Finding the Beauty–Book Review: The Language and Style of Film Criticism Edited by Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan

untitledTheory is dead. Well, so I am told. Since the 1990s critics, authors and writers such as David Bordwell, Murray Pomerance and many others have stressed the need to steer film theory in a new direction, whether it be film-philosophy, neo-formalism or another approach (if not theory altogether). Thankfully, if theory is not completely dead (which I hope that it is not) the often obfuscatory, impenetrable style that characterized the worst aspects of it may be. Implicit in the ongoing debate about the death of theory, is a question of cinephilia and its relationship to film criticism. The resurgence of cinephilia in film studies, while giving birth to an already bloated field of study, has also reminded scholars of the importance of style in the development of film criticism. While prone to excessive use of superlatives, what were the cahiers critics if not great stylists? Finding an adequate way of communicating both one’s emotional and intellectual thoughts on film are one of the many threads in a great new collection, The Language and Style of Film Criticism edited by Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan. Concerned with the form of criticism, each essay elegantly dances with unique style: fragmentary thoughts are cloaked as sentences while fiction and description melt into each other and overlap with analysis. There is such variation and passion in these essays, that while not all are transportive the collection feels alive.

Often introductions emerge as overly long explanations that merely preface the coming essays. In recapitulating essays they become a sort of Cliffs Notes for the collection. Pulling in a range of critics, from Camille Paglia and Raymond Bellour to Stanley Cavell and Andrew Britton among others, Klevan and Clayton’s introduction, rather than summarizing the collection, lays out a series of questions, concerns and hopes about the form of film criticism, all the while pulling out and analyzing the way different authors construct arguments. Of course the important, simple truths are often those that are forgotten. Klevan and Clayton mine some of those truths and bring them out in the introduction reminding readers that “evaluation is not simply something one might do, something optional; it is intrinsic to the viewing experience” (5). What establishes this introduction and thus the entire collection as both enlightening and uplifting is the sense of levity in the writing; this is an introduction that seems to take Cavell’s notion of perfectionism and reproduce it in its very form. Without question, the hope and belief in criticism-as-art permeates each essay in this collection.

Rarely does a sentence sputter out, rarely does a thought fade into the ether, rarely is an insight not gleamed from this poetic prose. Perhaps all the more impressive is that the authors do not attack any of the easy targets often raised as the enemy of less academic critics (post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, cultural studies). This introduction instead opts to investigate, citing V.F. Perkins the “important problem with oneself of finding the words that fit ones sense of the moment or the movie” (19). In many ways it is a replay of Emerson’s seemingly doomed quest of communicating experience. As Clayton and Klevan elaborate: “The challenge for the critic is not simply to surrender to platitudes about the undecided, but to attempt to specify the particularity of the indefinite” (21).  The introduction promises an investigation of language and style with such clarity and perception one wonders why there has not been more literature on this material already.

We have been introduced, now: how to begin? Alex Clayton’s first essay begins on unstable grounds attempting to highlight and dismantle the criticism provided by Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art. Clayton’s claims are pointed and often funny; of Film Art’s style Clayton writes, “it is as if the film has been sedated, or solved” (29). While certainly not untrue, Bordwell’s status as punching bag for critics makes this seem at first needless, even mean-spirited. As D.N. Rodowick highlighted in his 2007 essay “An Elegy for Theory” “no one’s commitment to good theory building is greater or more admirable” than Bordwell’s.1Thankfully Clayton’s essay evolves instead into a poignant uncovering of the critic as an individual pulled by the poles of time. Clayton suggests that “perhaps criticism can then be considered a communion between the critic’s present and past selves, as well as between the critic and the work” (36). It is a provocative suggestion that establishes the tone for the rest of collection.

The essays that follow create their own communion, one that reveals the experiential qualities and philosophic intricacies to film criticism. Robert Sinnerbrink’s essay “Questioning Style” rejects the false-objective style that dominates film criticism. It is an important addition to the burgeoning literature on film-philosophy. Sinnerbrink’s vision is not only of film-philosophy but of “romantic film-philosophy” (53).  Sinnerbrink argues that just as there are grand implications and possibilities for film, film criticism can reveal and uncover truths of the everyday—it can come to elaborate on the question of what film calls thinking. With criticism, Sinnerbrink claims we must “think with, rather than [think] on film” (52).

Adrian Martin reveals in his essay “Incursions” not film-philosophy but instead description-as-philosophy. Martin looks at three critics John Flaus, Shigehiko Hasumi and Frieda Grafe (all unknown to this reader) and how they approach the problem of description: how does one write about a scene in a film without being formulaic, boring, or staid? Martin’s essay lyrically and poetically defends description, turning what is often the worst aspect of an essay into an absolutely engrossing exploration of style. Martin’s essay, which is followed by Andrew Klevan’s essay (“Description”) on critics’ visions of The Magnificent Ambersons, challenges the reader to seize the presentness of film in scene descriptions. Forget textual analysis for a moment, what of textual weaving, textual creation—picture painting. These are the issues of Martin and Klevan’s important essays.

Although it may only be lightly touched on, as though a deft hand fingering the keys of a piano, what subtlety links the essays in this collection is the notion of community. Charles Warren writes that the pleasure of reading criticism may in fact rest in “put[ting the reader] in touch with a  community of those who confront and think about art. It is the person looking, listening, and thinking and finding words, who matters – more so than the insights and concepts as such” (143). Citing literary critic R.P. Blackmur, Warren ends his essay, urging critics not merely to embrace their intellect but also their imagination. Criticism may be a sort of communicative science, but it is necessarily and thankfully an imperfect one.

If Warren’s essay highlights the existence of such a community between film, those who watch film and those who read criticism, Lesley Stern’s essay “Memories That Don’t Seem Mine” paints a vivid, almost somatic, portrait of such a community. Filled with fictive interludes Stern moves through Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as light moves into a crystal and is refracted back thousands of different ways. Like the film, Stern’s essay is a series of moments, some elongated, others protracted, all of which seem to carry significance. The essay eschews any straightforward reading, instead unfolding in experimental form. Stern challenges readers and writers to conceive of the essay as a new mode, one which refuses the strict and seemingly false distinctions of fiction and documentary.

Stern seems to stretch the written essay form, but the last essay brings together cinephilic and academic tendencies in highlighting the rise of the video essay. There is something scary about beginning the journey of a video essay. Yet it is perhaps this mysteriousness that makes it so alluring. Christian Keathley’s essay, rather than demystifying, helps organize the “types” of video essays. His essay is an excellent, as he writes, “progress report” on how language and style in film criticism now have new meaning in the video and digital realm.  This is a crucial early step in the ever-growing work of video essay-artists such as Keathley and Matt Zoller Seitz.

