Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "The Good German"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

Occasionally, as a film writer, you find yourself in the position of wanting to defend a movie instead of reviewing it. Such is the case with Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Good German, which is one of the year’s most interesting films, yet is being greeted with hoots of derision from most critics. Those who aren’t trashing it are hedging their bets with lukewarm reviews; most are making arguments against it that even they know are bullshit.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 7/30/10

Dinner for Schmucks: Jay Roach's remake of the Verber comedy "The Dinner Game" is packed full of likable, funny people: Rudd, Carrell, Galifianakis. Ebert thinks it works, primarily because of the specific way that Carrell plays this schmuck, though some other critics think it's a little long and tonally scattered. Either way, with this personnel attached, it's at least worth a look.

Get Low: One of the highlights of this year's Tribeca Film Festival was Aaron Schneider's low-key small-town period dramedy, which boasts yet another marvelous Robert Duvall performance, ably backed by Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, and the great Bill Murray.

Charlie St. Cloud:  Once upon a time, a young director named Burr Steers made a terrific little movie called Igby Goes Down, and I said, "this guy is one to keep an eye on." I may have made a bad call there. His last film was the dopey, formulaic Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again; he's now inexplicably reteamed with the teen heartthrob for this tween-bait weepie. Orndorf notes that the picture "means well"; I'll take his word for it.

Cats and Dogs 2: Wait a second, what?

The Extra Man: I keep waiting for American Splendor writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini to make another great film; I guess I'm gonna have to keep waiting. You can see what they're going for here, a tone of studied and delicate whimsy, but they just can't nail it; the script is all over the damned place, and Paul Dano (as we've seen again and again and again) is no leading man. There's one reason to see it, though: Kevin Kline, whose grand, theatrical performance is smashing.

Smash His Camera: Director Leon Gast's portrait of Ron Galella, the self-proclaimed "paparazzo superstar," is compulsively watchable; he's an entertaining character, the archival footage and photos are marvelous, and several good stories are well told by Galella and several articulate interview subjects. A few more critical voices might not have hurt, but it's still a well-done, stimulating doc.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Theaters: "The Extra Man"

Let us consider the strange case of writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made a huge splash back in 2003 with Sundance winner (and Oscar nominee) American Splendor. That film, an ingenious hybrid of biography, documentary, comic book, and general malaise, managed to be singularly unique in a particularly homogenized period of independent film; it appeared to mark the arrival of a pair of truly original voices. So everyone was more than a little confused by their 2007 follow-up, The Nanny Diaries, a film not so much bad as it was plain and forgettable. Anyone, it seemed, could have been behind this Upper West Side coming-of-age comedy/romance; there was nothing particularly distinctive to be found in it.

In Theaters: "Smash His Camera"

We first meet Ron Galella, the self-proclaimed “paparazzo superstar,” in his darkroom, where he talks us through the process of developing his pictures. He’s then seen going through his old notes, and fondly recalls a week in October 1971 when he “got Jackie five times.” The “Jackie” is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he pursued with a relentlessness that some might say bordered on obsession for something like the last twenty-five years of her life. Of particular note was their encounter on September 24, 1969, when Galella got too close for her comfort and she called the police on him. “Smash his camera,” she instructed her guards.

In Theaters: "Get Low"

Robert Duvall gets one of the best entrances of his career in Aaron Schneider’s Get Low. He’s chasing (with a shotgun, no less) one of the many young boys who throws rocks and runs from his remote cabin in the woods; he’s first seen only in flashes—a hand on his gun, his feet on the ground. He chases the boy into his barn, where he’s seen only in silhouette—and then he steps into the light, revealing the scraggly hair and beard of a Confederate general. (It’s a moment that also subconsciously recalls Duvall’s reveal in his film debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he also played an object of derision in a small Southern town.) It’s a wonderfully prepared entrance, and confirms what we’re hoping for—Duvall old-cooting it up in a Southern Gothic tale. What it doesn’t hint at is the depths of the film, the emotional power that its closing scenes will pack. I like movies that catch you off-guard like this one does.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On DVD: "Death at a Funeral (2010)"

You know what, I gave Death at a Funeral a shot. Yes, the mere notion of remaking a three-year-old British comedy seemed patently ridiculous--it was already in English, for God's sake! And newer than Happy Feet! And directed by an American! But the personnel involved are encouraging--the director is Neil LaBute, a director of skill (if not the first guy you'd think of to helm a fast-paced farce), and the notion of populating it with a mostly-black cast (producer Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Zoe Saldana, etc.) was intriguing. But it doesn't work. It might if you haven't seen the original, but I doubt even that; in trying to do both a faithful remake and a wacky buppie comedy, LaBute and crew accomplish neither.

In Theaters: "Inception"

With Inception, Christopher Nolan has taken the resources and budget of a major studio summer blockbuster, and utilized them to make a complex, challenging, thoughtful, thrilling, and ultimately rewarding film—to basically do everything you’re not supposed to do in a big-budget summer movie. But he did it, and in response, audiences have come out in droves. It’s a massive hit. There ought to be dancing in the streets when this happens.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On DVD: "Kick-Ass"

Matthew Vaughn is a director of skill and finesse, as anyone fortunate enough to see Layer Cake can attest; he's also at an absolute loss when stuck with the wrong kind of material, as the seven people who saw Stardust will tell you. His latest picture, Kick-Ass, sports a poppy, jazzy look, and has individual sequences that are as wickedly entertaining as any in recent memory. But it suffers from a confused tone; Vaughn can't seem to decide the degree of seriousness with which he's taking the material, and leaves the viewer unsure of exactly how the hell to react to it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

On DVD: "The Art of the Steal"

The Barnes art collection, located in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, houses “the most important and valuable collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern Art in the world.” In the documentary The Art of the Steal, an expert is asked what the collection is worth, and all he can do is shake his head. Others do put a rough price on it: $25 billion. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceuticals millionaire who assembled the collection, put it on display at his educational art institution, the Barnes Foundation, and when he died, left specific instructions that it was not to be moved, lent, or disturbed in any way—both to ensure his own legacy, and as a poke in the eye to the Philadelphia art elite. But they got his collection anyway. The Art of the Steal is the story of how they pulled off the greatest art heist in history, and did it in broad daylight.