Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Night of the Living Dead"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I'll share a full-length movie, available for honest-to-God free on the Internet, that gets the ol' JB stamp of approval.

Night of the Living Dead has become such a part of film culture that it's kind of unimaginable to have not seen it, but I'll fess up: I was 30 before I finally got around to it. Romero's low-budget zombie creeper influenced so many horror pictures in the years that followed, it's silly to even try and tick them off. But it maintains its ability to creep (on a next-to-nothing budget, with industrial film know-how). It's an innovate film, and a blast to watch.

In Theaters: "Hot Tub Time Machine"

Hot Tub Time Machine is the kind of movie that you like, knowing full well that it’s not very good. It comes, first of all, with perhaps the best title of the year (or the worst, depending on what you require from a movie title). There is no trickery to the moniker—there’s not some metaphorical hot tub that serves as a whimsical reminder of gentler times and loves lost. Nope, it’s the story of four men who travel back in time via a hot tub.

Back in the day, Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry), and Nick (Craig Robinson) were best friends. Now, they’re varying degrees of unhappy, and Lou, in the process of an awesome air drumming break, accidentally almost kills himself. Adam and Nick decide to take Lou back to their favorite lodge from their teenage years, a reminder of when times were good; Adam brings along his twentysomething loser nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) for the ride. But the old lodge has become a dump, and the trip looks like a huge mistake until their drunken night in a short-circuiting hot tub somehow opens up a hole in the space-time continuum and drops them into the lodge, circa 1986.

Cusack co-produced the picture, which is directed by his writing partner Steve Pink (the pair worked together on High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank). Pink’s visual style is terribly sophisticated—his game plan seems to be to look every joke right in the eye and shoot in as bland and colorless a style as possible, resulting in a cheap, chintzy, sitcom feel, as well as a herky-jerky sense of narrative momentum (it seems to stop and go and stop again).

As if any of that matters—is it funny? Yes, but not as funny as you’d like it to be. It’s full of comic heavy hitters, and sure, all of them get some laughs. Corddry smartly plays his bitter, self-destructive drunk almost entirely straight, and gets some big laughs (“It’s called male bonding,” he informs Jacob, who hesitates to disrobe and get into the hot tub. “Have you even seen Wild Hogs?”) Duke’s timing is sharp, and though Cusack is basically grinding in the same sad-sack rut he’s been working the past decade or so, he lends some weight and credibility to the film, and develops a nice bit of chemistry with the always-welcome Lizzy Caplan. But the real star of the show is Craig Robinson, who, having unapologetically stolen scenes in The Office, Knocked Up, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, bursts through here as a full-on comedy star. He’s funny, he’s likable, he’s charming (I can’t think of many other actors who could pull of that sobbing sex scene), he even sings well. It’s his coming out party, cinematically speaking.

But the film can’t find a consistent comic voice, and ends up coming off as dumber than it should be. The verbal and character stuff has such potential, and works so well when it’s indulged, that the dopey, gross-out stuff and slouchy physical humor feels like a waste of the considerate talent involved. It’s just laziness at work; there’s interesting stuff happening in, say, the scene where Adam and Nick visit Lou in the hospital, and surely they could have mined the personalities in the room to come up with a funnier button for the scene than Lou inexplicably spraying piss all over them. That’s the kind of stuff you expect in a Sandler movie, not one from the Grosse Pointe Blank guys.

To be sure, there’s good stuff in the movie. Crispin Glover is gloriously unhinged early on, and then the object of a deliciously funny running joke. You can see the Lou-Jacob payoff coming a mile away, but it’s still a good one. And the shout-outs to ‘80s movies (from the Zabka-esque turtlenecked villains to the plentiful Back to the Future references) are affectionate and enjoyable. But I kept waiting for the picture to catch fire, to take advantage of its resources and strike the comic gold it seems capable of. So chalk it up as a missed opportunity, though I’ll admit to feeling like a bit of a schmuck for complaining that the humor in a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t a little bit smarter.

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is now playing in wide release.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 3/26/10

How to Train Your Dragon: Dreamworks Animation steps up their game with their latest family comedy, an enjoyable and charming tale with some excellent set pieces and more than a touch of Apatow in the voice casting.

Hot Tub Time Machine: Sorry, but even if the movie blows, it's the best title of the year. (Hoping it doesn't blow; planning to see it over the weekend, based mostly on Ebert's review).

Chloe: There's so much great stuff in the first 2/3 of Atom Egoyan's latest-- themes of jealousy, crazy eroticism, great performances--that it's all the more unfortunate that it turns into a Poison Ivy movie in the third act.

Lbs.: Four word review-- Good intentions. Bad movie.

Greenberg: Opens in wider release this week. Still recommending it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Theaters: "Chloe"

“I wanna do this one more time, just to see what he does,” Catherine says. “And then we’ll stop. Okay?” Chloe nods. “Okay.” Catherine (Julianne Moore) is an independent career woman, a doctor (a gynecologist, in fact), and her husband David (Liam Neeson) is a popular and happy college professor. Their marriage, however, has lost its luster, and Catherine begins to suspect that he is cheating on her. She has a chance meeting with Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a call girl, and makes a business proposal: She’ll hire the younger woman to make herself available to the husband, and then report back to Catherine what happens next. That way she’ll know if he’s been faithful. That’s the plan. Things don’t go according to plan.

Chloe is the work of challenging Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who is here making his most accessible film to date—which is ultimately its undoing. It is missing much of the skewered chronology and trick storytelling that have become his trademark, though it does contain the kind of lush sexiness that made previous pictures like Exotica and Where the Truth Lies so memorable. Eroticism permeates the film from its opening frames (of Seyfried’s Chloe suiting up in sexy lingerie); the film is full of fetishistic attention to detail (dig that floor-level shot of their high-heeled shoes in neighboring bathroom stalls), a sexy score, copious nudity, and themes of voyeurism and sexual jealousy.