In their introductory essay Klevan and Clayton claim: “we would like to see film criticism gain a more central place within the academy and develop in more dynamic ways outside it” (24). These essays certainly bridge the split between the academy and the widely-read critic. Rejecting academic jargon and sterile prose, all of the essays strive to open up film studies and urge writers and critics not to become rigid. For every film studies course that requires Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art, The Language and Style of Film Criticism should be required pairing. While apt for undergraduates, graduates and those outside of academia, there is something even more here for academics and those who may be bitter or tired or exhausted with film studies. This is a clarion call. Wonderfully under the surface of all of these essays is the notion that the history of criticism and theory is not one that is necessarily getting closer to any specific truth. In turning to critics such as T.S. Eliot, Raul Ruiz, V.F. Perkins and Roland Barthes there is still more to open up. Just because these thinkers wrote in a different age does not mean that their writings are insignificant to our age. The history of film criticism is not Whig history. Even further Clayton and Klevan remind us that an essay is never just an essay. An essay is not simply even an organized series of thoughts and feelings—it is something more. That something more is as ineffable and impossible to pin down as film itself. But it exists somewhere in the mystery of criticism as an art form. As evidenced by this collection one of the great beauties of film criticism is the pursuit of those mysteries.

-Nicholas Forster

Sincere thanks to Routledge for a review copy


1. See D.N. Rodowick “An Elegy for Theory” October No. 122, Fall 2007, pp. 91–109.

Book Review: Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of An American Director by Patrick McGilligan

NicholasRayCover

For many cinephiles, cineastes, filmmakers and Frenchmen Nicholas Ray was a titan—a man who thrived with a remarkably independent vision in the grind of the studio era.  Almost exactly a year ago Criterion released Ray’s classic (and my favorite of his films) Bigger Than Life on DVD. Here, in a review, Rob Ribera commented, “the film remains a delirious fever dream of longing, entrapment, angst and addiction.” Such words seem to characterize the life Patrick McGilligan aptly details throughout his biography, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. But where Ray’s film is layered with hallucinatory yet precise beauty, and his life is littered with bizarre relationships and confused characters, McGilligan’s prose is geared towards tracing a certain clear narrative with simple language. The research is deep and the author’s focus on Ray’s life before his rise to fame and after the success of his opus Rebel Without a Cause (1955) provides a new lens on his career.

Ray’s story is fascinating for all of the various details of his life. Surely few lives are as laced with as many close interactions with such a diverse range of figures that define the 20th century. A student of Thornton Wilder and Frank Lloyd Wright, a friend of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, a colleague of Alan Lomax and a lover of Marilyn Monroe, rarely do the pages turn of McGilligan’s biography that celebrity or literary legend does not show up. These details fascinate and help thread McGilligan’s characterization of Ray, which repeatedly highlights his charisma. They are also little dots in the compelling journey that defies any traditional rise-fall arc that so often plagues celebrity biographies. McGilligan’s subtitle sets up Ray as a “glorious failure” but the biography never preaches any downfall. Where McGilligan succeeds most is in tracing the events and personal interactions that surrounded and involved Ray (the author’s citation of critic, filmmaker, and Ray’s lover Gavin Lambert brilliantly guides the book’s second half.)

Ray’s life is not the story of unused potential. His story is not a Greek tragedy. He is no Oedipus. This is a tale of a definitely modern life filled with all of the contradictions, complexities and challenges that come with having a desire to be both political and popular and all the while remain artistic. It was the challenge of one who as McGilligan describes was “an eternal delinquent” constantly seeking a home and a community, all the while desiring to stand alone (276). Ray’s rise was long and arduous and his downfall, which was never so much a downfall as an inability to push forward a stunted career, owed as much to his addictions as it did a lifetime of bizarre relationships with important people. Like a man who could never swim but could stay afloat, Ray seemed to tread along throughout his life trying very hard, and yet not giving quite the effort needed.

Ray presents one of the most interesting filmmakers in highlighting film studies’ fluctuating relationship to auteurism. Put forth by the critics such as Francois Truffaut in France and pushed further by Andrew Sarris in America, “la politique des Auteurs” suggested even in the factory that was the studio system, even amidst the collaboration of set designers, assistant directors, actors and coffee runners, an individual vision created by the director could emerge—if they were talented enough. As comprehensive and fascinating monographs continue to be written on specific directors by creative authors, film studies continue to cry out against itself “that’s auteurist!” From Godard’s now oft-cited claim in his review of Bitter Victory that “Nicholas Ray is the cinema” any view of Ray carries with it the entire baggage of auteurism and the consequent rift between academics (who seem to shudder at the term) and film critics. There is something sincere in critics embracing auteurism, even if in many instances the director only provides limited insight into a film’s unfolding. McGilligan’s own struggle represents film studies ever-precarious understanding of itself where there is a desire to both hold on and grow from auteurism and yet also to break and shatter what seems like a relic from a past era of criticism that was fervent and purposefully polemical.

This ongoing struggle is reproduced in McGilligan’s rendering of Ray. McGilligan is often pulled between the poles of the production facts and an auteurist love for Ray, the great auteurist director. Broad claims are made: “A Nicholas Ray film always worked best when he could explore himself in the main characters” (136). Only later does the author ask, citing details about the importance, or lack thereof, of Ray in what is supposedly “A Nicholas Ray film.” There are other gaping statements that prove themselves untrue as well; McGilligan claims that once the conservative climate of 1950s burrowed its way into Hollywood ‘the era of socially conscious picture-making had come to an end” (230). Yet, he then goes on to talk about Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, two socially conscious films that typify the wanton worries of the 1950s.

The strength of Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director is McGilligan’s exhaustive research. From interviews and correspondences, to letters and press releases, the author weaves various sources together creating a quilt of information. It is in these citations where Ray’s voice emerges, and consequently where the book is at its most profound. However, when McGilligan loses sight of the narrative and digressions take over moments, Ray’s life seems to reveal moments of humanity and sincerity. McGilligan’s account of Ray’s love affair with a shadowy woman known only be her first name, Manon, or his relationship with Dean which was intimate and yet somehow untrustworthy become lucid anecdotes that reveal both the intricacies of Ray, but also the fragility of being. Within these asides are characters with names like Elia Kazan and Dennis Hopper who appear out of the fog repeatedly in Ray’s life.

Threaded through this all is Ray’s desire to carve out a bit of individualism in a system that denies that. If there were a guiding phrase for McGilligan it would be to prove that as Ray claimed, “The celluloid strip is a bloodstream.” (139) This ceding of voice sometimes leaves dangling possibilities that go uninterrogated, such as Dennis Hopper’s claim that “James Dean directed Rebel” to which Jim Backus (the actor who plays Dean’s father in Rebel) adds: Dean was “practically a codirector” (302).

Sometimes McGilligan’s prose reaches so deep into the well of clichéd muck that it incites a grown and muddies any possibility for poetry—McGilligan summarizes Rebel, as though citing a press release: “Today, Rebel Without a Cause continues to entertain, fascinate, and inspire (317). This is perhaps above all what seems most bizarre about this often-fascinating biography. McGilligan, who has a long history of writing about filmmakers, is at his best describing Ray’s life outside of film. Ushering in such a broad spectrum of research is admirable, but when quotations and claims go counter to one another, too often the author resorts to an endless line of rhetorical questions. Testimonials are given but there is nothing to parse them. Instead the author returns to re-establishing the thesis of Ray-as-true-visionary.

