Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Theaters: "Arthur"

The trouble with assessing Jason Winer’s new Arthur remake is this: the original was, quite simply put, a nearly perfect comedy, and it casts a long shadow indeed over this acceptable, innocuous, and ultimately forgettable cover version. There has been a rather strange rash of revisionist judgment with regards to the 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle in the weeks leading up to the remake’s release; suddenly a film with an 89% on the tomato-meter is getting the full-on “meh.” That’s bullpuckey; Arthur is as unremittingly funny on its 20th viewing as it is on its first, and you can take that from someone who’s done that particular experiment.

So it may be safe to say that young audiences more familiar with the antics of Russell Brand than Dudley Moore will enjoy this new version. This reviewer cannot accurately say, because, in spite of my valiant efforts to do so, I was simply unable to separate the two pictures. I can’t judge this Arthur on its own merits, because I’ve ingested the original so many times, over so many years. Maybe it’s better for Arthur and Naomi (she’s Naomi this time, instead of Linda) to meet when she’s giving unlicensed city tours instead of shoplifting from Bergdorf’s. Maybe it’s better for her father to only have four lines (and all straight lines at that). Maybe it’s better without Aunt Martha. Maybe the comparatively over-elongated ending is better. Maybe it is better to open it with the police chasing Arthur and Bitterman in a faux-Batmobile. Maybe, maybe, maybe. These things could all be true. Another writer will have to make that call. I’m too close to this thing.

In Theaters: "American: The Bill Hicks Story"

For comedy fans, the untimely death of Bill Hicks was tragic on a human level, yes, but also on a selfish one: How many hours of brilliant material were we robbed of? Here is a comic who seemed to be just getting going, having honed his uniquely bristling satiric voice over years of nightclub work (and hard living), and then he was gone, dead of pancreatic cancer at a mere 32 years old. In the years since, Hicks has become one of the most vaunted and idolized figures in the world of stand-up comedy. And now there is a new documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, which looks at his brief life and legacy with skill and insight.

In Theaters: "Meet Monica Velour"

Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival

Sometimes small films can have unexpected heroes. For my money, one of the most valuable players in the indie comedy Meet Monica Velour is the graphic designer (or designers) who worked up its opening credit sequence. It gives us a kind of quickie history of the title character, a superstar of the Nina Hartley-Annie Sprinkle order, who headlined skin flicks during the “golden age of porn” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But these folks don’t just find someone with the look of the period, and think up some funny porn titles; they work up posters for titles like “Hooked on Hookers,” “New Wave Nookie,” “M*U*F*F,” and “Pork ‘N Mindy” that look absolutely authentic to both the source material and to the period. (I think. From what I’ve heard about pornography. Um…) That kind of attention to detail is part of what makes Meet Monica Velour, a fundamentally scanty little movie, work as well as it does; they create a little world credibly, so that even the broader moments have a degree of reality to them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Theaters: "Blank City"

Nothing makes this cinephile happier than a good movie about movies—I’ve watched Z Channel and The Celluloid Closet and A Decade Under the Influence and This Film Is Not Yet Rated more times than I’d care to count, and while Blank City may not quite approach the five-star quality of those films, it is still a stellar, well-constructed doc that vividly recaptures a very specific moment in underground cinema.

Its opening passages are its best; director Celine Danhier is skilled with montage, and she assembles a fast-paced, eye-catching collection of striking images that sucks you right in to New York’s East Village in the late 1970s. She’s also good with context, utilizing period footage and eloquent, often witty recollections of just about anybody who was everybody in that scene to help explain where America, New York, and cinema were when a bunch of artists, writers, musicians, and misfits started picking up Super-8 cameras and making movies their own way, following their own rules.

On DVD: "I Love You, Phillip Morris"

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris is a wry, unpredictable little movie, with an oddball spirit that is both its blessing and its curse. It is, without question, a unique picture, with a zippy pace that barrels through enough plot for a miniseries, and a giggly tone that turns on a dime. But it is so much its own, peculiar entity that it is all but impossible to judge exactly what it’s trying to do, and whether it is doing it. Set adrift from our standard barometers, one cannot be sure whether it is nimble or messy, whether the narrative is ingenious or hodgepodge, whether Carrey’s performance is a masterstroke or a nightmare. It feels, at times, like Ficarra and Requa (who both wrote and directed) came up with three or four different approaches to the material, wrote them all, fed them into a paper shredder, and shot what came out.

On DVD: "Casino Jack"

The thing about the Jack Abramoff story is not that a great film could be made of it, it’s that one already was: Alex Gibney’s thrilling, brilliant, angry documentary account, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, released earlier this year. The most depressing element of the late George Hickenlooper’s dramatization—which carries the simpler title Casino Jack—is that it will presumably be seen by a much larger audience, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is not a documentary and that it features actors you’ve heard of, like Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston. But it’s a messy, lumpy affair which somehow takes the opportunity to streamline and dramatize the Abramoff story and instead gets all tied up in narrative knots.