But Egoyan is not merely looking to titillate; he’s less interested in showing us sex than showing us how it affects those in the room, and out of it. The first time Chloe and Catherine meet after Chloe has met David, Egoyan plays out her relaying of the events with masterful control, holding not on the dirty details, but on Catherine as she hears them. One of the joys of the picture is reading the complexities of the character’s emotions across Moore’s subtly expressive face; there’s more happening here than a woman trying to trap her husband. As she directs Chloe as to what will happen next, we realize that she is finding a way, however difficult, to control the situation—and perhaps finding her own sexual satisfaction in that control, a notion that Chloe puts to her explicitly later in the film.

This is strong, grown-up material, not the kind of mature examination of sexuality that we’re used to seeing in anything resembling mainstream film. In these early scenes, again, it’s all tell, no show; Egoyan (and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson) know that’s the erotic part anyway. Chloe tells Catherine what she asks to hear, and what she may very well want to hear, but Catherine doesn’t know what to do with that information (Moore is acting up a storm in the scene at a recital, where she knows all but says nothing). Subtly, the film becomes less about her jealousy and more about the power dynamic between the two women—it shifts and shuffles, and then goes all the way to the edge, and then leaps over blindly.

At that key moment, the score and cinematography get a little Skinemax-y, which rather cheapens what’s happening intellectually. And there are other speed-bumps along the way—it is, in places, somewhat stilted, occasionally veering towards the pretentious, and scattered scenes (like a lecture scene showing Neeson’s rapport with his students) ring clangingly false. But it still involves us, not only because of the aforementioned eroticism, but because of Egoyan’s intelligent approach to it.

And then in the third act, you feel, with dread, the picture threatening to become something else, something far more pat and ordinary than what it seemed to be working up to. It takes a narrative turn that gobsmacks you, and it’s a good one, but it doesn’t go in a direction that matches the wit and brains of the set-up. We’re left, instead, to deal with the disappointment of seeing a real, grown-up movie about marriage and sex and lust switch over to a standard erotic thriller, to some kind of a refugee from the Poison Ivy series, resolved with a cheap shot of a bullshit ending. It’s a shame. Chloe has enough of interest in it that it’s worth recommending, but I’ve rarely seen a film’s own ending so thoroughly shoot itself in the foot.

"Chloe" opens Friday, March 26 in limited release.

In Theaters: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Dreamworks Animation tends to get treated like a second-class citizen by connoisseurs of computer animation, and not without reason. While their rivals at Pixar are turning out pictures that transcend the limitations of the form and rank among the best of all recent cinema, Dreamworks has turned out a steady stream of profitable but formulaic efforts like Bee Movie, Shark Tale, and the endless, witless Shrek and Madagascar franchises. But their latest effort, How to Train Your Dragon, is a step in the right direction; there’s no mistaking it for Up or Wall-E, but it’s a good-natured, low-key charmer.

The setting is the time of the Vikings—specifically, the dragon-infested isle of Berk. “Most people would leave,” we’re told, “but not us. We’re Vikings. We have… stubbornness issues.” We’re brought into the tale by Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the nebbish son of a fierce warrior who only wants to be taken seriously as a dragon slayer. However, when he gets the chance to prove his mettle, he finds he cannot bring himself to kill the “Night Fury” dragon he has brought down. Instead, he becomes secret friends with the creature, nursing it back to health and training it to be docile—and becoming something of a dragon whisperer on the isle in the process.

The first clue that directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who previously helmed Disney’s Lilo and Stitch) have their head on straight is in the voice casting; Baruchnel is joined by fellow Apatow company players Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig (all of whom pull laughs as much from their own timing and distinct comic personalities as from the script), while Craig Ferguson nearly steals the show as dragon trainer Gobber. America Ferrera and Gerard Butler get fewer opportunities to be funny, but fill the straight roles admirably. Character designs are also impressive—particularly that of Hiccup’s pet dragon “Toothless,” who starts off absolutely fierce but proves capable of softening easily to capture our sympathy.

The development of their relationship gives the film its sweetness and heart, which develops into real pathos; by the time we get to the end of the second act, the picture is treading into E.T. territory. It’s also blessed with several crackerjack set pieces—the opening scenes have a nice energy and high spirit to them, while the first flight sequence is gripping and the visit to the dragons’ nest packs some knockout visuals.

Some of the 3-D effects are cool (particularly the throwaway shots of Viking boats passing and fish under water), though I must be getting old, because 3-D mostly just gives me a headache. (It’s a pleasant enough diversion here, I suppose, but I can’t see that audiences will miss much by taking in the film in a mere two dimensions.) Some of the dialogue is mighty drab and utilitarian, and there’s one genuinely cringe-worthy moment, the kind of dated pop culture reference we’d expect from a Shrek movie —when Hiccup is congratulated by being told “You the Viking!” (That joke was old when Dreamworks put it into Antz a dozen years back.) And yes, the third act beats are awfully predictable. But by that point in the film, they’ve pretty much got us in their pocket; while by no means a classic, How to Train Your Dragon is sweet, likable fun.

"How to Train Your Dragon" opens Friday, March 26 in wide release.

In Theaters: "Lbs."

I feel bad for not liking Lbs. more than I do—it clearly comes from a personal, genuine place, and the parties involved appear to have done some remarkable things in its preparation. But noble intentions alone do not a good picture make. You’ve also got to have a compelling structure, three-dimensional characters, and dialogue that viewers want to listen to; this film comes up short on all counts. Its heart is in the right place, but the execution is a nightmare.

