bigger than life posterAfter watching Bigger than Life in all of its glorious, controlled, expansive, vibrant, claustrophobic, screaming Cinemascope glory I watched it again.

But this time I watched it without sound, and let Nic Ray’s framing, colors, and movement take over the storytelling.  Even without James Mason’s frightening performance as the suburban father slowly losing his grip on the frameworks of his life, the film remains a delirious fever dream of longing, entrapment, angst and addiction.

It is easiest to look at this film through the lens of Ray’s film of just a year prior—Rebel Without a Cause.  In that film, another family is forced to confront the fact that the nuclear family bond is violent, nurturing, magnetic and repulsive.  Whereas in that tale we find James Dean begging his father for some direction, here we have James Mason providing perhaps too much.  And so the roles of Rebel are somewhat reversed.  We do not see the Avery boy really looking for answers, but Ed Avery is no apron-wearing wimp.  He is devastating to see, turning math problems and games of catch into stark life lessons about manhood and disappointment.

In one such scene, as Ed Avery surely has slipped into some sort of madness, he drills his young son with math lessons, way past dinner time—his mother trying to keep a straight face in light of her husband’s dominance.  Having slipped the boy a small glass of milk to keep him going, she retreats to the table to await the completion of the lesson.  We cheer at her small victory, having fed the child while the monster is away for just a moment.  But as Ray’s frame reveals once they are seated at the table, every move leaves a mark behind.  This time, it is the remnants of the milk, still clinging to the sides of the glass pitcher.  A small victory turns into yet another opportunity for Ed Avery to burn.

Why does the burning man burn? This question, posed by B. Kite, author of the liner notes in this new DVD release, is in response to Ray’s original treatment for Bigger than Life, in which a man, aflame, runs down the street until he is smothered and extinguished—all while a horrified child looks on.  Why indeed.  Though this opening was never used, the question remains fluid and unanswerable.  Was it Suburban angst, fifties conformity, nuclear family control?  Or is it just the cortisone?  The beauty of Ray’s portrait and Mason’s performance is precisely its malleability.  In the structured frame there is a man bursting at the seams, aflame, his gasps of rage terrifying his family and us.  The final moments, then, give us little relief.  As Ed Avery pulls his family closer, closer, whispering, “Tighter…tighter.” We only wonder if he is tightening the coil yet again.

-Rob Ribera

Toy Story 3

toy_story_three_ver12_xlgIt’s hard to believe fifteen years have passed since the release of the original Toy Story. I was four when it came out, and all I remember from that first screening is being absolutely terrified by some of the damaged toys. Of course, now that film is more remembered for introducing the public to the style of animation that now dominates the weekly box office and to the studio that so defines that style that their releases have become yearly national events: Pixar. No studio has ever had a role like that, and now, fifteen years and eleven films later, Pixar has looked back to its beginnings to craft its greatest work to date, Toy Story 3. Now, to be perfectly honest, Pixar’s great track record aside, I was worried that this would be another cheap cash-in sequel from Disney, and while it doesn’t cover much ground that they haven’t hit before, it covers it better in almost every way. Toy Story 3 is funnier and more moving than anything Disney has ever released, and in terms of animation, it probably falls just short of the magnificent Wall-E, but is still near the top of the Pixar cannon.

This second sequel takes place ten years after the end of 1999’s Toy Story 2, with Andy on his way to college and Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toys facing a crossroads. Only the core group from the first two remains, with the rest having been broken or given away over time, and while Andy wants to take Woody with him, he decides to leave the rest of his toys behind in the attic (which is probably for the best, I can’t imagine someone with that many toys in his dorm doing too well in college), but a misunderstanding almost leads them to the dump and, angry with Andy for nearly throwing them away, Buzz, Jessie, the Potatoheads, Slink, Rex, Hamm, Bullseye and Barbie decide to donate themselves to a day care center. Woody follows and tries to convince them otherwise, but once they arrive, the group is convinced to stay by the leaders of the toys there, Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear and Ken (Ned Beaty and Michael Keaton respectively). Woody tries to go home, but the others stay behind and discover that the leaders are sacrificing them to be played with by the youngest children there, who have a shocking ability to cruelly break everything. Once Woody discovers the truth, he has to rescue his friends and get back to Andy before college.

Now, if you’ve seen the first two, this plot should sound at least vaguely familiar, but, as I said, that’s not really the point. Sure the admittedly predictable plot can be a bit annoying and there have been other animated films that deal with growing up and moving on with life, but none have done it with such humor and emotion. After Up, which I found to be incredibly unfunny, I was worried that this type of humor wouldn’t appeal to me anymore, but no, the jokes just had to be funny. A much higher percentage of the humor in Toy Story 3 is aimed at the adults in the audience than the children, and I really think that this film will have the most appeal to people like me who saw the first film as a child. The smaller cast allows for much more character development, especially of the human characters, which has never been Pixar’s strength. Thankfully, the characters they kept are all voiced by very funny actors (with a possible exception for Joan Cusack’s Jessie, who I’ve always found to be somewhat grating), and the writing has matured over time, so the one-liners can just flow from all over the screen.  Unlike Toy Story 2, where many of the new characters didn’t really work, the latest additions to the toy line, especially Ken, are all quite humorous, and the new cast members fit in perfectly. Aside from Beatty and Keaton, who are both fantastic, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin, Whoppi Goldberg and Richard Kind all join the cast in smaller roles. The smaller cast also allows it to reach a greater emotional depth, especially during the film’s final moments, which are easily the most moving scenes in any Pixar film. For the first time that I can recall in a Disney release, there is an actual sense of danger and excitement, and even though you know everyone is going to be OK in the end, there will be moments where you’re so lost in the story that you just can’t be sure. I would also like to point out that the requisite short film attached to the beginning, “Day and Night,” is the strongest Pixar short that I can recall, both in terms of story and animation, and that alone makes the 3-D upgrade nearly worth it. Thankfully, unlike Disney’s last 3D release, the dreadful Alice In Wonderland, Toy Story 3 was meant to be seen with that extra dimension, and the upgrade is handled with much class and subtlety. Nothing pops at you, but the greater amount of depth to the story is reflected by the greater amount of depth and detail on screen.

