Tuesday, November 22, 2011


MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011)

If ever there was a director prepared to make a film about depression and the end of the world, Danish provocateur Lars von Trier would be the one.  His well-publicized battles with depression informed his notorious previous effort, ANTICHRIST, and pervade his latest, MELANCHOLIA.  

After a prologue that beautifully envisions a terrible end, MELANCHOLIA splits into two halves, each devoting attention to the sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Justine has wrestled with depression for a long time, and not even her wedding day, which comprises the film’s first half, can keep her in high spirits.  

The title is also the name of a massive, newly discovered planet that had been hiding behind the sun.  Scientists expect its orbit to pass by close to Earth, but in MELANCHOLIA’s second half Claire fears that this heavenly body will smash our planet to bits.  

Words associated with depression, like dreary, bleak, and sluggish, aren’t applicable to MELANCHOLIA.  Manuel Alberto Claro’s gorgeous cinematography produces slick, saturated colors in the prologue; warm, deep browns and yellows at the reception; and light and hazy blues and white in the second half.  

Considering its subject matter, MELANCHOLIA is quite funny, especially during the wedding reception.  Von Trier, who is likely riffing on fellow Dogme 95 filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s THE CELEBRATION, has great fun observing a festive ceremony fall apart.  Udo Kier’s fussy wedding planner, Charlotte Rampling’s grouchy mother of the bride, and a peeved Kiefer Sutherland, who never fails to remind the necessary parties that he’s paying for it all, highlight the prickly humor around this supposedly happy occasion.

While existence hangs in the balance in MELANCHOLIA, von Trier’s fatalistic embrace of impending doom is starkly beautiful and strangely reassuring.  Without question Justine is the director’s surrogate, someone who finds comfort in the awareness that years of despondency and anxiety were not for naught.  Dunst’s remarkable performance conveys the emotional swings and physical effects from her long, internal struggle and the peace she makes with it.  Now that her worst possible fear can be confirmed, what else is there to do but submit to the inevitable?  In a film full of strong images, its final one is most striking for what it says about accepting those things that cannot be changed.  

Grade: A-

Monday, November 14, 2011

Jack and Jill

JACK AND JILL (Dennis Dugan, 2011)

In the comedy JACK AND JILL Adam Sandler pulls double duty starring as Los Angeles advertising executive Jack and his insecure, Bronx-dwelling twin sister Jill.  Even before Jill’s plane has landed in California for her Thanksgiving visit, Jack is counting the hours until she is on a return flight to New York.  He loves his sister, but she gets on his nerves.

To Jack’s exasperation, Jill decides to extend her stay with his family through Hanukkah.  Desperate to get her out of the house and back to the East Coast, Jack figures that the best way to hasten her departure is to find a boyfriend for his sad, single sister.  Luckily and bewilderingly, Al Pacino is smitten with Jill.  This appears to be a coup for Jack, as he might have found a boyfriend for Jill and now has the chance to persuade the actor to star in his pitch for a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.  Jill, though, is less than impressed with Pacino’s fame, fortune, and affection.  

I’ve rarely liked Sandler’s films, especially when he’s working with someone from his stable of directors.  His laziness and worst impulses are left unchecked, allowing the films to disintegrate into formless and laughless vehicles for product placement, ego stroking, and paid vacation.  This year’s Sandler-starring, Dennis Dugan-directed JUST GO WITH IT is a shoo-in for my worst of 2011 list.  With JACK AND JILL bringing the star and director together again, everything was aligned for me to hate it as well. Strangely, I don’t.

JACK AND JILL certainly suffers from the problems that plague his other movies. Dugan’s filmmaking demonstrates a basic level of formal competence, which is an improvement in this instance.  The corporate contributors are so nakedly integrated that Sandler might as well just pause to show commercials at the act breaks.  At this point it’d be less insulting.  (That said, JACK AND JILL basically does this near the end.)  The immense neediness Sandler’s characters possess gets shifted to him in Jill’s clothes rather than as “himself”, which at least makes it less alienating.  Still, the underlying message remains unconcealed: love me for and in spite of all of these things I hate about myself.  