Co-writer, co-producer, and star Carmine Famiglietti plays Neil, a 300-plus pound substitute bus driver and compulsive overeater. His on-the-job heart attack causes his sister (Sharon Angela of The Sopranos) to postpone her wedding, and resentments among his family come to a boil when he resists his new diet and starts sneak-eating on the sly. When those tensions blow up at the do-over wedding, he takes drastic measure to drop some pounds: he purchases a trailer and a small plot of land out in the country, and removes himself from temptation.

Lbs. has been making the festival rounds for five-plus years now, and sports a low-budget look and feel. This isn’t automatically a criticism (you’ll find no bigger Clerks fan than me), but some of the construction and composition by director Matthew Bonifacio is awfully amateurish. Ditto the broad playing of the supporting characters, the clunky sound design, and the pedestrian coverage (the film is shot and cut like a dull TV movie).

More troublesome is the draggy pace—it’s a stagnant narrative with no momentum. Scene after scene (particularly in the first act) consists of people making announcements and/or shouting at each other, without any particular voice or wit to the dialogue. It’s just empty confrontation; the filmmakers hold to steadily to the conflict = drama formula (pushed by Carlo Giacco’s melodramatic score). The scenes bump into each other like gridlocked traffic, not going anywhere, and when all else fails, they do a music montage (including one of Neil settling in to his new home, which is accompanied by, I kid you not, John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”). There’s no one in it to engage with—Famiglietti is, for much of the film, an empty vessel, and the characters surrounding him are mostly unlikable stereotypes.

That said, Neil becomes a more interesting character as the picture wears on, finally impressing with a unique presence and believability. Eric Leffler, as the friendly neighbor who sells him the land, is also a laid-back, natural presence. The best performer in the film, however is Miriam Shor, an actor best known for her copious TV work. She pops early in a brief scene as a waitress, and is so good we spend the next 20 minutes waiting for the movie to get back to her. Unfortunately, when they do, it’s for an uninspired romantic subplot that barely gets going before it’s over (but does including a cringe-inducing run-up to a love scene with lines that even this talented actor can’t sell). Their relationship is barely a hiccup; she’s turned into some kind of horrible person with no motivation or warning, merely at the convenience of the plot.

I will give Lbs. this—the third act is better than the first two, and the physical transformations of not only Famigletti but Michael Aronov as his drug addict friend are pretty remarkable. But for all of the potential offered by the situation, they end up honing in on obvious payoffs (I’m thinking particularly of his dinner date with an old crush) and murky storytelling (is his behavior in the hotel a pattern, or a one-time thing?). Again, it breaks my heart to have such mean things to say about such a (mostly) well-intentioned project. Lbs. is clearly a labor of love. But that’s just not good enough.

"Lbs." opens Friday, March 26 in limited release.

On DVD: "Mad Men: The Complete Third Season"

Why is it that we love Mad Men so much? Why has it captured the popular culture so thoroughly, and so quickly—and why is it of such particular fascination to a generation of viewers who weren’t even alive in the early 1960s period that it so painstakingly recreates? Well, it’s a loaded question; people like what they like for different reasons, and Mad Men certainly has much to like: the intelligent writing, the masterful playing, the flawless design and shiny aethetics. But there’s more, much more to it than that.

Background first; Mad Men is centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), creative director of Madison Avenue power agency Sterling-Cooper. His life seems, on the surface, to be sheer perfection—home in the suburbs, beautiful ex-model wife (January Jones), two kids, big green yard, big pretty Cadillac, and always at least one lovely lady on the side. At work, he’s the cock of the walk, an inventive ad man whose underlings long for his approval and whose superiors are kept in check by his non-contractual status. But there is a darkness about him; he harbors secrets, untold stories of past lives, family and friends abandoned.

The show is much like its protagonist—sleek and calm on the surface, dark and disturbing on second glance. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner previously served as a writer and supervising producer on The Sopranos, and the credit isn’t surprising; Don Draper is the most complex and compelling television anti-hero since Tony Soprano. In season three, Weiner and his talented writers, having mined the demons of Draper’s past to considerable effective over the course of the show’s first two years, zero in on his relationships with the vast supporting cast—what they reveal about him, about them, and about us.

One of the series’ more intriguing elements is the tricky dynamic between Don and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who has worked her way up from Don’s secretary in season one to, now, a copywriter with her own office and secretary. Peggy’s character, throughout the series, has been effectively utilized as a surrogate for female independence and empowerment—the kind of woman who was laying the groundwork for the women’s liberation movement. That notion continues in season three, as Peggy tries out pot, makes a gay friend, and gets an apartment in the city with a fellow swinging single girl. But her relationship with her mentor, still a figure of male authoritarianism and “traditional”, patriarchal values, takes some fascinating turns. She does, to a degree, owe at least her initial opportunities to him, and he bristles that she seems to always want more from him. But she continues to impress at her job because she is good at what she does, and will have none of the idea that she is beholden to him; “You think I'll just follow you like some nervous poodle?” she asks him at a key point, and she’s right. Thankfully, he knows it.

Don’s relationship with wormy Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is no less intriguing; the smarmy young up-and-comer seethes with hatred and jealousy for the older, more successful executive, yet he desires nothing more than for Don to consider him worthy and offer his praise (his motives are made even more clear by the none-too-subtle Daddy issues in his private life). “I want to hear it from him,” he demands at a key moment, but the word is not “want”, it’s “need.” The relationship between Don and Roger Sterling Jr. (the excellent John Slattery) is also put through a wringer in season three; the two like-minded connoisseurs of good booze and bad women find themselves estranged by Sterling’s perhaps foolish decision to marry his mistress, and are only able to patch it up when their very existence depends upon it.