It was obvious from the trailers that this film would be less risky than the last three from the studio—Ratatouille’s basic premise seemed like it would turn off some viewers, people though Wall-E’s silent first half and anti-consumerist environmental message would anger much of the audience and Up’s more mature subject matter, dealing with death, made it seem less likely to succeed with children—and I’m worried that some will see this as a regression for the studio. So now I think it’s time to remind everyone that you can’t look at a studio in terms of Auteurism. I know I can be guilty of it, but, high artistic ambition aside, Pixar is a business above all else, albeit an extremely successful one. This is the first film Lee Unkrich has ever directed (he edited the previous two in the series), and he can’t be judged according to the studio’s prior releases, even if their worst film (Cars) is still noticeably better than anything rival Dreamworks Animation has ever released. Even with the core group of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and Pete Docter involved somehow in every project, every director brings their own stamp to the work. In Unkrich’s case, it’s an evolved focus on a sort of realism, with more natural colors and many shots showing just how small the toys are in the world, a perspective that was missing from the last two. On the other hand, it’s probably for the best that we treat some sort of animation that way. Until American audiences can accept animation as a legitimate medium and not something just meant for kids and so-called “family” movies, the best stuff will continue to come from Japan and other countries that are using it correctly (I would consider Richard Linklater’s two great rotoscoped films to be their own in-between medium). So no, Toy Story 3 isn’t quite as great as Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks, but it is the closest I’ve ever seen an American animated film get to that level.

-Adam Burnstine

Toy Story 3 is rated G.

The film opens everywhere, including Imax, on June 18th.

Directed by Lee Unkrich; written by Lee Unkrich, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Michael Arndt; original music by Randy Newman; directing animator, Michael Stocker; produced by Darla K. Anderson and John Lasseter; distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Running time: 1 Hour 49 minutes.

With: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Ned Beaty (Lost-O’-Huggin’ Bear), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Michael Keaton (Ken), Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head), Wallace Shawn (Rex), John Ratzenberger (Hamm) and John Morris (Andy).

The Last Airbender

last_airbender_ver7_xlgYou know, I really wanted M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender to be good.  It’s been too long since the last good fantasy action movie that I was willing to try to go easy on it because it’s a kid’s film and there’s no fun in trashing Shyamalan for his decade-long losing streak anymore, and I tried to like it, I really did. Kids and adults both seem to really love “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the Nickelodian show on which the film is based (I assume you can guess why they had to drop the “Avatar” part), so I had hope for the story, and there was no way he’d be able to throw a pointless twist onto part one of an already written trilogy. I was right about that second part by the way, but to go easy on this film would be a disservice. You see, it turns out that Shyamalan’s ineptitude as a writer extends beyond the ends of his films. The Last Airbender isn’t poorly written like, say, The A-Team, just to name another bad summer movie, no, this one is more in line with The Room. In fact, the idea that someone read this script and said “sure, here’s three hundred million dollars,” makes pretty much the same amount of sense as someone reading The Room and saying “sure, here’s six million dollars.” At least the second financer here may have seen the comic value in Tommy Wiseau’s cult hit. People have always said that Shyamalan is a better director than a writer, but whatever hope I had for an aesthetically pleasing film went out the door the second it was converted to 3D. This is by far the worst use I’ve seen of the new technology, although, to be fair, as far as I could tell, the only time the audience in the screening reacted to anything was to laugh at the general laziness of the 3D.

In the world of the film, there are four nations: air, water, earth and fire. Some people in each nation have the ability to control, or “bend” their specific element. In every generation there is an Avatar who can control the four elements and keep the world in balance, but he’s been gone for over one hundred years, and in that time, the fire nation has wiped out the air nation and began a war on the others. I can see where this premise could lead to good things. I imagined large-scale battles with thousands of warriors using elemental powers against each other. Unfortunately, the closest thing to a massive battle you get are a lot of shots of people pushing each other over with wind and easily avoiding cheap looking fireballs. The story begins with Katara, one of the last remaining southern waterbenders, and her protective brother Sokka, who may or may not be a good warrior (different information is given at different times in the film) on a hunt, where they find a boy and some sort of furry dragon thing buried in the ice. After they get him home to the village, the boy, Aang, reveals himself to be both the last remaining airbender and the Avatar. He ran away from his role as the Avatar before his training was complete and he was frozen in ice the entire time. The disgraced prince of the fire nation, Zuko (Dev Patel, just as dull and wooden as he was in Slumdog Millionaire) needs to find the Avatar to return home, and he begins chasing them down, After knowing each other for all of thirty seconds, Sokka, Katara and Aang set off to destroy the fire nation and bring balance back to the world. There are mishandled subplots, poorly introduced antagonists and bafflingly unclear plot points abound as Aang must learn to control water in time to stop an attack on the southern water nation, which is essentially a cheaper looking version Minas Tirith from Return Of The King.