Yet JACK AND JILL yielded more laughs from me than any of his films have in the last seven years.  Is Pacino’s utterly weird performance captivating because he’s debasing himself or giving it his all?  Maybe I’ve finally been worn down, but Jill’s grotesque characterization goes in one end as deeply unfunny and comes out the other as relatively amusing and, dare I say it, charming.  Her enthusiastic requests for twin time with Jack and general cluelessness let Sandler play up the lowbrow comedy he favors without being as mean or angry as he can be.

The charge is leveled at Jack that he’s bitter and cynical, which seems like a pointed self-critique for Sandler to acknowledge.  Like the actor’s least ambitious films, JACK AND JILL’s lack of energy disguises contempt, but here he’s working through his issues in a more compelling way than usual.

Grade:  C

Sunday, November 13, 2011

J. Edgar

J. EDGAR (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

In the biographical picture J. EDGAR director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black track the career of the longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director.  Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, a morally certain man who improved and expanded the once-Bureau of Investigation’s ability to fight crime, although not without amassing his share of detractors.  

Hoover rose to the top in 1924, saw the agency become federal in 1935, and stayed until his 1972 death.  The legality of his methods, not to mention his secret files, made him powerful and controversial.

Framed by the head G-Man dictating his memoir, J. EDGAR has a lot of territory to cover and does so swiftly.  The Palmer raids, the Lindbergh baby abduction, and the relentless pursuit of gangsters and political subversives are tied together in a fleet, often exhilarating yarn of a righteous man who will not rest until he has stamped out all criminal and radical elements.  Hoover is clear and authoritative when recounting his accomplishments, yet J. EDGAR questions how reliable of a narrator he is and at what cost such unyielding professional striving did to the individual and the nation.

The successful but petty and vindictive man at the center of J. EDGAR is as much a mystery as what he kept in his confidential files.  Eastwood and Black give Hoover credit where it’s due, especially in the admiration for his organizational rigor and faith in scientific evidence as a valuable tool.  The speculative private life they give him, in which he and associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) share a closeted and presumably unconsummated relationship, goes a long way in humanizing a man who would ride roughshod over the livelihoods of his subordinates and perceived enemies.

DiCaprio does marvelous work portraying a man who, frankly, seems like he would have been unpleasant company, even to those long loyal to him.  Hoover’s magnetism derives from his intellect, certainty, power, and sense for myth-making, and DiCaprio bears that out with a performance of a man who himself may be constantly performing as though he has nothing to hide.  Hammer’s Tolson seems in awe of and puzzled by his friend and co-worker.  Hoover’s longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) demonstrates great respect and empathy even as she appears not to understand this man she’s know for decades.  Something must have earned their dedication.  That mystery is what encourages looking even closer at this blank slate of a person.

Grade: B

Monday, November 07, 2011

Take Shelter

TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Where is the line that separates a prophet from a madman?  For Curtis (Michael Shannon) in TAKE SHELTER, his vivid delusions and hallucinations of an impending storm have him struggling to ascertain if he is foreseeing danger or losing his mind.  Now in his mid-30s, the Elyria, Ohio construction worker is at the age when his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  While he takes steps to address the potential onset of mental illness, Curtis doesn’t discount his dreams either.

Curtis doesn’t want to worry his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) with the burden of what he is seeing, not when she already has their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) to care for and a house to keep.  For a time his actions don’t suggest anything significant is wrong, but she can’t overlook his gradually strange behavior and fixation on the backyard storm shelter.

For a husband and a father the needs to provide and protect are paramount.  Curtis’s visions motivate him to fulfill the role he has been capably serving, but the nightmares also put at risk his ability to be in the family.  If he is experiencing an emotional disorder’s blossoming, then he is speeding toward the ruination he is working so hard to prevent.