And then there is Betty, the long-suffering (but not exactly sympathetic) wife. At the end of season two, a trial separation was brought to an end by Betty’s pregnancy and Don’s promises to be a better husband, but alas, those are short-lived; by episode three, he’s making smoky eyes at Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer), whose on-again, off-again affections prove a frustration for the smooth operator. But this time, he’s not alone—Betty’s flirtations with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) become all too real, and all too dangerous. The manner in which their storyline and the office intrigues are drawn together into a season finale that, in effect, hits the reset button on Don’s entire life is phenomenal. It’s a thrilling, funny, ballsy hour of television.

But back to the supporting cast, three-dimensional characters all: Joan (Christina Hendricks), seemingly married off and happy, but broken inside, working a lousy department store job and doing her accordion party tricks; Kinsey (Michael Gladis), the perhaps-not-entirely-genuine social progressive; Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), with his unorthodox recruiting strategy; Roger’s spoiled daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) and ex-wife Mona (Talia Balsam), trying to keep it together on the most ill-timed wedding day imaginable; new addition Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the seemingly ineffectual company man from the new corporate owners who turns out to have some fight in him after all; and poor Sal (Bryan Batt), the closeted gay art director, undone by the worst kind of handshake hypocrisy. I’ve heard some complain that there are no sympathetic characters on Mad Men, which isn’t true—there are some, like Sal and Pete’s wife Trudy (the wonderful Alison Brie). It’s just that they’re on the sidelines, the ones that are lied to, betrayed, left to fend for themselves. In this world, they don’t stand a chance.

When the first episode of the third season aired, its six-month narrative jump placed the timeline in early 1963, and fans realized that this meant the Kennedy assassination would fall within season three. But it is done in the most wonderfully subtle and unexpected way—a stroke of genius, really, utilizing now-familiar iconography, but contrasting it with the petty complaints and irritations of the moments immediately before that fateful CBS bulletin. In that moment (and others throughout the year), we realize that these historical events are just a part of the tapestry; Weiner and his writers realize that the entire world wasn’t watching soap operas that afternoon in November, that these moments worked their way out from the background. They do so here as well, brilliantly.

But then, that’s what’s so overwhelming about Mad Men: in spite of the beauty of the period sets and costumes, the impeccable attention to detail, it is not (and never has been) a museum piece. It lives and breathes within its immaculately reconstructed world, and functions as a warts-and-all alternative to the portraits of that time that we were left with. The television and film of the early 1960s only showed us smiles and shiny surfaces, a happy place with no dysfunction and no unrest; those are the images that disingenuous politicians and pundits are summoning up when they call for a return to the “values” of “a simpler time” (never mind that there’s only one woman with an office, and the only black people in the building are the janitors and elevator operators). Mad Men shows us those surfaces, and explodes them. That’s why a generation weaned on fairy tales of the good old days connects with the show so readily. It tells the truth about our parents and our grandparents: they were just as fucked up as we are.

"Mad Men: The Complete Third Season" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On DVD: "Arizona Dream"

There’s a word for a movie like Arizona Dream: inexplicable. I’m a reasonably intelligent college graduate, and I can’t make heads or tails out of the goddamn thing. A gun to my head, I couldn’t explain the strange Eskimo opening, or the Russian roulette scene, or the flying ambulance, or all the stuff with the flying fish. I have no idea why they spend so much screen time with the main characters blindfolded and searching for a piñata in a windstorm. And for the life of me, I can’t comprehend the scene where Johnny Depp wheels around the house acting like a chicken, clucking along while Lili Taylor plays the accordion. I can’t explain any of this stuff, because there is no plausible explanation for it. The movie is weird for weird’s sake. Emir Kusturica co-wrote and directed it, and I’ll bet he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on in it either.

This is customarily the point in the review where one summarizes the plot; it hardly matters here, but I’ll soldier on as if nothing is wrong. Depp plays Axel Blackmar, a reasonably happy fish tagger in New York who is brought back to his home in Arizona by his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo), so that he can serve as the best man for his uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis), a car salesman. Leo wants Axel to join him and Paul in the family business. “No matter how much I loved the smell of cheap cologne,” Axel says in voice-over, “I was never gonna be like my uncle. I was never gonna sell Cadillacs.” Two minutes later, he’s selling Cadillacs. In waltzes Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her stepdaughter Grace (Lili Taylor); Axel is immediately smitten, and he and Paul end up at the Stalkers’ home for dinner.

This dinner scene is the first sign that the movie is about to fall right off the rails. It shouldn’t—hell, I’d plunk down twenty bucks to buy a documentary of Johnny Depp, Vincent Gallo, Faye Dunaway, and Lili Taylor having dinner. But Kusturica has a turtle crawling across the table, Gallo singing songs from The Wizard of Oz, a suicide attempt, and various levels of destruction, and the timing is so far off, it’s befuddling. It’s as if an alien civilization tried to make a screwball comedy.

It’s all pretty much down the tubes from there, as we degenerate into a weird love triangle and countless scenes of Depp and Dunaway in a variety of flying machines that crash and fold like outtakes from Gizmo!. There are, in all fairness, some clever sight gags—most of them throwaway bits, like Depp and Gallo rolling around in a background fistfight throughout one of Lewis and Dunaway’s dialogue scenes. But most of the time, we stare at the screen, slack-jawed; how did this many talented people get talked into appearing in this? How did Warner Brothers get swindled into putting up $19 million to make it?