The problem here isn’t in the plot, which is basically standard children’s fantasy fare, but the dialogue. There are interactions abound like this one between an earthbender and Katara: “The fire nation took this scroll from your waterbending village” “Oh, a waterbending scroll!” Each character is like a cheap toy with about four lines that they repeat over and over again as if the audience had already forgotten that little bit of exposition. The characters don’t show their emotions, but rather explicitly state exactly how they are feeling at all moments. Of course, their feelings never actually change, so the repeating lines over and over experiment is able to hold steady through the emotional exposition as well. The sad thing is that there is some potential in the story. I’ve never watched the show, but it seems like, given decent character development and proper attention to the side plots, it could be pretty good. That just doesn’t happen in the film.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the year’s two worst films, this and Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, were both shot in 2D and converted to 3D as a cheap moneymaking tactic in post-production. Of course, it’s also not a coincidence that they are both unusual forays into massive budget filmmaking from overrated big-name directors who combined to direct one half-decent film in the last twenty years (Burton’s Ed Wood), but that’s neither here nor there. It’s time for studios to stop doing this. Based on the overwhelmingly negative reaction I heard while leaving the theater and the line of excited teenage girls already forming for the midnight showing of the new Twilight movie at 8:00, I can’t imagine this film doing very well, and hopefully that will be some sort of a wakeup call to studios. I never want to sit through another film that looks like The Last Airbender. I imagine it would be an ugly work to begin with, but the 3D takes it from unpleasant to truly unbearable. Whenever the camera moves, which is a lot, the 3D can’t keep up with it, which essentially makes the whole screen into a massive blur. On more than a few occasions, this happens when the camera is stopped and for a moment the screen is just as blurry with glasses on as it would be with glasses off. At least there was some effort to make the 3D look coherent in Alice In Wonderland. In this film it’s just unprofessional. I tried to be open to this as a kids movie, but it is insulting to the intelligence of children, and I tried to be open to Shyamalan, but it’s only further proof that he has earned his reputation as a one-trick pony (and The Sixth Sense wasn’t really that much of a trick). The complete lack of effort put into the 3D is echoed in pretty much every other part of the film and to go easy on something like that would be a disservice.

-Adam Burnstine

As of right now, The Last Airbender is not yet rated. There’s nothing particularly objectionable.

It opens everywhere July 1st.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; based on the TV series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Conrad Buff; original music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Philip Messina; distributed by Paramound pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

With: Noah Ringer (Aang), Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), Dev Patel (Prince Zuko), Shaun Toub (Iroh), Cliff Curtis (Fire Lord Ozai) and Seychelle Gabriel (Princess Yue).


hunger_finalThere is a man lurched forward. His shirt is off, but his striped blue and white pants radiate in the background. The man’s face is emaciated but his expression is without pain or happiness. Where his skin isn’t stained red from blood or bruising, it is a bland pale white. This image is featured on the cover of one of Criterion’s latest release, the 2008 film Hunger. The man is Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) during his (in)famous hunger strike in 1981 as shown in Steve “not that one” McQueen’s debut masterpiece.

Sands’ hunger strike was part of a movement in the early 1980s by the IRA to have its prisoners recognized as political prisoners, rather than common criminals. As prisoners of war, they would be able to wear their own clothes, and demonstrate politically. The British government steadfastly continued its tradition of thinking that he I.R.A. as nothing more than street thugs. McQueen sets this situation up right from the film’s beginning in which a speech from Margaret Thatcher echoes on the radio “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence…There will be no political status.” The radio is owned by prison officer, Ray Lohan (in a quiet but incredible performance from Stuart Graham). Lohan begins his daily routine: showering, munching on eggs and ham, checking his car for bombs, and driving to work (the prison) where he beats Irish prisoners. This set up is really the only glimpse of the outside world that Hunger gives; most of the film takes place in the trappings of the Maze prison.

The first act follows Lohan, the next act traces two prisoners surviving in the prison. This beginning half of the movie is notable for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most obvious being its utter lack of almost any dialogue. It is also not really until the film’s halfway point that the audience is even introduced to Bobby Sands. The majority of the film’s dialogue then takes place in a 22 minute scene, between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) that is almost entirely one take. But, none of these plot details really matter, because Hunger is not driven by plot.

Hunger is not like other films, such as In the Name of the Father, that have been made about the IRA. The film is uncompromising in its depiction of the British and the Irish, and also in its faith that the audience will participate in the film rather than simply sit back. This is not the tale of one man’s heroic charge against an evil government, nor is it a prison film in the traditional sense. There is no blossoming male camaraderie. There is no triumphant music. There is no great grandstanding. There are simply people who are put into incredibly difficult, inhumane situations. Director Steve McQueen’s claim in an interview that the audience is “dragged through the process of someone starving himself” is only partly true. Hunger is not simply about a hunger strike, but instead the shades of complexity that exist in prison. As much as the film is sympathetic to Bobby Sands and the IRA, McQueen and co-writer Edna Walsh do not reduce the IRA’s political struggle to a Manichean struggle.

What Hunger is, however, is a fascinating, lyrical and haunting film about the events of 1981. The film is filled with incredible images: the prison walls covered in excrement, prisoners pouring urine into the hallway, Bobby Sands emaciated, almost to the point of death, body. They are never beautiful but always indelible. Even further each shot is meaningful. Precisely because McQueen never idolizes his prisoners, the audience gets a much more interesting view of a day in prison. Just as arresting of an image as those mentioned are the images of the prison guards. McQueen gives the audience a quick glimpse into the life of a young, new prison guard whose only way of dealing with the sheer brutality of the prison is to cry behind a wall as his fellow guards beat the prisoners on the opposite side. McQueen focuses in close up on the man as he slowly falls apart from the new world that he has entered. And yet, it is just as much a part of the prison situation as anything else in the film. When one of the movie’s most brutal acts of violence occurs (the assassination of a prison guard while he is visiting his mother) the film does not linger. It is just part of the story.

Other than Fassbender’s emotional, physical and all-around incredible performance one of the aspects of the film that has received great attention from critics has been the 22 minute conversation between Sands and a priest. Rarely has a static shot been so captivating. While both men are cloaked in darkness and speaking in heavy Irish accents, the obscurity of the situation only adds to the dramatic tension. What begins as meandering babble about cigarettes and life soon becomes a war between the priest, who sympathizes with the IRA but believes that Sands’ hunger strike is a suicidal crusade to get his name in history books, and Sands who is steadfast in his conviction. As Sands blows on his cigarette the air gets smokier and smokier just as the understanding of what is morally correct becomes hazier and hazier. After all the discussion, the only thing left for Sands is action.