McGilligan’s love for Ray leaves the reader in a bizarre position. From his days of studying at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin fellowship to his continued drive to produce a unique vision of alienation in Hollywood, Ray was always a complex and anomalous figure. But he has never been mainstream. For the already converted reading Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director feels like talking with someone who knew Ray extremely well through mutual acquaintances, but never too personally. For the doubting, for who the name Nicholas Ray means only the director of Rebel (if that), then McGilligan’s descriptions amount to a list of encounters with fascinating people, and a charismatic man who consumed copious amounts of drugs and never seemed all that concerned with the people around him for long enough. A review of Ray’s They Live By Night, which McGilligan quotes, laments, “if only [Ray] had taken the trouble to be a Frenchman we should be licking his boots in ecstasy” (179). For the uninitiated, such a statement seems apt for this biography. The author lays out the French appreciation of Ray as an auteur, and although his mine of production facts reveal the filmmaking process as definitively a collaborative, one where Ray sometimes had little hand, the author still clings to the notion of there being “A Nicholas Ray” film.

However, for any of these complaints, McGilligan’s assiduously detailed research is a long awaited and welcome addition to the English language literature, for which there remains a dearth of, on Ray. Nicholas Ray both demystifies and further pedestalizes the great director. There was no Greek fall, but there is a certain beauty to a man who, as McGilligan reminds quite often, would pause for long periods of silence in midst of conversation. These long silences, gaps unfilled where potential for insight floated like a haze, would be echoed after Ray made his last Hollywood film.  To even begin to know such a tale is important to understanding a director who lived and made films during the golden age of Hollywood, yet never seemed to think in that age. While it may not be authoritative, McGilligan’s vision of Ray is seemingly something more important: authentic.

-Nicholas Forster

Sincere thanks to It Books and Harper Collins for a review copy.

Patrick McGilligan’s Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director (560 pages, with a 16-page color photo insert) will be published by It Books on July 12th.

Masters Adapting Masters: Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear

kinglearjean-lucgodardb86qGodard’s King Lear (1987) oscillates between being both a mess and a masterpiece. Shunning any straight-reading of the Shakespeare play, Godard, as he did throughout the 1960s, raises questions about the instability of language and the very meaning of art in a society driven by the culture industry. There is no real plot to Godard’s film and King Lear seems only cursorily interested in Shakespeare’s play, and yet Godard cultivates many of the ideas of his earlier films such as Vivre Sa Vie, Made in the U.S.A. and Pierrot Le Fou in a more coherent manner. Taking place after Chernobyl, in a world where art has been destroyed Godard traces William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth’s attempt to recreate his ancestor’s work. If Godard shows us the breaking down of Paris in Alphaville, in King Lear the world has already been demolished and reborn. Still, even as art is being re-instantiated and reconstituted, Godard’s world is an attritional one.

This manifests itself in a variety of visual set pieces, perhaps one of the most interesting being Godard himself, who appears in the film as a crazed pseudo-intellectual with audio/visual cables for hair. Speaking out of the side of his mouth while he chomps on a cigar Godard’s Professor Pluggy rattles off terse statements that sound both vacuous and philosophical. Here Godard collapses the boundaries between sciences and the humanities, between technology and literature by introducing a world that has lost its art. Pluggy’s words do generate meaning as they enable Shakespeare to “remember” original lines of long lost plays, but Pluggy also provides an interesting auto-critique. Self-reflexiveness is certainly not new for Godard, but the flippant nature of his character and the film as a whole (which begins with a recorded phone conversation between Godard and producer Menahem Golan who expresses frustration over how long the film has needed to be finished) consists of so many layers that Godard unravels the film even as it is presented to the audience.

What is perhaps most startling and most impressive then, is that amidst the bric-a-brac of earlier Godard films and the brief appearances by Woody Allen and Norman Mailer, is a rather straight performance by Burgess Meredith as Don Learo. Created both by Godard and Norman Mailer, who as “The Writer” in the opening scene exclaims the only way to make Lear in the present is to “make it a gangster picture” Meredith appears to have walked into Godard’s film from another movie. As Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina winked at the audience and actors such as Brigitte Bardot and Eddie Constantine played on their culturally defined type, Meredith leaves no trace of irony or self-awareness. It is this juxtaposition of the sincere and the ironic, the false and the real, the unanswerable questions and the answers for which there are no questions that permeates throughout King Lear. If before this Godard made political films and films about the capability of cinema, Lear represents an entropic investigation not just of the cinematic apparatus but of our own epistemological apparatuses.

-Nicholas Forster

Currently King Lear is only available on DVD outside of America, although a VHS was released in the early 90s.

Locating the Infinite: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

UncleBoonmeeHow do you describe the indescribable? Such a question, lies at the heart of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Continuing the trend of so many masters, from Godard and Herzog to Fuller and Hitchcock, Weerasethakul combines both high and low art, in charting the final days of one man’s life. Boonmee is silly, magical, and ridiculous, even wonderful. Yet, the film is more than any of the various loving adjectives; it is unlike anything released in the last decade.

The plot of Boonmee is quite simple. Dying of an ambiguous kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee retreats to a farm where he hopes to relax as his sister-in-law cares for him. One night during dinner, Boonmee is visited by the ghost of his wife. Although she has no corporal body, she appears and chats with Boonmee, his sister-in-law and Boonmee’s nephew Tong. Joining Boonmee’s wife is his son, who comes in the form of a gorilla with glowing red eyes. For all of the possible bizarre, oneiric possibilities that come with the sudden appearance of Boonmee’s wife (who has been dead for twenty years) and son/ape, the scene is not haunting. After the initial shock, it all seems so normal. Surprised, Boonmee quickly becomes enthralled with his loved ones—just as one easily falls back into an old routine, the sudden spectral appearance of his wife and son become not spectacular occasions but important steps to understanding the end of his life.

This is a film of moments and minimal movements. About half way through the movie, lying on his bed, Boonmee hugs the ghost of his wife and proclaims his love for her. What begins as a touching scene soon turns uncanny as the camera lingers on the couple for far too long. It is a frightening scene not because it induces horror, but instead because Weerasethakul plunges deep into the problems of communication. Not only is Boonmee denied an ability to communicate love and passion, but he seems unable to communicate in general. Weerasethakul challenges our own ability to transmit anything in a coherent, understandable way that is truthful to how we feel. There is not a question of whether there is something truthful, but instead a question of how we access that. Boonmee later asks his wife about heaven and hell and if they will be able to meet when he dies. Her reply is simple but devastating: “Ghosts are attached not to places, but people.” Softly spoken the statement emerges from her lips with great beauty and poignancy. Yet we wonder: will she be able to tie herself to Boonmee when he is dead? It is seemingly silly question but it must be asked, are ghosts people?

