Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Blended, Chinese Puzzle, Cold in July, The Dance of Reality, Half of a Yellow Sun, Words and Pictures, The Love Punch

Chinese Puzzle

Cold in July
The Dance of Reality

Half of a Yellow Sun
Words and Pictures

The Love Punch

Brief capsules from another mediocre week in what has been an unimpressive movie year to date:

Don't mistake Adam Sandler's quietude for laziness in his and Drew Barrymore's latest romcom, "Blended." I liked his low-wattage performance as a fortysomething schlub with beaten-down eyes who works at Dick's Sporting Goods, watches sports at Hooters on his lunch break, and wants only to raise his three daughters right. I think kids, the target audience, will like this movie a lot; it offers wholesome messages, a few big laughs (the best having to do with Sandler's eldest, who sports a pageboy haircut that leaves people either unsure of her gender or sure she's a boy), and an African resort trip that's a child's-eye fantasy of a family vacation. Parents and couples hoping for a pure date movie may find it a tougher slog… "Chinese Puzzle," the last in director Cédric Klapisch's Xavier trilogy, works least well as a sitcom-y romantic farce about the three women in Xavier's (Romain Duris) life: his bitchy ex-wife Wendy (ugly, long-faced Kelly Reilly), the lesbian bestie he artificially inseminates (Cécile de France), and his once and future girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou). As always in French film, the puerile bits of physical comedy (including dead-air scenes of Xavier summoning dead German philosophers to unclog his writer's block) inspire only loathing. Klapisch, though, succeeds in conveying the way New York feels to a non-native, how easily one can make a place for oneself in the city without feeling connected to its beating heart. And Duris is lovely to look at, even for two long hours…Set in east Texas in 1989, “Cold in July” stars Michael C. Hall as a frame store owner whose wife wakes him one night upon hearing strange noises in their home. They’re being robbed, and before Hall knows it he’s face to face with the burglar, whom he – almost inadvertently – shoots dead. The thief’s father (Sam Shepard), himself a con, gets paroled just in time for his son’s pine-box funeral. Hall tells Shepard he’s sorry, that he didn’t mean to kill his son, but soon Shepard shows up at Hall’s son’s Little League game, or drives by Hall’s house late at night. Director Jim Mickle sets a strong tone and builds real tension, even with a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a late-80’s gay porn video. Then the movie pulls a 180; though the cops happily close the case, it turns out the burglar Hall shot wasn’t Shepard’s son after all. They jointly hire private dick Don Johnson to investigate his whereabouts, and though the movie gets less interesting at this point, there’s still second-hour fun in the performances of grizzled Shepard and flamboyant Johnson. (I don’t think much of Hall as an actor.) Shepard’s son is into snuff films (as in, he makes them), something I don’t recall seeing depicted in a non-B-grade movie before…How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Fish. Although the best Alejandro Jodorowsky movie of the year remains the documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune," about the Chilean director's never-made adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic, his new surrealistic autobiography "The Dance of Reality" contains a number of memorable scenes and images, and by the end manages to achieve a certain tattered grandeur. It's a gleefully distorted reminiscence of his childhood in the seaside town of Tocopilla, with zaftig Pamela Flores as his mother, Sara, who sings her dialogue operatically, and Jodorowsky's son Brontis (the intended lead in "Dune") as his father, Jaime, who toughens him up by having a dentist drill his teeth without anesthesia and, by opposing the country's placeholder dictator, lands himself on the rack, with electric charges to his genitalia…The unintentional laughs come fast and furious in the Nigerian soap opera "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chiwetel Ejiofor's unfathomable choice for a follow-up to "12 Years a Slave." Having undertaken a concentration in Africana Studies, I would have loved a serious examination of the country's civil war and the abortive establishment of the independent state of Biafra. Here, it's all just a backdrop for an absurdly arbitrary sexual roundelay among Ejiofor's revolutionary theorist Odenigbo, his wife Olanna (Thandie Newton in an embarrassing performance), her sister Kainene, and Kainene's English lover, as well as various maids and houseboys. There may be no wilder tone shifts in movie history, from a mother-in-law with dialogue that wouldn't be out of place in "Big Momma's House" to dusty newsreels to overwrought melodrama to point-blank shootings and narrow escapes from exploding bombs (complete with a car that suddenly doesn't start at the most inopportune moment) to a bastard love child bizarrely called "Baby" until she's almost a teenager… You have to think hard to remember a movie couple with less chemistry than Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen in Fred Schepisi's cringe-worthy "Words and Pictures." (For starters, she'd eat him alive.) Binoche plays Dina Delsanto, the arthritic new "art honors" teacher at the Maine prep school where Owen's drunkard Jack Marcus has taught English for years. Owen's performance as Marcus makes Robin Williams' work in "Dead Poets Society" seem subtle and restrained by comparison. If this now-blocked former literary lion (a character we've seen once or two thousand times before) isn't stumbling into walls, breaking glasses or getting thrown out of restaurants, he's trying to worm his way into Delsanto's graces with an idiotic parlor game involving the exchange of multisyllabic words. Having edited my high school literary magazine, I couldn't help but laugh out loud when Marcus suggests, in advance of a hearing on his future at the school, that the trustees should hold off until they read the poem he's written for the new issue. (Sure.) There's a truly queasy subplot involving Marcus' pet student, Swint (he calls Marcus "O Captain, my Captain!"), whose ongoing harassment of an Asian-American girl turns criminal when he sends her a go-out-with-me-or-else text message with an icon of a gun. And in yet another teacher movie where the teachers don't actually teach so much as "inspire," is it any surprise that the climactic debate on the relative value of words and pictures (a concept any thinking person would find ridiculous) turns out to be a battle of famous quotations? I like that the movie takes Delsanto's rheumatoid arthritis - and her attempts to continue to produce new work - seriously, though some viewers may be reminded of Johnny Carson's riffs on the "heartbreak of psoriasis." Owen actually gets the movie's best line, when Binoche tells him she hasn't been with a man for several years - by choice. "Theirs?" he asks…You have to go back to some of the lesser works of John Candy's oeuvre to find a plot more lamebrained at every turn than that of "The Love Punch," the desultory romantic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson that was dumped surreptitiously into theaters on Friday. They play exes whose pensions somehow go poof in a corporate maneuver that makes no sense, and who decide to re-team (with neighbors Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall, newly named Best Actor at Cannes who'll be begging Academy voters to forget this one) to steal the $10 million diamond the malfeasant CEO just bought for his bride. I liked Brosnan very much last year in a Danish romcom called "Love is All You Need," but this is really half-hearted work. And we've long since passed the expiration date on Thompson's sneering and tut-tutting superiority. Both of them should be ashamed of this through-the-motions paycheck grab.

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