If McQueen has one obsession, it is the face. Sands’ face is constantly returned to in the close up, tracing his deterioration and eventual death. Although the doctor who watches over Sands is only shown a few times, his face, a combination of anger, frustration, and sheer sadness, tells a life story. Prison guards’ faces are shown, some seem confused, and others show a certain ecstasy from the violence. Each face is richly textured and it is in the face that each actor delivers an incredibly complicated, complex and deep performance.

Hunger won the prestigious Camera d’or award (for first feature film) at Cannes, and its win was rightly deserved. Rarely has a director seemed so confident and assured in a debut. If Hunger were a more flippant film, I would be tempted to make a silly Pete Hammond-esque pun ending this review (“I have hunger for Steve McQueen’s next film” or “I am hungry to see what McQueen has to offer”). But that would devalue the work McQueen and his actors have done here. Hunger is by no means an easy watch, but its ability to refuse clichéd narrative tricks and hagiographical depictions result it in being one of Britain’s greatest cinematic accomplishments from the last few years.

Special Features:

The film looks stunning. One claim that has been levied against McQueen is that he frames the prison too beautifully, and that the story deserves a grimier treatment. While Hunger is gorgeous it never shies away from the grotesque or the ugly. Criterion has done a great job in the transfer. With a film this dark it’s important to have “deep blacks” and Criterion follows through. While no audio commentary was included in the extras, there is an interview with director Steve McQueen that sheds some light on his approach. He goes into depth talking about how he became interested in Bobby Sands and he also talks at length about the conversation between Sands and the priest in the film. McQueen is clearly passionate and his passion shows throughout the fascinating interview (he makes the polemical claim that the hunger strikes were “the most important event in modern times” for the British). There is also a respectful interview with Fassbender where he goes into what the performance took and how amazing of an experience it was working with McQueen. The way Fassbender’s mental approach to the film seems to coincide with his physical approach to losing the weight is interesting as well. Also included on the disc is a short “Making of” featurette. The piece becomes a bit self congratulatory, and even redundant as much of the information is covered in the two interviews, however any addition is a welcome addition. A trailer for Hunger is also included but perhaps the most interesting supplement is a British investigative news show titled “The Provos’ Last Card?” from 1981. It runs about 45 minutes and illuminates the cultural sentiment towards the IRA at the time. What is perhaps most fascinating is just how much the piece echoes American news shows during the Civil Rights Era. The British narrator uses loaded phrases and repeatedly undermines the IRA movement, describing their actions as a “continuing campaign of murder.” Much of the prison is filmed in this piece and it interesting to re-watch the landscape from the film covered in documentary form here. The great transfer and solid supplements make this a great package overall.

-Nicholas Forster

Wild Grass

wild-grass-7353-poster-largePhotography and cinema, Siegfried Kracauer observed, have a special power to portray happenstance.  Often films, trying to use this power, spoil the effect with a certain portentousness: see Crash or the execrable 13 Conversations About One Thing. People encounter one another haphazardly, but random luck sends them in directions already meticulously charted: Initial conflict! Reluctant interpersonal perestroika! Self-discovery! Highly engineered “chance” and transparent moral messages tend to combine rather fretfully. The big problem is that “random encounters can affect people” is not a compelling insight, and seems only present as an excuse for Hollywood’s over-rationalized psychology of human connection.

Instead of using happenstance as a pretext, Alain Resnais takes it as a philosophy.  There is no real division of ordinary and unordinary.  A chance encounter between two people may seem strange to them, but all of life is equally bizarre; it’s just that they’ve grown used to it.  This, at least, is the most sense I could make of the story of Marguerite Muir and Georges Palet, the main characters of Wild Grass.  Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) is a dentist and amateur aviatrix. Georges (André Dussollier), an eccentric older man with a wife, two grown children and a passion for planes, eventually finds her stolen wallet. After the return of the wallet, Georges becomes obsessed with the woman whom he knows only by her identity card and pilot’s license. By turns shy and scary, he at first provokes only her slightly pitying exasperation with bizarre, confessional letters and voicemails.  But Marguerite, even after having called the police on him, suddenly changes her mind halfway through the film for reasons Resnais never quite lets us know.  She madly dashes back into his life, seemingly desperate for contact, even befriending his astonishingly tolerant wife (Anne Consigny).

These characters may act oddly, but their real aura of strangeness lies more in Resnais’ distant approach to them than in their irrational acts.  The first time we see Marguerite, the camera frames only her high-heel-shod feet while a voice-over narrator tells us that she’s on her way to buy shoes at her favorite store.  Since she has extraordinary feet, she only frequents this particular store. Resnais continues to deny us her face even as the narrator describes her personality, but the camera does reveal her incredible, frizzy, near-maroon hair that seems to cushion her from the rest of the world.

The fateful moment arrives, in slow motion, with the snatching of Marguerite’s bright yellow purse. She throws up her hands in shock. We still cannot see her face--the camera tracks around with her as she turns her head--but the narrator reveals her internal reaction: she thinks of shouting, but “the words get stuck.” Life is like that, continues the narrator. The minor trauma of being robbed expresses the truth that, even dying, “we’re too scared to call out.”

This sequence demonstrates what you might call the film’s novelistic feel: it’s as though the real protagonist is an invisible reader, and the film represents the inside of his or her mind.  Her face hidden, Marguerite might remain simply “the woman with red hair and extraordinary feet,” a stand-in or figment instead of an actual woman.  Wild Grass is in fact based on a book by Christian Gailly.  The novelistic approach extends throughout the film, even as the characters develop.  Resnais borrows literature’s ability to express the protagonists’ thoughts directly: Marguerite and Georges’ voices occasionally join the mysterious voice-over narrator’s. Time and space elide--long a recognized capacity of film editing, but here especially effective in isolating our point of view from the characters’.  Visually, we’re rarely allowed to share their perspective, despite having access to their thoughts.