Tied with such a question is an even greater problem of epistemology. Working through a myriad of genres Boonmee examines not only the problem of knowing others (Boonmee tells his Chewbacca-like son—“I want to recognize you but I can’t”) but more importantly the never-ending quest of self-actualization. Weerasethakul seems to find the answers to such questions in little movements that somehow convey unspeakable greatness. Repeatedly scenes are shown where Boonmee’s sister or wife adjust the tape of Boonmee’s medical apparatus on his stomach. His kidneys slowly deteriorate, and this is the last way to prolong the inevitable. It is a facile action and yet it is the site where the film merges genre tropes with an intensely metaphysical experience.

Through these little movements, Weerasethakul does not merely extol the virtues of life or rely on platitudes about experience, but instead illuminates the sheer importance of the everyday, of our small quotidian actions. Boonmee’s past emerges in the return of his dead wife and prodigal son, but also in small moments such as his lamentation that perhaps his sickness is a karmic consequence of his actions during the war. It is a passing thought for Boonmee, but it is a painful one that seems to weigh heavily. Memory is not a sepia-toned nostalgized vision of the past. For Boonmee, memory is a fragmentary series of events, interactions and relationships, which deny rationality. Logical thought has no place to go.

Many have derided Boonmee as being slow and hard to watch. Such a condemnation seems unnecessary in part because Boonmee is a series of intensely spiritual, albeit contained stories; one could enter the film at almost any moment. Certainly the film’s transcendental world is best experienced in its entirety, but it seems that watching the film and letting one’s mind wander is part of the film’s beauty. Boonmee features a fable like structure that meanders and slithers along. Eschewing a focus on symbolic meaning, Weerasethakul feels his way through a maze of questions. With each act and question characters become imbued with mythic meaning. Embedded in the merging of the ascetic with the extravagant is a question of how people construct a certain mythos to helps interpret the world.

Typically positive characterizations for contemporary cinema come in the form of pithy exclamations; a film is said to “command attention.” Boonmee exists outside of such a lexical understanding—this is not a film that forces anything on the viewer. Like Antonioni’s L’Aventura, Boonmee does not dash towards a final goal but instead lurches forward, peeking behind various bushes, revealing more every minute, all the while the film’s feet remain firmly entrenched in the earth.  Boonmee exists in a realm that is both deeply depressing yet emotionally enlightening. Weerasethakul opens up not just a visual or aural landscape, but an imaginative world. The film’s ultimate triumph is not that it helps us understand cinema but that it helps us understand the very world outside of the theater.

-Nicholas Forster

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives played At the MFA from April 6-9 and will be opening in Boston again in coming weeks.

The film won the Palme d’Or in 2010.

Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; directors of photography, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Charin Pengpanich; edited by Lee Chatametikool; production design by Akekarat Homlaor; produced by Simon Field, Keith Griffiths, Charles de Meaux and Mr. Weerasethakul; released by Strand Releasing.

With: Thanapat Saisaymar (Boonmee), Jenjira Pongpas (Jen), Sakda Kaewbuadee (Tong)

Your Highness

your-highness-posterOnce upon a time, about eight years ago, David Gordon Green was America’s most promising young filmmaker. In certain circles, people were calling him the next Malick, and while comparing a twenty-seven year-old with two feature films under his belt to the greatest American filmmaker since Orson Welles may have been a bit excessive, it was not without reason. Aside from some striking aesthetic similarities (a shared interest in poetic realism and Faulkner-esque characters and dialogue), I think George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003) simply represent the finest beginning to an American’s career since Badlands and Days Of Heaven. I say all of this just to make it clear why I am so utterly disappointed in his latest film, Your Highness. I appreciate the desire to switch it up and make something different, and I thought Green’s first foray into comedy, Pineapple Express, was at least somewhat entertaining, and since then he has directed multiple episodes of Eastbound and Down, my pick for the funniest show currently on television, but everything he learned from those jobs seems to have been forgotten in this mess of a film. Your Highness simply is not funny. At all.

Eastbound and Down star Danny McBride, who also co-wrote the film, stars as Thadeous, the lazy and crude younger prince of a medieval fantasy kingdom. He prefers to simply sit around, chase girls and get high while his heroic brother Fabious (James Franco) is celebrated for his various quests and clearly more beloved by their father the king. One day, Fabious comes home with his new fiancé, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), who is soon kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (the always underrated Justin Theroux), who wants to use her to awaken a dragon that will allow him to take over the world. The king forces Thadeous to go along on Fabious’ quest to save her or risk banishment. Along the way, they fight a group of dwarves, escape from a village of crazed naked women, fight a few monsters, get molested by both a wizard and a minotaur (a sequence that ends with the sophomoric but still kind of amusing image of Danny McBride wearing a Minotaur penis as a necklace for the rest of the film), get high, make a lot of gay jokes and, eventually, team up with a Isabel, a warrior played by Natalie Portman. After all of that, they eventually remember that they have a princess to save and deal with that problem.

There is only one sequence in the film that can be described as something that is distinctively Green’s. It’s a small moment during Fabious’ interrupted wedding when Thadeous, who has decided to get high and not attend, is chasing a bunch of sheep around a field in slow motion. It’s one brilliantly absurd moment in a film that should have included many more. It is also the film’s most memorable moment and probably it’s funniest. Aesthetically, most of the rest of the film falls pretty flat, with none of the flourishes that have defined Green’s career so far. Outside of this one great scene, most of the attempts at humor basically boil down to a variety of anachronisms , most of which are built around Danny McBride saying things like “fuck” that seem out of place in the medieval setting. Whether or not you are able to sit through this film depends solely on how you feel about McBride and the character he usually plays. Whatever minimal enjoyment I got out of the film comes largely from the fact that I happen to love Eastbound and Down and the basic idea of Kenny Powers fighting medieval monsters. If that does not sound appealing, than there is really nothing here for you; I mean, I dressed as Kenny Powers for Halloween last year and it was barely enough for me. There is not a single remotely amusing moment in the film that focuses only on Franco, who should never play the straight man in a comedy. People loved Pineapple Express because of his utterly ridiculous performance, and he should have been able to do that kind of work here. Deschanel and Portman are wasted in relatively small rolls that forbid either of them from actually being funny.

In a sense, I think they film may have been made as an ironic homage to the over-the-top fantasy films of the 80s, like Clash Of The Titans and Krull than as a regular comedy. The problem is that simply adding raunchy modern dialogue to those films is not enough to make them funny, so its left in something of a middle ground—not engaging enough to be seen as an interesting drama but not funny enough to be simply enjoyed as base entertainment. That aside, there are a few places where the techniques used for homage do kind of pay off. The amusingly inconsistent English accents of the main characters do a good job of poking fun at the questionable acting in those 80s hits. I also did appreciate that the special effects were practical, and not computer generated. A character getting molested by a giant puppet/mechanical minotaur is much funnier than a character getting molested by a computer generated minotaur. Green has said that much of the dialogue was improvised on set, with only a general script outline to guide the actors, which does explain why some of it falls so flat (improv comedy works on TV shows where the actors have time to build their characters and decide how they’d react to a given situation, not in big-budget movies shot in a short period of time). All of this just goes to show that everyone involved had a lot of fun making this movie. Needless to say, nobody in the audience will be as amused as they were.