In an outstanding performance, Shannon portrays this conflict with great sensitivity and control.  He’s played his share of characters with some faulty wiring, but this role is more down to earth than the colorfully disturbed individuals he’s been in BUG, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE.  In TAKE SHELTER Shannon conveys the quiet torment that prods Curtis’s worst fears while he does his damnedest to keep it together for those he loves. When the pressure can no longer be contained, the slow boil of a performance explodes in a spectacular scene at a Lions Club fish fry in which he releases what are either the ravings of an ill person or the impassioned warning of someone who spots trouble on the horizon.

TAKE SHELTER writer-director Jeff Nichols takes great care in detailing Curtis’s journey and surrounding him with concerned loved ones.  Chastain’s deeply empathetic work displays the anguish that a spouse goes through in supporting a partner who may not be well.  In his single scene Ray McKinnon makes an impression as Curtis’s older brother Kyle.  His visit to Curtis’s home and their subsequent conversation tiptoes around the main subject, as men will often do, but the message Kyle sends and what he observes shows genuine worry.

Nichols keeps the narrative taut by not tipping off whether the protagonist is rational or not until the very end, although the answer may be more oblique than it appears. What matters is following the progression of Curtis’s mental dilemma and feeling the strain that comes from agonizing over a man’s capacity to do right by his family.

Grade: A

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

TIFF newbie questions

With my schedule for the Toronto International Film Festival more or less set, I have some newbie questions for which I need answers.  I've conducted some of this over Twitter, but rather than annoying most people and limiting responses to 140 character bites, I figured I'd post them here, which will allow you to extrapolate to your heart's content.  (Comments are moderated because the only ones I tend to get are spam or of the "you suck/get a life" variety--trust me, I need no reminding--but I'll be keeping up with these.  Comment away.)

So, here are my "I've never been to TIFF before and have a million questions" questions:

1.  Are point-and-shoot digital cameras or small video cameras (a la Flip) permitted in the theaters?  I'd like to take some photos, and maybe a little video, while I'm out and about, but if this is going to be a problem, I won't bother.

2.  Is outside food and drink permitted in theaters?  (I'm guessing it isn't, but with festival attendees eating on the go a lot, I'm hoping it is.)

3.  Along with the first two questions, how vigilantly do festival venues conduct bag searches?  (No, I'm not looking to bootleg.)

4.  What do I need to do with my iPhone to make sure I don't get crushing data and phone bills?

5.  If I know what exchanges I want to make when picking up my tickets, can I do that then and there?

6.  Should I travel by subway or by foot when on my own late at night?  (I'm staying downtown, but the hotel isn't necessarily close to any of theaters.)

7.  Anywhere you suggest that's good to eat that won't break the bank?

8.  Anything else I ought to know?

If you're going to be TIFFing it up and want to meet, e-mail or DM me.  We'll see what we can work out.

Thanks in advance for the answers you can provide.  It will be a relief just to dive into this after all the prep work.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

TIFF schedule, third variation

If I've learned one thing about the Toronto International Film Festival, it's that one's schedule is always in flux. First came the requested ideal. Next was the luck of the draw compromise. Now I present the reconstruction. Individual tickets went on sale this morning, so I have been able to pick up some films I didn't get on the first attempt.

TWIXT and I WISH (KISEKI) go back on the schedule. The free screening of THIS IS NOT A FILM (IN FILM NIST) is also new, although whether I get to this will be wholly dependent on tickets being available by arrival time at the theater. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE slides off the schedule and into the role of ticket to be exchanged. I've indicated intended changes and italicized the listings for films that I don't have a ticket lined up.

