need to stage poses and performance-art acts to make banal points, mostly about consumerism. (One sequence in particular chapped my hide: we get five minutes of footage from slaughterhouses where chickens, cows and pigs are made into meat, followed immediately by video of American fatties chowing down on Extra Value Meals and being marked up for liposuction. Fricke obviously believes in showing how the proverbial sausage is made, but this seems more like easy point-scoring than commenting meaningfully on modern life.) Still, when “Samsara” is showing and not telling, some of what we see is breathtaking to behold, a stirring and stunning homage to the painstaking pursuits of man and the creation of icons that may last for eons or be blown away with the sand.