Of the performers, Lewis comes off best; he’s mostly working in his semi-serious King of Comedy style, and he manages to turn in a skilled performance of quiet authority (though Kusturica leaves in a couple of instances of unfortunate and disposable mugging). Depp and Dunaway have to follow the wild mood swings of the script; they put on their best game faces, but what the hell can they do with this kind of material? Even Lewis drowns in the ultra-serious ambulance scene (there’s nothing worse than absurdity turned maudlin), and everyone else seems absolutely lost with the artfully self-important ending, which tries to make some semblance of sense out of what’s come before with some easy symbolism and a wrap-up voice-over. Nice try.

Little of it makes any sense, though a scene or two, here or there, works as a stand-alone entity. But there’s no cause and effect, no follow-through; nothing is related to much of anything else. Other scenes have potential but are botched by the poor execution. In one scene, would-be actor Paul goes to an amateur night to impersonate Cary Grant in the crop-duster scene of North by Northwest--it’s an odd but clever notion, spoiled by Kusturica’s decision to intercut shots from the original scene. Later, it appears that the climax will consist of us watching Vincent Gallo watching Godfather II. Both scenes only cause us to wish that we were watching those films rather than this one.

It took a lot of smart people to make Arizona Dream, and I can’t imagine any of them thought the film was actually entertaining or enlightening. The best I can put together is that the purposeful intention was to confuse and confound the audience. If that’s the case, then the picture is a huge success.

"Arizona Dream" is now available on DVD through the Warner Archive program. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On DVD: "Brothers"

Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is a film that gets so many of its small moments absolutely right, you’re tempted to call it a great movie and be done with it. The problem is that it doesn’t nail the big picture; it’s got some great scenes and performances, but it bites off more than it can chew. If its goals and ideas had been more modest, they might have really had something.

The story (entirely divulged in Lionsgate’s spoiler-iffic trailer) concerns the Cahill family: Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), and Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the black sheep who is getting out of prison mere days before Sam re-deploys to Afghanistan. Relations are strained, particularly between Tommy and the boys’ dad (Sam Shepard), a career military man; things aren’t exactly rosy between Tommy and Grace either. But all of that changes when Sam’s chopper is shot down and he is presumed dead—it draws the family tight, and as Tommy becomes something of a surrogate father to Grace and Sam’s daughters, he is drawn closer to his sister-in-law.

Sam then reappears; he was not killed in combat after all, but kidnapped and tortured before a tense rescue. His return is a surprise to Tommy and Grace, but not to the audience—Sheridan intercuts his tribulations in Afghanistan with the grieving of his loved ones, and I’m not sure that this choice works. Strangely, the drama back home is of greater interest, primarily because it seems fresher than the Maguire scenes—as sturdily executed as they might be, they’re recycled from countless other war movies. In addition, if the marketing had managed to keep it in the bag (which is dubious), his unexpected return could have been a truly shocking (and invigorating) plot turn, followed by glimpses and flashes of his ordeal, as they pertained to the unfolding of the story.

What Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff (adapting the Danish film Brødre) get right are the intimate moments, the warm family scenes that quickly evaporate. The complicated relationship between Tommy and his father is one of the picture’s most fully realized; I particularly liked how their reunion after his prison stint consists of a pair of one-word greetings (“Son.” “Sir.”) and a terse handshake. Late in the film, Sheridan stages a tense family dinner that slowly boils up and over; there, as in the entirety of the film, his direction is simple and straightforward but brutally effective.

The performances are, for the most part, quite good. Portman’s delicate, fragile work is the standout—she captures a woman doing her best to be strong, but perpetually fighting off tears, choosing not to let them go. It’s a beautifully constructed, deeply felt performance, and watching it causes one to seriously question the sanity of Slate’s Dana Stevens, whose stunningly wrong-headed review is basically a drive-by shooting of the actress (let us never forget, when considering Stevens’ thoughts on the current cinema, that she wrote City of Angels and For Love of the Game). Gyllenhaal is similarly impressive; his is a tricky performance that keeps a lot of things hidden, from his raffish sense of humor to his quiet, bitter anger, and then gradually reveals them.

Maguire’s work isn’t terribly nuanced—it certainly isn’t a bad performance, but he’s only got about two speeds here, always either at 1 or at 10, and while that might be an accurate representation of the repressed and scarred combat vet, it doesn’t make for the most compelling on-screen dynamic. (He could also use some coloration within those two levels—his bug-eyed intensity grows tiresome by the picture’s end.) Shepard is very good (c’mon, Shepard is always good), as is the rest of the supporting cast—though, knowing what we now know about Carey Mulligan (from An Education), it seems a waste to only use her in one scene (though it is a helluva good scene).

The story comes to a head in a tough, difficult, and keyed-up climax, though the resolution is probably a little too easy; the closing scene feels rushed, the final voice-over overly simplistic. That’s a shame; Brothers is a film with passages of tremendous power, and performances with real guts. But it’s also uneven and a bit spotty, ultimately unable to place what works into a context that pays off.

"Brothers" is available today on DVD and Blu-ray.

Today's New DVDs- 3/23/10

The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson's latest is one of his best; his first foray into stop-motion animation has a freshness and joy that had rather seeped out of his last couple of outings. It's funny, it's charming, it's a treat.

The Blind Side: It's a functional enough based-on-a-true-story weepie, and Bullock is good (if not the best of this year's Best Actress nominees). But the picture's casual racism remains troubling, and mostly unnoticed.

Brothers: Jim Sherican's family drama/war picture is old-fashioned (in a good way) and well-made, though the spoiler-heavy marketing and a couple of structural choices keep it from true greatness.

The Men Who Stare at Goats: The feature directorial debut of Grant Heslov (who collaborated with star George Clooney on Good Night, and Good Luck) shoots for the stars, conjuring up the spirit of Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H; he doesn't hit the mark, but the film has some laughs and enjoyable performances, particularly from Clooney and Jeff Bridges.