From Wild Grass’s affinity with literature emerges a paradox that brings us back to happenstance.  Are these characters, endowed with particularities like Azéma’s sensitive, hoarse voice or Dussollier’s shifty smile, meant to be “real” people, subject to random luck, or abstractions controlled by an author’s mind? Does their love of planes--and its connection to their eventual fate--represent the desire to escape ordinary life, or is such an interpretation a distraction from the simple idea that chance can knock our lives askew for no reason we can understand?

At the very least, the film’s expressionist use of color warns us not to take the plot too literally: the rich green light in Georges’ study, the neons in Marguerite’s bedroom, the unreal-looking blue Georges paints his house.  And Resnais’ playful approach with the cinema’s conventional signs (for example, “The End” appears just before the film’s actual climax) suggests that he’s more concerned with how films work on the audience than with exploring character. The ambiguity can be somewhat frustrating at times, particularly at the film’s enigmatic ending, during which the camera suddenly travels to an unknown location to catch a surreal line spoken by a little girl who may or may not be Marguerite as a child.

But audiences who seek out a Resnais film probably know ahead of time that they will not be granted facile, cathartic riddles. If you can cope with the film’s slippery surface, its tricky beauty may stay in your mind longer than the unanswerable questions.

-Julia Zelman

Love Ranch Review

love_ranch_ver2_xlgHow many times have we seen this picture of the modern American West: kitschy, raunchy cities naïvely clinging on the edge of enormous, bare landscapes?  The backdrop of Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch is not unique in the movies; Nevada and California’s mountains and canyons, juxtaposed with a protagonist’s capitalist hubris, make for an instantly recognizable theme: the futility of trying to control one’s fate when the world is so unforgiving.  But if Love Ranch, written by Mark Jacobson, starts off in this well-explored territory, some narratives are worth repeating--especially when the main character is not the little man fighting destiny, but this vain American dreamer’s tragically resigned, clear-sighted wife.

Helen Mirren plays Grace Bontempo, the madam of the Nevada brothel of the title. Her husband Charlie (Joe Pesci--what a co-star for the Queen of England!) co-owns the brothel and benefits from it far more than she does--taking from it 50% of the profits, sexual gratification in its bevy of tolerant girls, and most importantly a sense of self-worth.  Through a combination of violence, political extortion and bargaining, Charlie has managed to force through the legalization of prostitution. He regards this as more than a practical gain; faking a Southwest accent, strutting around a cowboy tycoon--never mind that Grace has most of the brains and does most of the work--he can forget his beginnings as a small-timer “off the Jersey prairie,” as his wife sarcastically defines him.

Grace, for her part, reserves some stern affection for her rowdy girls, and handles the men (her husband as well as the customers) skilfully if without much pleasure. But early on in the film, she learns that she has cancer.  She decides to keep this news from everyone, as always subordinating her own needs to the demands of business.  Mirren shows Grace’s emerging bitterness without sentimental or self-pitying gestures: even facing death, Grace seems to assume that her feelings don’t interest anyone.

Then Charlie adopts a former boxing champion, a long-haired Argentinian named Armando Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Charlie plans to invest in him for publicity’s sake and cajoles Grace into being his “manager.”  The film’s publicity has made no secret that Love Ranch is a love triangle, so of course the audience knows that the handsome young boxer will convince sixty-year-old Grace to shed her apathy.  But, thank the lord, the filmmakers depict the future lovers’ awkward first meetings as convincingly as their ardor later on.  With his cheerful roar of a voice and huge grin, Bruza’s apparent clownishness renders the seduction improbable at first, as do Grace’s exasperation and confusion at his shambling friendliness.

Much of the film works this way: it presents us with situations we recognize from other movies, yet uses them as a springboard for genuinely thoughtful and persuasive performances.  It’s as if, by some minor magic, clichés that sagged under thousands of lousy productions are suddenly nourished back to life by some terrific actors and a script that lets them act.  Never mind that we’ve seen the sensitive, self-destructive boxer before.  Love Ranch lets us believe in this one.

Bruza’s presence rebukes American capitalism, which the film associates with masculine bravado and violence.  Americans like Charlie will offer him money, girls and stardom as long as he remains safely in the category of an investment. Not too subtly, the film shows that Charlie treats him just the same as the prostitutes--as flesh, a good “better than gold--you don’t have to get your nails digging for it, and the good Lord keeps making more of it.” The moment Bruza claims something beyond material appeasement--the right to return Grace’s love--his protectors start trying to destroy him.

Peris-Mencheta is so good, he doesn’t have to strain for attention alongside Helen Mirren, who for her part is absolutely free of the “grande dame” syndrome that sometimes overtakes renowned actresses playing world-weary unfortunates. And yes, they do have a sex scene together, one that will please the tender-hearted but not the prurient.

Cinematographer Kieran McGuigan makes the film look great, by turns gaudy, grubby and serene. No one has ever filmed white hooker boots in the mud so offhandedly and poetically. People’s faces look real and expressive--Mirren’s frank and sad, Peris-Mencheta’s warm and ruddy in the outdoor scenes, while Pesci, with his doggy jowls, is sadder and nastier than I’ve ever seen him.

Here is a film that happily plays with the elements of lurid melodrama, only to defy Grace Bontempo’s initial philosophy: “Selling love will make you rich. Just don’t put your heart in it.” Hollywood sells love too, but (on occasion) not without believing in it.