-Adam Burnstine

Your Highness is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, violence and some drug use.

It opens everywhere on April 8th, 2011

Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Danny McBride and Ben Best; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Craig Alpert; original score by Steve Jablonsky; art director, Gary Freeman; produced by Scott Stuber; distributed by Universal Pictures. Run time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

With: Danny McBride (Thadeous), James Franco (Fabious), Natalie Portman (Isabel), Zooey Deschanel (Belladonna), Rasmus Hardiker (Courtney), Toby Jones (Julie) and Justin Theroux (Leezar).

Certified Copy

Certified-Copy-PosterLooking over my now three-month-old list of the best films of 2010 (which I now realize I should have posted here) I’m noticing how much some of the positioning would change with the benefit of time. The key word there is “some.” There is still no doubt in my mind about the top two films on that list: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. These films, which picked up the Palme d’Or and the best actress award respectively at Cannes last year, are far and away the most beautiful and engaging pieces of cinematic art that I’ve seen from last year. While Boonmee seemingly never expanded beyond the most limited of releases, which is frankly kind of insulting for a Palme d’Or winner, Certified Copy has finally opened at your local art cinema.

Certified Copy stars Juliet Binoche as a nameless French woman living in Tuscany with her son. I’ve always been a huge admirer of her work, and this film only strengthens her claim as one of the finest actresses of her generation. William Shimell, an opera singer making his screen acting debut, is the other lead, an English author of a book on the value of reproduction in art who has come to speak in Tuscany. Having seen the movie three times now, I’m still amazed by how well Shimell can hold his own with someone as talented and experienced as his costar. She attends his talk and seems interested before her son forces her to leave. For some reason, he visits her antique shop the next day, and they decide to spend the day traveling to an old Tuscan town. As they wander around the town, we sense that there is some sort of antagonism between the two characters and that they may have some past together. Eventually they stop at a café, and, in what is by far my favorite moment in the film, she tells the woman running the café that she and the writer have been married for fifteen years. At first this seems like the setup for a screwball comedy, but after a few minutes it becomes clear that this may actually be true. After they leave the café, their conversation changes, they begin speaking in French instead of English and he seems to be playing along. Thus we are left to wonder if they are married people who were pretending to not know each other or single people pretending to be married. We see them reenact parts of their marriage and honeymoon, which supposedly occurred in this same town, and they spend time with older and younger couples who may as well be different versions of themselves.

If there is one way not to react to this film, it is to focus on the supposed mystery at the center. Almost all of the dialogue in the film, particularly when it involves her son, could be interpreted to support either answer, and I do not think Kiarostami really wants us to know if they are married or not. Of course, the answer could be both: we could be seeing both of these moments in their relationship, just with the same actors and the exact same setting. This was my first reaction, but now I realize that it just does not matter. This major thematic concern of the film is a question of the value of reproduction. The writer’s book states that a reproduction of a work of art still has value because it was created by someone, and that a copy can have greater cultural significance than an original. In an interview in the most recent issue of Cineaste, Kiarostami said: “The value of copies is that they can direct us toward the original.” He uses the Mona Lisa as an example. The original is a beautiful painting, but people would not be as aware of it without the endless copies. Does either of their relationships—as two single people with similar interests and as two married people trying to figure out where it went wrong—lose value because it may not be an original? No, of course not. For them, whichever one is just a copy will undoubtedly lead in the right direction, and for us both relationships are emotionally engaging, beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted. Neither affects the audience any more or less than the other, even though logic states that one has to be “false” in some way. Kiarostami also uses lighting and framing techniques that are heavily influenced by, if not directly taken from, classic painting. The fact that they may not be original clearly does nothing to harm the unique beauty of the paintings or the film.

I do not think it is possible to discuss this film without at least briefly mentioning the political situation surrounding its genesis. Following the violent protests surrounding Iran’s rigged 2009 presidential election, the government arrested several prominent filmmakers and clamped down on all freedom of speech. Kiarostami was too big a name to imprison, but he was smart enough to know that in order to make the film he wanted to make, he had to get out. The sense of confusion and displacement felt by the characters and the audience seems like an approximation of what he felt while making the film. Kiarostami is arguably the single most important director in Iranian history, and he can no longer safely make his films at home. The personal issues raised by this sudden transition at least seem to play a role in the marked transition away from the minimalist realism of his earlier films to a more classically European style of filmmaking.

I wish I had a deeper knowledge of the director’s work before writing this review. I’ve only seen Close-Up and Taste Of Cherry, Kiarostami 101 if you will. That being said, Certified Copy is the first major film he has made outside of his native Iran, and it is stylistically different from much of his previous work. Taste Of Cherry and Close-Up (as well as most of his other films, if you go by reputation alone) share a minimalist style that is highly influenced by neo-realism, while Certified Copy shares much more with later European art cinema. Many have compared it to L’avventura and Last Year At Marienbad in particular. I’d like to point out that Certified Copy is far less dense than those classics and much more likely to be enjoyed by a general audience, but the comparison is at least somewhat accurate. All three films create a sense of disorientation among the audience by questioning all of our previous knowledge of the characters and forcing us to see them in many different ways. They are also all stunningly beautiful films which make magnificent use of their settings, and the local architecture in particular, to help create a theme. The most striking example of this in Certified Copy comes about when they are driving away from her store and the entire conversation in the car is framed from the front with her town reflected in the windshield. Here, Kiarostami seems to be asking us if this reflection of the town is any less beautiful than the real thing, which fits perfectly into the film’s thematic concerns. Kiarostami has a reputation for making films that can be slow and difficult to watch if you don’t appreciate his style, but that should not stop anyone from seeing Certified Copy (or any of his previous films for that matter). This movie is engaging, beautifully made, brilliantly acted, occasionally quite funny and it forces the audience to think on a deeper level than anything else in theaters right now.

-Adam Burnstine

Certified Copy is unrated, but contains nothing even remotely offensive.

It opens at the Landmark Kendall Square theater on April 1, 2011

Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami; director of photography, Luca Bigazzi; edited by Bahman Kiarostami; production design by Giancarlo Basili and Ludovica Ferraro; produced by Abbas Kiarostami, Angelo Barbagallo, Charles Gillibert, Marin Karmitz and Nathanael Karmitz; distributed by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.

With: Juliet Binoche (Woman), William Shimell (Man), Adrian Moore (son), Gianna Giachetti (Café owner), Jean-Claude Carriere (Man in the square) and Agatha Natanson (Woman in the square)

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln LawyerMatthew McConaughey is extremely likable.  When we look back at his most well-known roles—Steve Edison in The Wedding Planner, Ben Barry in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Tripp in Failure to Launch, Connor Mead in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past—it is more than clear that he can play the good-looking, smooth-talking romantic interest that is…well, likable (even if the film isn’t).  As he is a member of rom-com royalty, McConaughey’s likability may be one of his best attributes, definitely up there with his willingness to take off his shirt on command.  But the actor’s good-looking, smooth-talking ways served him well in his latest film, The Lincoln Lawyer, a crime thriller in which he plays a defense lawyer that is (you guessed it) extremely likable. 