Thursday, September 8

*6:00-7:46 p.m. INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, 2011) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*9:45-11:00 p.m. THIS IS NOT A FILM (IN FILM NIST) (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi, 2011) (Iran) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 (no ticket; rush for free screening)

*11:59 p.m.-1:39 p.m. THE RAID (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) (Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Friday, September 9

*2:30-4:01 p.m. FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA) (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) (Japan) AMC 2

*6:45-8:35 p.m. GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (UN AMOUR DE JEUNESSE) (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011) (France/Germany) Scotiabank 3

*9:30-11:06 p.m. OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Joachim Trier, 2011) (Norway) Scotiabank 2 (no ticket; planned voucher exchange)

Saturday, September 10

*9:15-11:04 a.m. OUTSIDE SATAN (HORS SATAN) (Bruno Dumont, 2011) (France) AMC 2 (no ticket; planned ticket exchange for 9/10 OSLO, AUGUST 31ST at AMC 1)

*12:00-1:57 p.m. TRISHNA (Michael Winterbottom, 2011) (United Kingdom) Ryerson Theatre

*6:00-8:15 p.m. MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011) (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany) Ryerson Theatre

*9:45-11:54 p.m. I WISH (KISEKI) (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2011) (Japan) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, September 11

*9:30-10:52 a.m. TWIGGY (LA BRINDILLE) (Emmanuelle Millet, 2011) (France) AMC 4

*2:00-3:30 p.m. TWIXT (Francis Ford Coppola, 2011) (USA) Princess of Wales

*4:30-5:47 p.m. GIRL MODEL (Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, 2011) (USA) AMC 6 (no ticket; planned ticket exchange for 9/11 MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE)

*6:15-8:29 p.m. CRAZY HORSE (Frederick Wiseman, 2011) (France/USA) AMC 3

*9:45-11:59 p.m. FAUST (Alexander Sokurov, 2011) (Russia) Scotiabank 3

Monday, September 12

*11:00 a.m.-12:45 p.m. RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*2:00-3:30 p.m. EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE) (Nacho Vigalondo, 2011) (Spain) AMC 7

*9:00-11:00 p.m. LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (DUO MING JIN) (Johnnie To, 2011) (Hong Kong) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

If I'm able to execute the exchanges, it leaves me with a voucher to spend and two significant gaps in my schedule (Saturday afternoon and Monday late afternoon/early evening). I'm leaning toward J'AIME REGARDER LES FILLES to fill the Saturday hole, but I still have time decide. Nothing stands out to fill the Monday slot. Maybe I'll try to rush A DANGEROUS METHOD, although considering how quickly that screening filled, that may be a waste of time. I'm also considering the 9/9 midnight screening of GOD BLESS AMERICA.

In other words, while this seems close to a final version of the schedule, it's not in stone.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

TIFF schedule, take two

The lottery results are in, and I only managed to grab eight of my fifteen first choices for the Toronto International Film Festival. Considering that two are lower profile titles before 10 a.m. on weekend mornings and one is a midnight screening, I didn't have very good luck getting my pick of the prime films. No Kaurismäki, Meirelles, Polley, Kore-eda, Coppola, Maddin, or Cronenberg. (Not getting the Kore-eda film hurts most.)

I'm planning to buy a premium ticket for MELANCHOLIA. I am probably going to move OSLO, AUGUST 31ST from 9:45 a.m. Saturday to 9:30 p.m. Friday if possible. Assuming that works, I'll try to get OUTSIDE SATAN (HORS SATAN) for 9:15 a.m. Saturday, as it'll give me seventeen more minutes to get to TRISHNA. I'm also willing to trade in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE at 3:00 p.m. Sunday.

Additionally, I have two vouchers to cash in. There are certainly holes in my schedule, so we'll see what I can figure out once I've made heads and tails of this.