-Julia Zelman

The A-Team

a_team_ver4_xlgI think I’ve only seen one episode of “The A-Team,” but thanks to the show’s comically strict adherence to formula and more than two decades of parody since its cancellation, I think I do get the general idea. Maybe if I was older, I’d be able to enjoy the show for some nostalgic purpose, but alas, I cannot, and am thus left with absolutely no reason to enjoy it. Conveniently, “absolutely no reason to enjoy it” is also a pretty good way of summing up my thoughts on Joe Carnahan’s big-budget remake of the show, which comes out this week.  It seems difficult, but the creators of this origin story have failed in a way that even the worst recent superhero origin stories basically succeed: they forgot to actually create characters. Forget that this is an idiotic, aesthetically inept production that is chock full of poor dialogue, inept and possibly dangerous morals and no real plot to speak of, those are simply the problems of most Hollywood action movies, The A-Team goes a step further by actually ignoring character development and anything even resembling a story arc for any of its characters. The film covers a nearly nine-year span, and during that time, there is not a single instance of development or permanent change in any of its major characters. The actors at least kind of try, but there is no overcoming a script which is nothing except nearly two hours of setup punctuated by the occasional flash of rather dull action.

Compounding the lack of character development is the fact that The A-Team somehow manages to squeeze three separate origin stories into a franchise that didn’t need one. They could have simply played the show’s opening credits and stuck to the original formula of a team of betrayed soldiers working as mercenaries to help people with their problems. Instead, the film shows us how they met, how they were first betrayed, how they escaped and got revenge, how they were betrayed again and how they escaped again. The far-too-long opening sequence takes place in Mexico, where Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) and Lt. Templeton “Face” Peck (Bradley Cooper) are on a dangerous mission to take down a corrupt drug lord or something (they never really explain). During the rescue, Hannibal finds a getaway driver in Sgt. B.A. Baracus (UFC star Quentin “Rampage” Jackson), a recently discharged army ranger who is willing to help out his brothers in arms. For reasons that are never really explained, Hannibal decides to get a pilot from an army mental hospital in Mexico (why it’s there, I really don’t know), and he finds Captain Murdock (Sharlto Copley), who leads the Mexican criminals to America, where it’s apparently totally OK to blow helicopters carrying foreign nationals out of the sky. The action then shifts to Baghdad a few years later, where the four of them are now a unit during the American withdrawal. While the CIA, a Blackwater style mercenary group and military higher ups, including Face’s former lover, Capt. Carissa Sosa (Jessica Biel), debate over who should be allowed to retrieve stolen plates that could be used to counterfeit billions, Hannibal’s team (illegally) goes into Baghdad and takes the plates. When they get back, the mercenaries frame them for murder and steal the plates, leaving the A-Team to rot in prison. Of course, they quickly escape, and the second half of the film is spent chasing down the mercenaries and the CIA agent (Patrick Wilson) who got them into trouble. Unfortunately, there is such a disconnect between each of the film’s three parts that none of them ever has the chance to feel like an actual story.

Poor writing aside, I do have to give credit to Sharlto Copley for his work here. I wasn’t a fan of his performance in District 9, but he brings a refreshing manic energy to an otherwise by-the-numbers picture. Neeson, Cooper and Wilson all give their standard acceptable-but-unmemorable performances in roles that really didn’t deserve anything more. Anyone who has paid attention to Quentin Jackon’s Mixed Martial Arts career will tell you that he is a charismatic guy who can dish out some of the best trash talk in sports, and he could have been pretty good if he had been allowed to do that in The A-Team, but instead he only tries to imitate Mr. T’s well known work in the role and it comes off as kind of silly. Baracus is by far the worst-written character in the movie though, so I’m willing to give Jackson a pass until he takes a more interesting role. Frankly, as they were playing the same characters every day without any major change in behavior or attitude, I expect most of the actors just got bored.

Even if they weren’t great, you really can’t blame the actors for this one though. Most of the blame should fall on writer/director Joe Carnahan. His career began with high expectations from some after the mediocre but somewhat critically acclaimed Narc, but he then took a long layoff before making his second film, 2008’s Smoking Aces, which was awful, but at least had potential to be fun. His regression as a filmmaker continues here, with an awful film that really didn’t have any potential in the first place. Late in the movie, Hannibal says “overkill is underrated,” which basically sums up Carnahan’s approach to the film. Unlike most modern action scenes, which are only vaguely incomprehensible due to poor shot selection and bad editing, Carnahan seemingly makes an effort to have his action completely incomprehensible. During most of the fight scenes and extended chases, there is no way of actually guessing who is on screen and what’s happening. It’s all flashing lights and loud noise made even more annoying due to the lack of any possible connection between the audience and the characters. The film also has a completely reprehensible moral lesson at its center. After breaking out of prison, Baracus suddenly decides to stop hurting people. He still wants to help his friends, but he tries to do so without killing hundreds of random henchmen and bystanders. Normally, this would be a good thing, but Hannibal gives him a speech that basically comes down to “killing people is totally OK if you think you’re doing it for the right reason,” and so, by the end of the film, Baracus is back to his old fool-pitying ways. I’ve never seen the point of remaking a TV series best remembered for being comically bad, but if it had to happen, I do wish they’d kept the “comically” part. Unfortunately, all Carnahan and the other writers have left us with is one of the most generic and uninteresting of all generic and uninteresting summer action movies.

-Adam Burnstine

The A-Team is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence throughout, language and smoking.

It opens everywhere Friday June 11th.

Directed by Joe Carnahan; written by Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; art director, Michael Diner; original music by Alan Silvestri; produced by Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Stephen J. Cannell, Jules Daly, Spike Seldin, Iain Smith and Alex Young;  distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. Running time: 1 Hour 50 Minutes.

With: Liam Neeson (Hannibal), Bradley Cooper (Face), Quentin Jackson (B.A. Baracus), Sharlto Copley (Murdock), Jessica Biel (Charisa Sosa), Patrick Wilson (Lynch) and Brian Bloom (Pike).

