Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This is Where I Leave You, Keep On Keepin' On, The Zero Theorem, Last Days in Vietnam, Tracks, Life's a Breeze, Hector and the Search for Happiness

This is Where I Leave You
Keep On Keepin' On

The Zero Theorem
Last Days in Vietnam

Life's a Breeze

Hector and the Search for Happiness

This week sees the best documentary of the year to date and one of the worst films of 2014.

In the broad family comedy "This is Where I Leave You," Jason Bateman plays Judd Altman, a radio producer who, in the movie's opening sequence, finds his shock-jock boss in bed with his wife. Shortly thereafter, his father dies, and he and his siblings (Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver) return home for the funeral. Their overbearing mother (Jane Fonda) tells them they're all grounded for the week and required to sit shiva, an excuse for seven days of high-pitched sibling antagonisms, wistful reminiscences of loves that might have been, and a recurring bit involving a toddler practicing toilet training all over the house. Jonathan Tropper has written yet another Hollywood script that never uses one line where it can squeeze in ten. If you like the jokes the first go-round, you'll love the flick, because it recycles most of them about half a dozen times. Bateman continues his streak of mediocre movies that lately includes "Bad Words" and "Identity Thief"; he lacks big-screen presence, and should stick to TV. Fey, predictably, fares best; Stoll's infertile husband (to the always wonderful Kathryn Hahn) disappears for long stretches; and I'm willing to believe Driver has talent, but pretty soon he's going to have to pick a part that doesn't make you want to slug him. Fonda's vulgarity typifies director Shawn Levy's work ("The Internship," "Real Steel"), and a late revelation involving her neighbor comes from another planet… I highly enjoyed Alan Hicks' sweet and touching documentary "Keep On Keepin' On," about the legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and his latest protégé, adorable 23-year-old pianist Justin Kauflin, who just happens to be blind and suffer from stage fright born of self-doubt. Hicks doesn't shy away from the painful medical realities facing the 93-year-old Terry, but his friendship and mentorship of Kauflin suffuses the movie with an optimistic spirit to go with the great music… Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem" reveals a played-out director with little left to say and no emotional connection to forge with his audience. The incomparable Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an angsty computer prodigy assigned by the inevitable all-controlling corporation Mancom (sounds like a gay porn studio) to solve the titular theorem and prove that "zero equals 100 percent"; i.e., that everything adds up to nothing. The near-future world of Gilliam's vision looks ugly and underfunded, with one or two cute ideas and not enough budget to realize them properly. David Thewlis adds another to his litany of bad performances, while Gilliam calls in chits from Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton for their brief appearances. Watching "The Zero Theorem" is like sitting in the slots room in a casino; you want out as keenly after two minutes as after 100, and you don't want to associate with anybody who actually enjoys it… From the ridiculous to the sublime: "Last Days in Vietnam," directed by Robert Kennedy's daughter Rory, is not just the best documentary of the year so far but one of the best films ever made about America's involvement in Vietnam, a towering document of military and political history and a story as gripping as any Hollywood thriller. Through rigorous research and reporting, and by amassing a jaw-dropping collection of photographs and video footage, Kennedy puts us in Saigon in April 1975, as the North Vietnamese army ineluctably advances and the need to evacuate Americans and their South Vietnamese family members, friends and collaborators becomes glaringly obvious to all (except U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin). Kennedy made the conscious choice not to conduct interviews with outside historians but to let those who were there - inside and around the perimeter of the American Embassy, on the overrun ships and helicopters and aircraft carriers, at the White House - tell the story in their own, exceptionally eloquent words. There is to her work here an abiding sense of balance and proportion; Martin, who made a series of egregious miscalculations, comes off as a well-intentioned and decent man in way over his head, while the heroes who defied orders from Washington to get as many "dead men walking" out of Saigon as possible nevertheless express profound regret for those they could not save and a supreme feeling of betrayal by our country of those it had pledged to protect. Countless times, an interviewee will describe a detail of the chaotic scene and Kennedy will have found the exact moment on tape; it got to the point that I sat watching much of the movie with my hands held to the sides of my head, in disbelief as much of Kennedy's tremendous achievement as the incredible story unfolding onscreen. "Last Days in Vietnam" ends a weeklong run at the Nuart tomorrow and moves to the Landmark on Friday. Don't miss it… Things I wouldn’t mind never seeing in another movie: 1.) Snakes. 2.) Dogs dying or, worse, being killed. 3.) Adam Driver feeling his oats. All of these and other un-pleasantries await in “Tracks,” director John Curran’s half-formed chronicle of the Australian adventurer Robyn Davidson’s 2,000-mile desert trek to the Indian Ocean. Mia Wasikowska plays Davidson, and here’s an actress I’ve often admired, in a performance with a certain kind of integrity, but one that never lets us in the audience in. Her motivation, the backstory that has left her with such an extreme need for solitude, what she may have gained from the experience (besides a best seller) remain unsolved mysteries. Driver plays Rick Smolan, the keen-as-mustard National Geographic photographer who rendezvous with Davidson every few hundred miles. You know there’s a problem when the most expressive characters in your movie are the camels… The Irish comedy “Life’s a Breeze” is one of the strangest pictures in recent memory, if only because of the slightness of the whole enterprise. Fionnula Flanagan plays Nan, the matriarch of a small-time Dublin family whose ne’er-do-well son, Colm (Pat Shortt), still lives with her. He surprises her one day with a total makeover of their home, right down to air fresheners (emblazoned with the movie’s title) to “remove that old people smell.” (Flanagan’s deadpan, impassive reaction to these produces the movie’s only laugh.) The cherry on top: a new bed frame and mattress for Nan. The problem: she had stashed her life savings, nigh on a million Euros, in the old one. Thus commences a nationwide goose chase for the missing mattress that occupies the remainder of the 88-minute runtime. A late confession by Nan undercuts her integrity and, by extension, the movie’s as well… The Simon Pegg vehicle “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is not morally reprehensible like last week’s “Walk Among the Tombstones.” It aspires to be all things to all people. Yet it too will surely find a spot on my list of the year’s worst films. This sententious claptrap all but chokes on its own vapid profundity, a male version of “Eat Pray Love” that makes the Julia Roberts original look like solemn scholarship. Pegg is Hector, a milquetoast London shrink disengaged from his patients’ movie-ish problems primarily because, like Roberts in her picture, he’d rather be talking and thinking about himself. He embarks on a vaguely defined trip around the world to study happiness. Among the considerable cast wasted as Hector’s foils are, in order of appearance, Stellan Skarsgård as his business-class seatmate, Jean Reno as a particularly cartoonish South American drug kingpin, Toni Collette as the ex-girlfriend he left in L.A., and Christopher Plummer as a professor (of what?) whose lecture reads like a pamphlet a bald guy in a diaper might hand you at the airport. (Realistic depictions of classroom situations at all levels have proved as elusive as anything in screenwriting.) Needless to say, Hector also swings by China for a little fortune-cookie philosophizing, and lands in the private prison of an African warlord before escaping to the NGO tent of his white doctor best friend (and said bestie’s black gay lover). Rosamund Pike of the upcoming “Gone Girl,” a distinctive and talented actress, plays Hector’s fiancée, notable only for her job as a highly successful corporate namer. Hector’s obsession with self is as breathtaking and galling as Roberts’, but at least she got to eat pasta and fuck James Franco.

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