Anyway, here's the second iteration of my TIFF 2011 schedule:

Thursday, September 8

*6:00-7:46 p.m. INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, 2011) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*11:59 p.m.-1:39 p.m. THE RAID (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) (Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Friday, September 9

*2:30-4:01 p.m. FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA) (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) (Japan) AMC 2

6:45-8:35 p.m. GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (UN AMOUR DE JEUNESSE) (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011) (France/Germany) Scotiabank 3

Saturday, September 10

*9:45-11:21 a.m. OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Joachim Trier, 2011) (Norway) AMC 1

*12:00-1:57 p.m. TRISHNA (Michael Winterbottom, 2011) (United Kingdom) Ryerson Theatre

*6:00-8:15 p.m. MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011) (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany) Ryerson Theatre (premium screening)

Sunday, September 11

*9:30-10:52 a.m. TWIGGY (LA BRINDILLE) (Emmanuelle Millet, 2011) (France) AMC 4

*3:00-4:43 p.m. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin, 2010) (USA) Ryerson Theatre

*6:15-8:29 p.m. CRAZY HORSE (Frederick Wiseman, 2011) (France/USA) AMC 3

*9:45-11:59 p.m. FAUST (Alexander Sokurov, 2011) (Russia) Scotiabank 3

Monday, September 12

*11:00 a.m.-12:45 p.m. RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*2:00-3:30 p.m. EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE) (Nacho Vigalondo, 2011) (Spain) AMC 7

*9:00-11:00 p.m. LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (DUO MING JIN) (Johnnie To, 2011) (Hong Kong) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A TIFF wish list

I've wanted to attend the Toronto International Film Festival for some time, but doing so wasn't feasible until this year. Since the event overlaps with the start of the academic year at work and I'm attending on my own dime, I won't be able to stay for all eleven days. (On the off chance that someone reading this would like to pay me for coverage, please get in touch.)

Upon flipping through the program guide, I discovered that making choices is like experiencing death by a thousand cuts. I really want to see this and this and this and this...and they're all playing at the same time! The easiest way to do it is to resign oneself to the fact that it simply isn't possible to fit in everything and then marvel at the number of prioritized titles still available.

Without a doubt, I'm extremely disappointed that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, Whit Stillman's first film in thirteen years, debuts the day I'm leaving Toronto. There is no other film in the lineup that I want to see more. That it supposedly won't open commercially until spring adds insult to injury. But I suppose if I've waited since 1998, what another six months or so. Still...

The number of premium screenings, which aren't included in the package I purchased, are another source of frustration, although I'm planning to suck it up for a couple. Probably my next most anticipated title, Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, only screens at a pricier level while I'm in town. Fin. You win TIFF. I'm telling myself that going to one or two premium screenings will give me the full festival experience.

If I get all of my first choices--and who knows what the chance of that is--I'll be pretty pleased with the schedule I've assembled. (Actually, it should be pretty good even if some second choices slide in.) Sure, I'm missing the Stillman, but a new film from Hirokazu Kore-Eda, one of my favorite contemporary directors, isn't a bad consolation. Here's my schedule if all goes as planned:

Thursday, September 8

*6:30 p.m.-8:13 p.m. PINA (Wim Wenders, 2011) (Germany/France) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*11:59 p.m.-1:39 p.m. THE RAID (Gareth Huw Evans, 2011) (Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Friday, September 9

*1:00-2:33 p.m. LE HAVRE (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011) (Finland) Jackman Hall (AGO)

*6:45-8:35 p.m. GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (UN AMOUR DE JEUNESSE) (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011) (France/Germany) Scotiabank 3

*10:00-11:57 p.m. TRISHNA (Michael Winterbottom, 2011) (United Kingdom) Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 10

*9:45-11:21 a.m. OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Joachim Trier, 2011) (Norway) AMC 1

*12:30-2:25 p.m. 360 (Fernando Meirelles, 2011) (United Kingdom/Austria/France/Brazil) Winter Garden Theatre

*6:00-8:15 p.m. MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier, 2011) (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany) Ryerson Theatre

*9:45-11:54 p.m. I WISH (KISEKI) (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2011) (Japan) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, September 11

*9:30-10:52 a.m. TWIGGY (LA BRINDILLE) (Emmanuelle Millet, 2011) (France) AMC 4

*12:00-1:56 p.m. TAKE THIS WALTZ (Sarah Polley, 2011) (Canada) Ryerson Theatre

*3:15-4:54 p.m. SAMSARA (Ron Fricke, 2011) (USA) TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