A Solitary Man

2409f_Solitary_Man_keyart_REV.inddThe title "Solitary Man" sounds a bit like "A Serious Man," but the two movies are polar opposites. Whereas the Coen brothers' film is about a good man struggling to keep his life in balance, the 2009 film by Brian Koppelman and David Levien concerns a bad man resolutely tearing his life apart. More importantly, A Serious Man is odd, scary, and philosophically ambitious; Solitary Man seeks nothing better than to titillate people who find Michael Douglas totally fascinating. If this sounds like an exaggeration, go see the film and count how many monologues the script spoon-feeds its star. Consider the midfilm monologue, delivered to the unfortunate Jesse Eisenberg, that begins something like "Lemme tell you a story" and then continues for a good two minutes without a single cutaway for relief. Eisenberg may have been grateful for the lack of a reaction shot, which would have forced him to feign interest. In that sense, he's luckier than Susan Sarandon, Danny Devito and all the other co-stars crammed into the film just to ask Douglas helpful questions.

The solitary man is Ben Kalmen, a disgraced former auto dealership CEO addicted to sex, sometimes with girls hardly out of high school (though to be fair, he's not too picky for a one-night stand with a woman just over half his age).  We don't see Ben in his big shot years or during the scandal that ruined him. Instead we get a brief prologue set six years before the start of the film that shows a still-successful Ben receiving iffy results on his EKG, and then we skip all the interesting stuff to catch up with him as a completely mediocre sexagenarian trying to restart his career. Ben is clearly meant to be a ruthless old lion, able to ensnare brassy young women thanks to a life of sexual fine-tuning. Instead, he's more reminiscent of a good-natured but slightly dim uncle whose feelings you don't want to hurt.

This is a problem for the plot, which requires Ben to bed Allyson, his girlfriend's snotty daughter, while he takes her to meet the dean of his old college in Boston. Lecturing her on how get a man to give her pleasure, he has all the tantalizing allure of a high school sex ed instructor.  I didn't actually realize I was watching a seduction scene until the jump cut to Imogen Poots and Douglas frantically slurping each others' faces--a transition that provoked howls of "What??!" from the audience. Poots had more chemistry with pretty much every other actor who shared a scene with her. Watching her get steamy with Danny Devito would have been less shocking.

While on campus, the old lion also gets his claws into college boy Cheston (Eisenberg) as a way of reliving his own youth.  Having won the young man's affection by barking at him, "You don't get laid much, do you?", Ben tutors him in matters of the heart.  Naturally, Cheston worships his failed-car-salesman mentor and takes him to hip college parties where background extras drink beer and pump their fists for no reason and nothing happens--except for monologues, of course.

Of course, Ben's fling doesn't stay a secret.  Allyson herself declares it to her mother in a fit of pique. Suddenly, Ben's new business venture tanks and everyone recognizes him for the aging sociopath Douglas is supposed to embody. I'm being harsh on the star, but the script is even crueler; it gives him no real chance to develop, only conflicts with characters who appear for one scene just to be nuisances. By the time Susan Sarandon reappears as his ex-wife and prompts him to explain his infidelity in detail (spoiler: it's because he was afraid of death!), it's clear that the screenwriters are in thrall to Ben.  They don't write interactions: they throw characters at Ben so that he can show what a sad jerk he is.

There is one exception: Ben's relationship with his sweet daughter Susan, played by Jenna Fischer, who doesn't even object when he forbids her to call him "Dad" in public. Fischer portrays Susan's love and long-suppressed anger quite well, and Douglas is touching when he finally admits his loneliness to her. If the filmmakers had given more screen time to Susan and less to Ben, they would perhaps have avoided the impression of simply humoring the man's egomania. Meanwhile, there are better films about midlife existential crisis.  Not all of them treat their protagonists as "solitary men."

-Julia Zelman

Get Him to the Greek

get_him_to_the_greek_xlgThe premise is a simple one, one likely heard many a time during the endless bombardment of commercials: a record company employee must get a rock star to the Greek Theater in 72 hours. However, producer Judd Apatow has built his career by taking these simple stories, mixing in some raunchy humor, adding a moral, and turning them into comedic and box office gold. Get Him to the Greek is no exception.

Russell Brand reprises his Forgetting Sarah Marshall role as that lothario rock star, Aldous Snow. His life spirals out of control after his band releases African Child, an album which “Rolling Stone ranked third behind famine and war in things detrimental to Africa.” His musician sexpot wife, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) gets burnt out on his New Age lifestyle and leaves him, causing Snow to fall off the wagon and party himself into obscurity.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) struggles as he attempts to juggle his exciting job at a record label with his blasé home life with his med student girlfriend. To rejuvenate the label’s sales slump, Aaron suggests an Aldous Snow 10-year anniversary concert at the Greek theater. His boss, record mogul Sergio Roma (Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs), gives him this “career resurrecting” task: fly Aldous Snow from London, escort him to his Today Show appearance, and then Get Him to the Greek.

Although the rest of the movie’s plot is the obvious drunken/drug induced mishaps throughout London and the United States, these antics are thoroughly enjoyable to watch. Unlike many other comedies, in which every moment of humor is bled dry for the trailer, most commercials include many lines or scenes that didn’t make the theatrical cut. (The many options will likely mean a DVD package with many deleted scenes.) Director Nick Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), leads a cast comfortable with comedy and improv to every possible comedic moment. Brand is at his best firing off witty lines, and Hill is the king of awkward humor. Reportedly concerned about entering the world of comedy, P. Diddy draws upon his real-life experience, as well as his dramatic turn as Walter Lee Younger on the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” to join these veteran comedians as one of the most outrageous-and quotable- characters in the film.

