Thursday, May 12, 2011

In Theaters: "Hesher"

There’s a real uncertainty in the early scenes of Spencer Susser’s Hesher; What’re they up to here? I kept asking myself. What are they trying to do? It’s hard to tell if the film is going for black comedy, sociopathic drama, or cheap thrills; by the time it ends, it’s still hard to say. There are scenes that are funny, others that are creepy, and then there’s Rainn Wilson, playing an empty shell of a widower and doing it absolutely straight. It almost feels like Susser and co-writer David Michôd (who wrote and directed the brilliant Animal Kingdom) decided to lock all their wild ideas into a room and let them fight it out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On DVD: "Bob Dylan 1990-2006: The Never Ending Narrative"

We think we know, by now, what we’re getting with these unauthorized music documentary DVDs: interviews with a variety of second and third-tier onlookers, scored to soundalike music, complimented with public domain footage, suspiciously lacking any input from the artist themselves, or any of the actual music in question. Bob Dylan is a particularly hot topic of this sub-sub-genre, the logic presumably being that his followers are so fanatical that they’ll pick up anything with his name on it; a Dylan tribute musician/“filmmaker” named Joel Gilbert has put out several barely watchable examinations of his hero, sometimes even repackaging the same subpar material.

The point is, it’s a bit of a shell game out there, which is why Bob Dylan 1990-2006: The Never Ending Narrative is such a nice surprise. It comes to us via Chrome Dreams, an outfit specializing in these releases; they’ve also issued some markedly sturdy U2 releases. Their strategy for standing out from the shady crowd is simple; their films are often made in Britain as news programs, thereby invoking “fair use” copyright rules that permit occasional song and video snippets, and they choose to seek out music writers and commentators rather than hangers-on. The results, make no mistake, are not great documentary filmmaking. But they are far better than what we’ve come to expect from releases of this type.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On DVD: "No Strings Attached"

The modern American romantic comedy has reached such a saturation point that the formula is no longer enough—there are no real stakes and no real suspense, because the construction is assumed and the resolution is a foregone conclusion. Boy will meet girl, they will fall for each other, complications will ensue, outside factors will conspire to keep them apart, but all will eventually right itself in the end, and they shall live happily ever after, tra la la. Every once in a while, an inventive filmmaker will shake up the formula, but more often than not, it becomes a matter of what kind of shading they do when they color in between the regular lines. Whatever interest is generated is found in the specifics, the details, the things happening in the periphery: supporting performances, subplots, slightly skewed perspectives. In last summer’s Going the Distance, for example, the memorable moments were not provided by the leading actors and their predictable predicament, but by the film’s unexpectedly dirty mouth, by the funny cameos from comics like Mike Birbiglia and Kristen Schaal, by the glorious weirdness of Charlie Day. Ivan Reitman’s new sex comedy No Strings Attached is a painfully calculable narrative; anyone who doesn’t know exactly how it will go should get out more. But there is a good line here, an enjoyable supporting actor there, and in the middle of it, there is Natalie Portman in a performance of genuine comic ingenuity and inventiveness.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On DVD: "Blue Valentine"

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine begins at the end of a marriage, and while we’re immediately made anxious by this portrait of dysfunction, at the same time a strange calm comes over the viewer. The events on screen are unsentimental; they’re played straight-ahead, with a deeply felt (if brutal) naturalism. The performances are unforced, the photography functional. Slowly, we realize that this was a film made by adults, for adults. If only that weren’t such a rarity these days.