Mad Men (Season 3): TV's best drama (yes, even better than Breaking Bad, but just barely) only got stronger in its third year, delving deeper into the complex personal dynamics and gearing up for a full-on reset. Screener discs went out strangely late; my review will be up later this week.

Phantom Punch: There's just not much to recommend in this shoddily written, badly-paced, poorly produced Sonny Liston biopic; it's a long way from Ali, and a long fall for once-promising director Robert Townsend.

On DVD: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

It’s funny, how effortlessly Wes Anderson’s style clicks and locks into the stop-motion animation world of his latest film, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s always been a stylist, and his previous pictures (particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic) were intricately (some would say obsessively) designed down to the tiniest set and costume details. So it’s not much of a jump to infer that he’s the type of filmmaker who would revel in the opportunity to create his own world from the bottom up. What is unexpected is how easily his dialogue and characterizations work in what is, by any measure, an animated picture aimed at a family audience; the characters may be foxes and opossums and rats and weasels, but they have familiar hopes and dreams and insecurities, and they express all of them in clever, sardonic dialogue. He’s mated his worldview with Roald Dahl’s narrative and come up with a picture that feels absolutely faithful to both.

The titular character (voiced by a pitch-perfect George Clooney) is an expert chicken thief, forced to go straight by Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) when she announces she’s pregnant with their first child, er, cub. Jump ahead a couple of years; their son Ash (Jason Schawartzman) is going through an awkward stage, made worse by the extended visit of his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), a likable natural athlete. Mr. Fox is now working as a newspaperman and dreaming of upward mobility (literally); he decided to move his family into an upscale tree, fueled in no small part by its close proximity to three farms with plenty of stuff for the taking. He decides to do one last job—in several parts, he explains.

Anderson’s last film, The Darjeeling Limited, was a pleasurable enough diversion, and light as a feather—which was part of its problem. I’d already forgotten it about twenty minutes after leaving the theater. He hasn’t made a bad film yet, but in spite of its exotic locales, Darjeeling felt like the work of a filmmaker trapped in a box, working the same themes and painting on the same palate, and risking typecasting himself (and exclusively serving a steadily dwindling niche audience). Fantastic Mr. Fox is not, to reiterate, that far removed from his wheelhouse, but by turning his filmmaking process upside-down, Anderson seems to have reconnected with the infectious energy and all-out joy of his early pictures.

And it’s the funniest thing he’s done since Rushmore; Anderson’s screenplay is co-written with the brilliant Noah Baumbauch (his collaborator on The Life Aquatic and the writer/director of The Squid and the Whale and the criminally underrated 1995 film Kicking and Screaming) and is full of witty wordplay, off-beat exchanges (“That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”), and clever running bits (I’m particularly fond of Fox’s insistence on “bandit hats,” and the use of “cuss” in place of profanity, as in “what the cuss” and “cuss you”). It’s also full of funny little visual jokes; the compositions are not only striking but frequently amusing, and a scene where Anderson plays out a heist in a single wide shot, on a series of connected security monitors, is a little masterpiece of comic timing.

Much credit is also due to the talented crew of stop-motion animators (led by animation director Mark Gustfson); the film was reportedly shot at 12 frames per second, in contrast to the normal 24, which gives the film its distinctively jerky-yet-somehow-fluid look. The effect is stunning without overwhelming the picture; we regard the lovely fur and occasionally watery eyes, but we’re not distracted by them.

Fantastic Mr. Fox has its flaws; it might be too twee for some tastes, and the second half gets a little stuck in the mechanisms of the plot (it’s not quite as funky and free-wheeling as the set-up sequences). But it’s an absolute charmer, sweet and sunny and unquestionably entertaining—though I wonder what it says about mainstream American filmmaking that the three of the best pictures of last year (Up, Where the Wild Things Are, and this) are ostensibly made for kids.

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" hits DVD and Blu-ray today.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On DVD: "An Education"

He's a smooth operator, this David. He's 30 years old, and Jenny is 16, but when he can pull it off, because he's charmed her parents as thoroughly as he's charmed their daughter; he doesn't stop at the "you didn't tell me you had a sister" line when he meets her mother, but he brings over good wine and regales them with stories of his worldliness and sophistication, and makes dating a woman half his age seem like its perfectly natural and downright urbane. What's more, he makes his own savoir-faire seem a shared commodity--he takes them in, and makes them part of his world. But then, that's how he gets Jenny, too.

An Education is the story of their romance, and of how Jenny comes out of it stronger and, for better or worse, wiser. It is based on a memoir by British writer Lynn Barber, remembering her teen years in Twickenham, London in the early 1960s; the screenplay adaptation is by the great Nick Hornby, whose books inspired the films High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch. The director, Lone Scherfig, is a Dane unknown to me, though not for long; she spins Barber's memories and Hornby's script into a film of rare and fragile intelligence and grace.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a dedicated student, pushed hard towards an Oxford education by her father (Alfred Molina) and, to a lesser degree, her mother (Cara Seymour). Jenny's never really questioned the life ahead of her--until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard). David drives a sportscar and knows about music and art and talks about taking her to concerts and nightclubs and even (gasp) Paris. They usually socialize with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who seem nice enough (mostly), though they look a little weary when they first lay their eyes on Jenny. It seems that they might have been through this with David before.