The Lincoln Lawyer is only the second feature film for director Brad Furman.  However, the film is actually an adaptation of the Michael Connelly novel of the same name.  The novel’s bestseller status no doubt helped to attract some big names to the film, including Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Bryan Cranston, and even country music star Trace Adkins.  While performances were strong all around—even Trace was convincing in his role as a tough motorcycle gang leader—the film’s weak conclusion and soap opera-like plot twist ultimately exposed the director’s amateurism. 

McConaughey plays Mick Haller, cunning and calculating defense attorney, who spends most of his time working on cases from the backseat of his Lincoln as his chauffeur, Earl, drives him from courtroom to courtroom.  For Haller, money trumps justice (he postpones a trial until his client pays him), and his clients’ innocence or guilt is beside the point, as it is far easier to assume that everyone is guilty than to try to sleep at night knowing that an innocent client is behind bars.  So when the wealthy Louis Roulet (played by Ryan Phillippe) specifically requests Haller’s services in his assault trial, Haller doesn’t hesitate to sign on, expecting to make a fortune off of the Beverly Hills playboy. 

Roulet, who is accused of brutally assaulting a prostitute, appears as the face of innocence at first.  This concerns Haller, who is always aware of the dangers an innocent client can pose to a defense lawyer.  However, with help from Frank Levin (played by William H. Macy), a former police detective, Haller discovers that Roulet is not only guilty of the assault, but is also responsible for a murder thought to have been committed by one of Haller’s clients years ago.  As Frank so succinctly puts it to Haller: “One client is in jail for what your other client did.”  Bound by lawyer-client confidentiality, as well as the fear of losing his license to practice law, Haller must come up with a way to make things right, all while still defending Roulet. 

The strength of The Lincoln Lawyer is in the story itself, which is at times murder mystery and at others courtroom drama, but always engaging and energetic.  Furman does well to emphasize the assumptions we are quick to make about defense lawyers and wealthy Beverly Hills families.  This packs the discovery of Roulet’s guilt with even more of a punch, as our assumptions are inverted—the defense lawyer isn’t actually all about money, and the wealthy playboy isn’t being framed for his money.  Moreover, Furman avoids the trap of turning The Lincoln Lawyer into a clichéd courtroom drama by distributing the action between the small and bare courtroom, the homes of Frank and Haller, and, of course, the Lincoln town car.  That is not to say, however, that the film is free of all clichés, as there are plenty of hackneyed shots of Haller sipping a drink and staring intently into the void. 

It would require very little effort to forgive Furman for these flaws, especially when we remember that this is (hopefully) only the beginning of his career.  However, the plot twist at the film’s conclusion—don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you—makes The Lincoln Lawyer more fit for daytime television than the big screen.   This is where McConaughey’s likability really comes in to play.  Would it be possible to sympathize with a slightly slippery defense attorney like Haller if he were played by anyone less charming than McConaughey?  I don’t think so, but, like I said, that Matthew McConaughey is just so damn likable. 

 

 

The Lincoln Lawyer  is rated R for some violence, sexual content, and language.  It opens in theaters on Marchh 18th

Directed by Brad Furman; written by John Romano; based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; original music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Ted Gidlow, David Kern, Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff, and Richard S. Wright.  Released by Lionsgate; runtime 119 minutes. 

With: Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roullet), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), and Josh Lucas (Ted Minton). 

Review by Melissa Cleary

Paul

Paul posterOver the last decade, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have discovered one of the best formulas in comedy. If you put them, and their quintessential Brittishness, into a scenario from any number of overly serious popular American films, hilarity will probably ensue. Of course, this formula worked best in 2004’s cult classic Shaun Of The Dead, and their next film together, Hot Fuzz, while not quite as hilarious, has grown on me over time, but both of those films were directed by Edgar Wright, as was the British television series Spaced on which they all worked together for the first time. Pegg and Frost’s latest project together, Paul, is their first without Wright, who was busy with Scott Pilgrim. Instead they brought in Superbad and Adventureland’s Greg Mottola and moved the setting from the UK to America. Since the project was announced, I’ve wondered whether or not this radical change in their methods would stifle their humor and hurt the final product, particularly because Paul included an influx of American comedy actors who had not worked with the duo before. The truth is that while the film never comes particularly close to their best work, it’s still generally enjoyable and lesser Pegg and Frost will always be better than whatever other comedies are coming out of Hollywood.

Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi nerds who have made a long-awaited pilgrimage to America for Comic-con and an extended road trip through all the famous alien hotspots in the southwest (Area 51, Roswell, etc). After a few interactions with some of the clearly disinterested natives (including cameos by Jane Lynch and David Koechner), they notice a car following their RV down the empty road. After a brief chase, the car flips over, and the occupant, an alien named Paul, voiced by Seth Rogan, walks out. Paul has escaped from the government, and he needs a ride. Graeme is more than willing to help out, and by this point Clive has passed out from shock, so Paul hops into the RV and the adventure begins. They are pursued by a group of quasi-competent government agents (Jason Batemen, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio). Eventually they accidently kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), an attractive born-again Christian/love interest for Graeme, and her father (John Carroll Lynch) joins the chase. While Ruth is initially steadfast in her beliefs, her interactions with Paul and the knowledge he imparts on her (through a Star Trek-style mind-meld), quickly lead her to lose faith and embrace sin, which she’s never done before. It goes without saying that Pegg and Frost don’t consider American evangelicalism important enough to waste more than a few minutes of film satirizing it in the broadest sense possible. Eventually, the chase culminates in a location that will be very familiar to any sci-fi fan, but not without plenty of shenanigans and sci-fi references along the way.

To begin, it must be made clear that Paul is no Shaun Of The Dead. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, but it is something of a disappointment in light of Pegg and Frost’s best work. It would be easy to blame the film’s weakness on Mottola or even on the change of setting (their previous two films are possibly the best satires of the stereotypical dullness of British society since The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy was first published, and leaving England behind may not have been the best idea), but in truth, I think it’s a script issue. A lot of Paul’s (the character) humor is a bit broad, mostly because simple sex and weed jokes aren’t any funnier if they’re coming out of an alien.  All of the cultural references are as funny as ever, but the film lacks the character moments that made Shaun and Hot Fuzz so great. In the desire to create a complex plot with more major characters than their other work, Pegg and Frost just weren’t able to write in enough humor for themselves.  I think they work best as a duo, and introducing Paul and Ruth into the equation deprives the audience of their brilliant chemistry. Thankfully, we’ll get another shot to see them together this year because Steven Spielberg (who cameos here) cast them in his upcoming Tintin adaptation. I also wonder if they may have been trying to make a statement about immigration in this film, which is about two guys in the southwest hiding an alien from the government. On the other hand, it could have just been an extended ET reference, but I do wonder what could have been if they had gone further down that path.