*6:15-8:29 p.m. CRAZY HORSE (Frederick Wiseman, 2011) (France/USA) AMC 3

*9:45-11:59 p.m. FAUST (Alexander Sokurov, 2011) (Russia) Scotiabank 3

Monday, September 12

*11:00 a.m.-12:45 p.m. RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011) (USA) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

*2:00-3:30 p.m. TWIXT (Francis Ford Coppola, 2011) (USA) Scotiabank 13

*4:45-6:18 p.m. A DANGEROUS METHOD (David Cronenberg, 2011) (France/Ireland/United Kingdom/Germany/Canada) TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

*9:00-11:00 p.m. LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (DUO MING JIN) (Johnnie To, 2011) (Hong Kong) VISA Screening Room (Elgin Theatre)

Of course, there's no guarantee that I get everything I've requested, so here are the titles I filled in as my second choices:

-CARRÉ BLANC (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, 2011) (France/Luxembourg/Belgium/Switzerland)

-CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (POULET AUX PRUNES) (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2011) (France/Germany/Belgium)

-ELLES (Malgoska Szumowska, 2011) (France/Poland/Germany)

-EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE) (Nacho Vigalondo, 2011) (Spain)

-FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA) (Goro Miyazaki, 2011) (Japan)

-HEADHUNTERS (HODEJEGERNE) (Morten Tyldum, 2011) (Norway)

-INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, 2011) (USA)

-J'AIME REGARDER LES FILLES (Frédéric Louf, 2011) (France)

-KEYHOLE (Guy Maddin, 2011) (Canada)


-OUTSIDE SATAN (HORS SATAN) (Bruno Dumont, 2011) (France)

-THE SWORD IDENTITY (WO KOU DE ZONG JI) (Xu Haofeng, 2011) (China)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Adventures in Babysitting


High school senior Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) is all set to go on a big anniversary date to a French restaurant with her boyfriend Mike (Bradley Whitford) when he drops by at the last minute to cancel. Although she’d prefer to stay home and spend the Friday night moping, Chris ends up accepting a late request to babysit for the Andersons.

In ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING what should be a quiet evening in Oak Park watching over the Andersons’ young,Thor-obsessed daughter Sara (Maia Brewton) becomes one crazy night protecting three kids in downtown Chicago. A panicked call to Chris from her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) sets the series of wild events in motion. Brenda decided to run away from home but unwisely spent all her money taking a cab into the city. Now that she’s having second thoughts and is frightened by the eccentrics at the bus station, she needs Chris to come get her.

Chris wants to leave Sara in the care of her 15-year-old brother Brad (Keith Coogan), but the main thing he is capable of nurturing is his crush on the pretty upperclassman. The two siblings coerce the babysitter into taking them with her. Also tagging along is Brad’s friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp), who is convinced Chris is the centerfold in the current issue of Playboy.

The station wagon Chris is driving blows a tire while on the expressway into Chicago. Complicating matters further, she forgot her purse in the rush to get downtown, which leaves them stranded with no transportation and money. A kindly one-handed tow truck driver offers assistance, but rather than take them straight to the garage, he is diverted to his home where he finds his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. Once shots are fired in the domestic dispute, Chris and the kids run off, only to be deposited in the chop shop headquarters for a national car theft ring and being pursued by the crime syndicate’s bosses.

Released by Walt Disney production label Touchstone Pictures, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING combines the parent company’s family film qualities with some of the racier elements in John Hughes’ teen movies. A judicious amount of strong language and a Playboy magazine’s pivotal role in the plot provide the off-color window dressing (and PG-13 rating) for what is otherwise a squeaky clean story of three teenagers and a pre-teen getting into some pickles.