Sarsgaard, who remains one of our most interesting and unpredictable actors, gets David just right--he's charming and cheerful without seeming oily or creepy. But he sees all the angles and has all of his moves planned out, and when Jenny reacts understandably to a revelation about how he makes his money, his response ("Don't be bourgeois") is calculated--and effective. He's not alone, though; the picture is like a master class in acting, and there's not a bad performance in the bunch. I don't know that Molina's ever been better in a film (which is saying something), while Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson's authority figures are made admirably three-dimensional, even when they're functioning primarily as plot points. Director Scherfig gets the importance of the film's sense of ensemble; when Jenny tells her mother that her first date with David was "the best night of my life," Scherfig knows that they key to the scene isn't her saying that, but her mother's wordless reaction to it. Everything else, it would seem, is inevitable; the film is imbued with that sense of inevitability, so that even when we're hitting firmly within the conventional three-act structure, nothing feels convoluted or even terribly prepared. It unfolds with the certitude of real life.

But the film lives and dies by Mulligan's work as Jenny, and it is a beautiful performance to behold. This is a tremendous actor. She's got a wonderful way of spinning a line, giving it a polish of wit and real bite, but more than that, she's a joy simply to watch--the way that she listens, and the way that you see her think before she speaks. Watch her cutaways during an early date that is not going well, or the look on her face as she sits in her first nightclub and drinks it all in; she's wonderfully expressive without ever even approaching overacting. She's so strong and interesting, in fact, that when she crumbles late in the film, it's devastating. This is a performance of tremendous dexterity and poise from an actor we'll be hearing much more from.

Scherfig's direction is emotionally charged without being showy--it doesn't have to be. There are flashes of style here or there (the faux-French New Wave photography of the Paris sequence, a subtle push-in on Jenny during a key climactic moment), but she mostly trusts the story and trusts her actors, and for good reason. The closing scenes feel slightly rushed and there are some bothersome loose ends (particularly with regards to Danny and Helen), but those objections aside, An Education is a knowing, affectionate portrait of a man who was surely the best and worst thing that ever happened to a girl who probably should have known better.

"An Education" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 30. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Commentary: On Armond White's "Greenberg" Problem

I should start with some background on the Armond White vs. Noah Baumbach thing. Movieline does the full play-by-play here, but it boils down to this: Armond White, as anyone who has tracked with him at all is acutely aware, is a contrarian asshole who hates everything that’s good and loves everything that’s bad. (Don’t believe me? Check out his Rotten Tomatoes profile, or just take a peek at this handy-dandy chart.) He’s made gifted filmmaker Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming”, “The Squid and the Whale”) a frequent target, most notably in this passage at the end of his review of “Mr. Jealousy”:

“I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [former Voice critic Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.”

So yeah, there’s a chance that perhaps crosses a line.

As a result, Mr. White was not invited to the first New York critics screening of Baumbach’s latest, ”Greenberg”. Here’s where the stories split; the film’s publicist, Leslee Dart, says that it was always her intention to invite White to a later screening; he claims he was never invited “until their ban was made public.”Either way, White insisted that his First Amendment rights were being infringed.

His resulting piece for “The New York Post,” “My Greenberg Problem—and Yours,” must be read to be believed. He paints himself as the victim of a vast conspiracy, orchestrated by Baumbach, Dart, “The Village Voice”’s J. Hoberman, and (I guess) every critic who had the temerity to like one of Baumbach’s films. Oh, and everyone is a racist for thinking he’s an insane person, because he’s black. Or something. ANYHOO, here’s my letter to the editor in response:

Jerry Portwood
Editor, New York Press

Mr. Portwood-

Armond White’s delusional, self-important screed “My Greenberg Problem—and Yours” is somewhat remarkable; it manages to encompass everything that is loathsome and hateable about your cause célèbre critic in a mere 2,252 words, seemingly without even trying. If I may, I’d like to add a few of my own—as a fellow critic, albeit a lower-paid one that occasionally dares to praise good films and critique bad ones.

The trouble with the quote in question, from the 1998 review of Mr. Jealousy, is not that “its impact is in your inference,” it’s that it’s so obliquely written that no one can seem to come to a consensus as to exactly what the hell it means. This is a danger with Mr. White’s particular writing style; since he has made it his mission to function not as a tastemaker but as a contrarian, bucking critical trends, taking down well-reviewed pictures and elevating tripe, he is forced to overthink and overwrite his resulting discourses. White is clearly a smart guy, so the kind of communicative handsprings required to pawn off a positive review of garbage like Norbit or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry as well-considered appraisals (rather than knee-jerk antithesis) can result in a muddying of the prose. White looks at his quote and denies that he was calling for a retroactive abortion. Others look at the same quote and say that he was. Maybe it’s just bad writing?

But there’s plenty more where that came from, and one need only scan further into White’s messy declaration to find it. He takes broad, vindictive swipes at J. Hoberman; the latter’s esteemed reputation as a writer of note, it can be inferred from the pettiness and venom of White’s attacks, appears to genuinely get your troll’s goat. Sadly, he proclaims himself the victim of “a racist lynching by white critics,” a cheap, lazy playing of the race card in a situation where the race of the players couldn’t have less bearing on the matter at hand. He even succumbs to Godwin’s Law, howling in anguish at “Hoberman and his (Georgia) brown shirts” and announcing that “this is how fascists operate, attempting to besmirch opponents and write them out of history.”

But perhaps the saddest portion of the piece is his theory as to why Baumbach’s works are well-reviewed by pretty much every other major critic working today, including Hoberman. To wit:

“Hoberman’s film culture dominance exemplifies the nepotism and personal favors that rule the critical network in New York, if not across the country. Like some nefarious, shadowy dictator in a Fritz Lang silent, Hoberman’s influence (as NYU instructor to the Times’ Manohla Dargis and innumerable Internet clones) stretches from coast to coast, institution to institution. He’s the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism… Dart and Hoberman would prefer a film culture that caters to cronyism, always promoting “one of ours”—as when Baumbach’s post-grad employer The New Yorker allowed Bruce Dione, Baumbach’s former boss, to write the magazine’s positive review of Kicking and Screaming. That same dispensation happened with the media’s treatment of Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding… It exposes the hidden conspiracy by him and his backward children (you know who you are) to control film discourse. They give Baumbach the acclaim and attention withheld from less well-connected indie filmmakers. Their defense of Baumbach disguises their reluctance to engage this writer in a forthright discussion of aesthetics; it’s basically a witch hunt.”