Now, that being said, taken out of the context of their previous work, Paul is still a pretty enjoyable movie. Pegg and Frost toss in a seemingly endless array of delightfully nerdy pop-culture references, ranging from the subtle (at one point, our characters walk into a dive bar where the band just happen to be playing the music from the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original Star Wars) to the, well, less subtle (yelling lines from Alien/Aliens at Sigourney Weaver, who plays the main villain). Further references cover everything from X-Files to Close Encounters. Mottola’s films may have some pacing issues, but if Adventureland and Paul prove anything, it’s that he at least knows how to make a reasonably good-looking comedy, an art that has been lost in recent years.  The desert settings and silly, over-the-top action give the director a lot of room to work with, and he succeeds as much as one could expect out of someone who unfortunately is not and never will be Edgar Wright. Whatever screen time Pegg and Frost lose, the rest of the cast gains and uses to their collective advantage. Rogen was probably the best choice to voice Paul, and his timing fits very well into the leads’ banter. Bateman is at his best when he’s playing an uptight jerk, and he steps perfectly into his role as the lead agent in charge of finding Paul. In truth, and this surprised even me, the funniest characters in the film are those played by Wiig, Hader (both of SNL fame) and Truglio (every David Wain project ever). While Hader has been consistently amusing in all of his recent film work, I’ve never been particularly fond of Wiig and I had no idea Truglio was even in the film. I never thought supporting characters would be able to outshine the dynamic duo of Pegg and Frost, but if the jokes work, I can’t complain about who tells them. In the end, mild disappointment aside, I did really enjoy Paul as a comedy, and I don’t know if I can ask any more of its creators.

-Adam Burnstine

Paul is rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use.

It opens in wide release on March 18th, 2011

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Chris Dickens; original music by David Arnold; art director, Richard Fojo; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Nira Park; distributed by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

With: Simon Pegg (Graeme Willy), Nick Frost (Clive Gollings), Seth Rogen (the voice of Paul), Jason Bateman (Agent Lorenzo Zoil), Kristen Wiig (Ruth Buggs), Bill Hader (Agent Haggard), Joe Lo Truglio (Agent O’Reilly), John Carroll Lynch (Moses Buggs) and Sigourney Weaver (“The Big Guy”).

The Adjustment Bureau

To date, there have been nine Hollywood adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories. The latest, The Adjustment Bureau (adapted from a short story called “The Adjustment Team”), has the distinction of being in the exact middle of the pack. George Nolfi’s film doesn’t even come close to Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly or even Total Recall, but unlike Next, Paycheck, Screamers and Imposter, it is at least watchable. That placement seems fitting, since the film is average in pretty much every other way as well. It’s the type of film in which every time something seemingly interesting is about to happen, the director/writers manage to shoot themselves in their collective foot and move back to comfortable banality. Every time an interesting theme from the original story (which I unfortunately have not read) manages to come onto screen, it is quickly replaced by simple unimportant drama. Every time a chase scene seems to be leading somewhere interesting, it ends quickly, wasting the impressive New York sets. Every time the characters seem to move into the realm of real human emotions, their conversation is beset by romantic clichés. Those glimpses of a more interesting story will keep you watching and, at the very least, prevented me from being bored, but they do not make for a particularly good film.

Matt Damon plays “bad boy” New York congressman David Norris, who is on the verge of winning a senate seat as the film begins. His campaign is soon crushed by a minor scandal, and on the night of the election, he can’t even hold his home county. When he goes into the bathroom of his hotel headquarters to prepare his concession speech, he meets a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), who, after a few minutes of flirting, inspires him to give a stronger, completely honest speech, which vaults him to national attention. A month later, he runs into her on the bus, but that is a mistake, and it’s where the film’s real narrative begins. A mysterious group of men is watching David, including Harry (Anthony Mackie, from The Hurt Locker) and Richardson (Mad Men’s John Slattery), and they seem to be controlling his actions. On this specific morning, they screwed up. Harry, who has been watching David since he was a child, falls asleep at his watch and lets David get on the bus. As a result of this error, David and Elise reconnect, and David is able to get to his office on time, which allows him to see these men, the titular adjustment bureau, in action. They have frozen everyone there in place (one of the better visual pieces in the film), and are manipulating their minds in a way that will help David in his eventual presidential bid. Unfortunately, after they see him, they have to take David to their headquarters and reveal their secrets, including the fact that he cannot ever see Elise again, according to their mysterious plan. Of course, David does not like this, but they have the power to prevent that sort of thing from happening, so there’s nothing he can do without the help of what little random chance he can get. Eventually, David does find her, and after much interference from bureau higher-ups, including Thompson, played by the great Terrence Stamp, David and Elise have to find a way to escape their seemingly infinite reach.

One of the film’s strengths is that the seemingly complex rules governing the bureau are never completely laid out and explained to the audience. Nolfi at least has enough confidence in his audience to assume that they will be able to understand what the actions in the film imply. Unlike the writers of, say, Inception, he realized that spending half of your runtime explaining the film’s self-contained rules leads to a pretty terrible movie. That being said, the explanations given are still pretty lame. The film’s other strength is its cast. Damon and Blunt have enough talent and chemistry to usually get over the fact that most of their supposedly romantic dialogue sounds completely scripted and unnatural. They’ve both done better, but you can’t blame them for the film’s failings. Stamp gets to play the type of menacing authority figure that’s always been one of his strengths, while the always charming Slattery brings a good amount of humor to what could have been a stock villain. Mackie is probably the cast’s weak point. He has a very good physical presence, but something just feels forced about the rest of his performance. The political backdrop allows for some amusing cameos, including Jon Stewart and Michael Bloomberg, which do help add a sense of realism to David’s story, since any major political candidate would have to interact with them.

My biggest issue with the film is that the adjustment bureau itself is seen as a generic group of villains, and the moral implications of their presence are never explored in depth. In a conversation with David, the disgruntled Harry reveals that they are what we usually call angels, but that in actuality they are more like “caseworkers who live a lot longer than humans.” They have a boss who they call the chairman, but it’s quite clearly implied to be some sort of God. This should have been the focus of the movie, but whenever it comes up, the focus swiftly switches back to the dull central romance. From what I understand about the original story and my general knowledge of Dick’s writing, “The Adjustment Team” is concerned with the same issues of paranoia and psychosis as most of his best-known work. The fact that these beings are constantly watching us and manipulating our actions is supposed to be absolutely terrifying, but Nolfi is either unwilling or unable to deal with this issue. After David discovers the existence of the bureau, he simply goes back to his everyday life with no noticeable changes. I guess there are a instances in which the shot selection conveys some of this feeling, particularly in the half-dozen or so wide shots of David alone in large empty rooms, but these shots are all quickly replaced by generic mediums and close-ups, with nothing particularly interesting or original involved. At one early, random moment, David and Elise briefly stop by a rave, and even that manages to look dull in this film. The visual blandness hurts the film most in its chase sequences. The bureau men are able to jump all over the city by going through a network of specific doors, which for them open in completely new places (for example, the outfield door in Yankee Stadium leads to Liberty Island). Eventually, David learns their secret and him and Elise make their escape through this network. Unfortunately, despite the ability to choose any location in New York, they spend most of the chase sequences running through generic office buildings and side streets. At the very least, I think these complaints show that The Adjustment Bureau did at least have the potential to be good, which it squandered in its subservience to bland Hollywood convention. On the other hand, it could have been much worse. At least it wasn’t another Next.