The problems with the film came with distilling this comedy into the concept. Watching two bumbling, drunk guys make their way through bars, airports, the Today Show, and Las Vegas can be entertaining; but, when the addiction is clearly a way to avoid depression and pain, the plot veers into dark terrain. Russell Brand has been very vocal about his struggles to overcome bulimia, alcoholism, and his addiction to cocaine in his autobiography, My Booky Wook, making the dark side of the performance a little too real. As the musician stumbles his way towards the Greek Theater, the comedy in his revelries wane, replaced with the hope that he will again find sobriety. The character Aldous Snow became a mixture of dark moments of addiction and loneliness combined with drug induced antics; neither showcasing the lovable rock star persona that propelled Brand to fame during Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Get Him to the Greek is a consistent addition to the Apatow repertoire. Like the others, it includes a cast and crew of many Apatow regulars, a very vulgar and raunchy take on a simple story, and quotable lines of dialogue from almost every scene, with a moral with a heart of gold buried underneath it all. This movie will be a phenomenal DVD rental, or a good way to get out of the summer heat.

-Rachel Imbriglio


macgruber_xlgOne of the few good aspects of Saturday Night Live’s long, slow descent into complete irrelevance has been the lack of any films based on the venerable show’s sketches. After eleven releases between 1990 and 2000, of which only Wayne’s World even approached watchability, there were none in the last decade. Jorma Taccone’s Macgruber is proof that this was probably for the best. Basing a film on a mediocre recurring sketch from a now irrelevant TV series that satires a TV series that has been off the air since 1992 never seemed like the best idea, but even I was shocked by how awful the film really was. Macgruber is not simply unfunny; it actually lacks almost anything that I could actually think of as an attempt at a joke.

Will Forte reprises the roll of Macgruber, a retired member of various elite special forces groups who specializes in the use of household items as weapons. Ten years ago, his wife (SNL alum Maya Rudolph) was murdered by Macgruber’s former friend turned arms dealer Dieter Von Cunth. I’m going to stop for a second and point out something about this film. As I said earlier, there are few things here that could even be construed as attempts at humor, and I’m pretty sure naming a character Cunth was one of them. Now, imagine that name being said roughly one hundred times with the same five or six initially unfunny sex jokes being thrown in beforehand. There, that’s it. That is all of the humor that you will find in this film. Dieter is played by Val Kilmer, who has proven to be a great comedic talent in recent years, and when Val Kilmer can go through an entire comedy without drawing a laugh, you know something is wrong. Anyway, Macgruber comes out of retirement at the behest of the military when Dieter obtains a Russian nuclear missile. He puts together his old team (inexplicably made up entirely of cameos from WWE stars), but accidentally blows them up and is left with ditsy Vicki St. Elmo (Kristin Wiig, also reprising her character from the sketch) and straight edge Lt. Dixon Pepper (the always insufferable Ryan Phillippe, whose comedic timing somehow manages to be worse than his dramatic timing). Of course, they have some conflicts and romances along the way, and eventually they stop Dieter from blowing up Washington and Macgruber is able to fall for Vicki and get over the loss of his wife. The film is nothing if not predictable, and if you’ve seen the trailer, it really shouldn’t matter that I just mentioned the ending because I would at least hope that you were able to see it coming.

The generally positive early reviews have all praised the film’s humor, which is why I was so surprised by just how unfunny Macgruber really was. I don’t mind if the humor in a movie is juvenile or crass (I will never deny enjoying the two Jackass films) and parody, despite a weak recent record, can lead to great comedy, but Macgruber’s problems go far beyond that. For a film like this to be funny, it would have to be surprising and original. Is it original to name a character after a dirty word? Of course not. Was it surprising to see Macgruber walking around with a piece of celery hanging out of his behind or killing henchmen by ripping their throats our? Actually, no. Maybe I was just dulled into listlessness by that point of the film, but those last two examples (as far as I can tell, the only other attempts at humor in the movie) seemed like nothing but cheap attempts at shock humor.

The film’s flaws go beyond the type of humor. As a character, Macgruber is a one-note joke who usually wears out his welcome by the end of a 90 second skit and was already completely played out before being used in a Pepsi commercial last year. Forte plays that note well, but it isn’t enough when the story goes beyond the standard skit length. There’s also the fact that this film is a parody of Macgyver, a semi-popular television show that had ended before much of the target audience was born and has no real ironic or nostalgic value compared to other series from that era (even so, a MacGyver film is apparently in production). Combining that with the movie’s SNL basis makes it seem more irrelevant and pointless than anything. And I don’t mean pointless in the amusing way. I simply can’t think of a reason for this film to exist.  Even if Forte, Taccone and John Solomon, the third writer, were simply trying to be as outrageous as possible (which seems possible and is at least a semi-admirable goal), they failed. Macgruber is essentially as safe and tame as the recent seasons of SNL, except with a few extra swears and a bit of blood.  Film is an expensive business, and, in my mind, the worst thing you can say about a major film is not merely that it is an ugly, artistically devoid and humorless piece of trash (all true in this case), but that there is simply no reason for the movie to exist. Macgruber is completely irrelevant in almost every possible way, and I really must ask why it was made in the first place. I still don’t think anything will actually top Alice In Wonderland as the worst film I’ve seen this year, but Macgruber at least proves that something could come close.

-Adam Burnstine

Macgruber is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity.

It opens everywhere on May 21, 2010.

Directed by Jorma Taccone, written by Jorma Taccone, Will Forte and John Solomon; director of photography, Brandon Trost; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Matthew Compton; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Lorne Michaels and John Goldwyn; released by Universal Pictures. Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes.

With: Will Forte (Macgruber), Kristin Wiig (Vicki St. Elmo), Ryan Phillippe (Lt. Dixon Piper), Val Kilmer (Dieter Von Cunth), Powers Boothe (Col. James Faith) and Maya Rudolph (Casey).