Or… or… and I’m just spit-balling here… it could be that the reason Noah Baumbach’s films are well-reviewed are because Noah Baumbach makes good movies. I’m not one of Hoberman’s “backward children” (unless, contrary to Mr. White’s assertion, I don’t know who I am), but I gave the film a high rating and favorable review because I found it witty, smart, challenging, and entertaining. I don’t review with an agenda, but based on my emotional and intellectual response to the work. I’m funny like that.

But does this argument hold true for all of the other fine films that this broad, media-controlling “they” dared to praise, in spite of Mr. White’s clear assessments of the flaws therein? Did we all just get together and let Hoberman dictate to us that The Dark Knight and The Wrestler and Zodiac and In The Loop and Star Trek and Wall-E and Up in the Air and A Prophet and Shutter Island and Precious and An Education and Inglourious Basterds and District 9 were good films? What’s more, what kind of a vast conspiracy prevented us from seeing, as Mr. White did, the hidden genius of Transformers 2 and Dance Flick and Transporter 3 and Death Race and How She Move?

The short answer is, there isn’t one. White clearly couldn’t care less about contributing to a real dialogue in film culture—he aims to be a provocateur, and nothing more. At the end of his rant, he contends that “To the unbiased, I am known as a critic who speaks truth to power.” Apparently, in this context, “unbiased” means “lacking in anything resembling good common sense.” But it’s a telling line; by claiming to speak “truth to power,” his insistence on bucking trends and casting his lot on the far side of good taste (quality of the work in question be damned) is laid bare as his primary motivation.

White closes with a dire (and, let’s be frank, uproariously ham-handed) warning. “Don’t get it twisted,” he writes, “this Greenberg squabble is not about me, it’s about the contempt that the Leslee Darts of this world show toward critics and that Hoberman displays to competition. If they can do this to me, they can do it to you.” And again, with the “they”s and the paranoia; it’s all rubbish. The title of his article notwithstanding, White’s “Greenberg problem” is his, and his alone.

-jason bailey

On DVD: "Moonshot"

The History Channel is known for a lot of things--their documentary programming, their not-quite-historical reality shows, their (ahem) considerable interest in Hitler--but they're not the first spot on the dial you think of for original films. However, the network chose to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing by airing a made-for-TV docudrama about the landing, Moonshot.

The story begins on launch day, July 16, 1969, as Neil Armstrong (Daniel Lapaine), Michael Collins (Andrew Lincoln), and "Buzz" Aldrin (James Marsters) begin the historic mission. It then bounces back to 1962, and the announcement by President Kennedy of the country's pledge "to go to the moon in this decade and do to the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." The storytelling of Tony Basgallop's screenplay is a tad compressed (but what the hell, it runs 90 minutes--if you want scope, go watch From the Earth to the Moon), but effective; we meet the three men and their families, track the development of the crews and the technology (Lincoln has a funny scene trying out the urinary apparatus), and get a sense of the genuine danger of their work.

The sparse, intelligent handling of the Apollo I disaster is particularly well-done, as is the battle over which man (Armstrong or Aldrin) would be the first on the surface. The subsequent tension over that decision isn't terribly subtle, but it is intriguing, and in that area of real human interest, the performances come to life. The two men share a quiet, reflective back porch scene early in the film that sets the table nicely, and allows us to study the contrasts in their personalities. Lapaine's Armstrong is a bit of a blank slate, but that's as it should be. Marsters, best-known as bottle-blonde British vampire "Spike" on Buffy, shakes all hints of that persona to turn in a low-key, lived-in performance as the fiercely intelligent but somewhat prickly Aldrin. The insertion of garden-variety daddy issues to explain Aldrin's drive is a little pat, but it gives the character (and the actor) some context to work with.

Throughout the film, director Richard Dale uses vintage newsreel and TV footage (including the famous Cronkite broadcasts) within the scenes; the integration is not exactly seamless (few attempts are made to artificially age the new stuff), but the mixture is compelling. Dale also wisely chooses to use the original audio communications from the crew to Houston, which the actors lip-sync--it sounds awkward but isn't, and avoids much of the pressure to recreate iconic moments like "one small step for man." Those tapes also lend legitimacy and weight to the well-constructed lunar landing sequence, which is tightly paced and efficiently cross-cut, culminating with a goosebump-inducing "the Eagle has landed." (The effects in this sequence are also impressive, particularly considering the surely-limited cable budget.)

Some of the writing is mighty thin, and the inconsistency of the film's narration points to either laziness or unexpected re-editing. The ending is also a touch rushed, though in all fairness, it's not exactly a film that's working towards a suspenseful conclusion; we all pretty much know how this story turns out. Indeed, once they're on the moon, the picture is a bit anticlimactic. In the case of a film like Moonshot, we're more interested in the journey than the destination.

Moonshot may lack the high production values and star power of From the Earth to the Moon or Apollo 13, or the deep well of archival materials utilized for films like In The Shadow of the Moon and For All Mankind. But it's a nice kind of hybrid of those genres, ingeniously intermingling drama and documentary to tell a truly fascinating story with skill, if not a tremendous amount of depth.

"Moonshot" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.