-Adam Burnstine

The Adjustment Bureau is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.

It opens everywhere on March 4th, 2011

Written and Directed by George Nolfi; based on a short story by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, John Toll, edited by Jay Rabinowitz; original music by Thomas Newman; art director, Stephen H. Carter; produced by Bill Carraro, Michael Hackett, Chris Moore and George Nolfi; distributed by Universal Pictures. Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

With: Matt Damon (David Norris), Emily Blunt (Elise Sallas), Anthony Mackie (Harry), Michael Kelly (Charlie Traynor), John Slattery (Richardson) and Terrence Stamp (Thompson).

Little Fockers

little-fockers-poster-2Little Fockers, the third, and hopefully final, film in the trilogy that also includes Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers, ends with a scene that serves as a surprisingly apt metaphor for the series as a whole. Early in the film, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) gives a speech in which he recounts some of the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his father-in-law Jack (Robert De Niro) in the first film. It’s nothing special, but some of the stories are reasonably amusing, just like Meet The Parents. At the end of the film, we see Jack watching the speech on youtube, and because it is so redundant, the speech is not funny the second time around, just like Meet The Fockers. Jack then clicks on an autotuned remix of the speech, which further replicates the same thing, but now it is soulless and mechanical on top of being repetitive, and that seems to describe this film in a nutshell. It’s like the first two, but now anyone with some cheap equipment and a few acting legends willing to embarrass themselves could have done the same thing. I have seen worse comedies this year (Macgruber, anyone?) but none of them have been as astoundingly lazy as Little Fockers. There is not a single joke or situation that isn’t a variation of something that probably wasn’t too funny when it happened in the first movie, and was far less funny when it happened again in the second.

The movie begins five years after the last one ended. Greg has now been promoted to head of nursing at his hospital (so at least there’s a letup on the unending male nurse jokes), and he and Pam (Teri Polo) now have five-year old twins. Meanwhile, Jack has a minor heart attack, which leads him to think about who will lead the family after he dies, and upon seeing that Greg is the only option, he decides to use an upcoming visit for the twins’ birthday to size him up, thus reverting to his old ways of creeping around and spying on Greg. At the same time, Kevin (Owen Wilson), Pam’s rich ex-boyfriend returns to town newly single, and although him and Greg are now friendly, he has renewed feelings for Pam. Jack isn’t Greg’s only problem, though. The contractor working on his new house (Harvey Keitel) seems to be screwing him over, the headmistress at the exclusive private kindergarten that Pam wants for the kids (Laura Dern) seems unimpressed with his son and the pharmaceutical rep who gets Greg to pitch her erectile dysfunction pills (Jessica Alba) seems to want an affair. Honestly, none of these stories are particularly important though, and the first two are dropped completely, never providing real resolution and completely wasting Keitel and Dern. The real conflict is between Jack, who doesn’t believe that Greg is fit for his daughter, and Greg, who is tired of his delusional father-in-law trying to ruin his life for no given reason. Oddly enough, I’d say the tile is actually somewhat of a misnomer. The movie has little to do with the little Fockers. They exist to move the plot a bit, but the kids are not given actual personalities and are really only pawns in the struggle between Jack and Greg.

The biggest problem may be that there is no longer anything remotely believable about these characters. It is simply impossible for me to imagine why none of these people have ever realized that Jack is simply insane, and should not be around his family. In the first movie, he was amusingly intimidating and, because of De Niro, still somewhat likable. By now, he’s just infuriating. De Niro recently announced that he was set so star in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, set to start filming next year, so it’s hardly time to call a moratorium on his career, but this is the worst thing I’ve seen from the fifteen years of trash he’s done since Heat, and I’ve seen Godsend. De Niro comes out looking much worse than the other great actors in this film—Dern, Keitel and Dustin Hoffman, who returns for a brief cameo as Greg’s father—because he is forced to stand on screen reciting whatever soulless banality the script requires of him for far longer periods of time. Stiller has the same slightly unpleasant air about him that he does in most of his bad movies (or really, everything except The Royal Tenenbaums and Zoolander), but, at the very least, it seems like he’s trying harder than De Niro. The few laughs in the film almost all come from Owen Wilson’s Kevin. The jokes about his ostentatiously wealthy and spiritually conflicted investment banker aren’t too different from the previous entries, but Wilson’s charisma makes up for the derivativeness. Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand reappear at the very beginning and end of the movie, but neither is given more than a few minutes on screen. Lucky for them, I think even the writers realized that their characters had worn out their welcome by the end of the second movie. The women in this film are just as underused and uninteresting as they have been in the past. Pam and her mother (Blythe Danner) continue to act as voices of reason with no other character traits and Alba’s character, named Andi Garcia for no particular reason beyond one failed joke, serves a purpose, insomuch as she makes Jack even more worried about Greg, but she too is completely devoid of actual human characteristics.

Jay Roach, director of the first two, stepped back and served as producer, and they brought on Paul Weitz, director of the truly atrocious American Dreamz and last year’s Cirque Du Freak. Why they would attach their blockbuster franchise to someone whose last films were both (deservedly) poorly received flops is beyond me, and the filmmaking on display here is as bad as you would expect. Weitz is overly reliant on close-ups, which, for some reason, are almost never fully in focus and are edited in a way which ruins whatever comedic timing there may have been on set. It’s hard to imagine much of that timing could have existed when working with a script that insists on using the same “Focker” jokes we’ve heard dozens of times in each movie as the main source of humor. The rest of the humor is equally flat and repetitive, almost like the audience is being forced to watch an even more painfully long episode of Two And A Half Men. I saw this movie in a near-full advance screening, and there were multiple stretches of ten or fifteen minutes where I couldn’t hear anything beyond an occasional chuckle from the crowd around me, and that’s because Little Fockers is, above all else, a mind-numbingly dull film that you should avoid at all costs.

-Adam Burnstine

Little Fockers is rated PG-13 for mature sexual humor throughout, language and some drug content.

It opens everywhere December 22nd

Directed by Paul Weitz; written by John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Greg Hayden, Leslie Jones and Myron Kerstein; original music by Stephen Trask; art director, Sue Chan; distributed by Universal Studios. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.

With: Ben Stiller (Greg Focker), Robert De Niro (Jack Byrnes), Owen Wilson (Kevin Rawley), Blythe Danner (Dina Byrnes), Teri Polo (Pam Focker), Jessica Alba (Andi Garcia), Laura Dern (Prudence), Harvey Keitel (Randy), Barbara Streisand (Roz Focker) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernie Focker).