Although a fear of urban life runs through the film, the exaggerated vision of danger lurking around every corner reads more like a child’s imagining of the bad parts of the big city or an early 1960s movie’s sanitized portrayal of seedy sections of town and characters. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is set in then-present day suburban Chicago, but the light tone, classical style, and Shue as Sandra Dee stand-in are more indicative of a cinematic mindset from approximately 25 years earlier. Use of vintage R&B and The Crystals’ 1963 single “Then He Kissed Me”, which appears over the opening and closing scenes, also suggest a throwback perspective. The world of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is one where the bad men are cartoon villains, not rough and tumble types capable of any serious harm, and the scary but nice ones have hearts of gold.

The innocence found in Chris Columbus’ directorial debut ranks among its most appealing attributes and explains why it has aged relatively gracefully in the years since its 1987 premiere. For instance, the scene in which Chris and the kids stumble into a blues club and have Albert Collins insist they sing a song to earn the ability to leave shouldn’t work. Nevertheless, the corny bemoaning of babysitting blues charms by force of spirit and unironic effort.

Central to ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’s wholesomeness is Shue’s sincere performance. She displays why Chris would be in demand on the babysitting circuit, popular with other girls her age, and the object of affection for underclassmen and college guys. She’s responsible and conscientious but not overbearing, which would endear her to parents and her young charges. Chris is also friendly, aware of her attractiveness, and vulnerable without being vain or cruel. The adventures Chris must survive are over the top, but Shue grounds the film by playing the role with the courage and just below the surface desperation that feels true to how a real teen might handle the predicaments she’s thrust into. Beyond her character, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING possesses a knowingness about how kids and teenagers react under adverse circumstances and when they’re trying to impress.

In a sense, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is a template for the slicker PG-13 fare that Disney now produces to keep its brand from being associated solely with entertainment for young kids. It’s rougher around the edges--the swearing in it is less likely to make the cut these days--and it feels less like it’s been focus group tested for maximum box office revenues. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is an outlandish teen comedy, but in keeping with the John Hughes influence, it doesn’t take the easy way out at the end. That in itself is worth a good tip for a job well done.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


WARGAMES (John Badham, 1983)

Underachieving Seattle high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) wants to get a sneak peek at a computer company’s revolutionary upcoming games in WARGAMES. Using a slow but methodical automated dialing program he finds what he believes is their system, but the log-on command proves unpassable for the time being.

Eventually David hacks into the other computer and pulls up a list of games. He ignores standbys like chess and poker for the more tantalizing option labelled Global Thermonuclear War. Along with his friend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), they elect to play the game as the Soviet Union and pick Las Vegas and their hometown as targets.

Little do they know that David has accessed the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer at NORAD Combat Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain. With 22 percent of missile commanders failing to launch ICBMs during simulation tests, WOPR has recently taken over the job of carrying out such orders if they are transmitted. What David thinks is a game may be putting the world on the brink of mutually assured destruction.

As a Cold War message movie and cinematic descendent of FAIL-SAFE, WARGAMES examines the inherent danger in favoring technology’s cool logic and situational calculations over mankind’s potential second guessing when called upon to press buttons and flip switches that will result in killing millions. Even the best designed systems are susceptible to unexpected weaknesses. A clever member of the general public can infiltrate WOPR. The computer can’t be overridden when running scenarios. Powering down the machine at such a time tells it that the opponent’s attack has been successful and thus initiates a counterstrike.

Director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes sprinkle other examples of imperfect systems throughout WARGAMES. David’s father would seem to have come upon the most efficient way to butter bread and corn on the cob: rub the buttered bread on the vegetable. Yet he doesn’t achieve the desired result if, as occurs here, the corn has not been cooked. David escapes custody at NORAD because of human and technical vulnerabilities. David uses forceps and a miniature cassette recorder to defeat an electronic lock, but even that wouldn’t matter if the solider on guard didn’t lose focus when flirting with a nurse in the infirmary. David also employs an aluminum can’s pull tab to make a free call from a pay phone. From the unimportant system to the critical, somewhere there is a hole to be exploited, try as the designers might to eliminate them.

While WARGAMES worries that the human race may foolishly bring about its own extinction, the film also demonstrates warmth toward people and their flaws. In the prototypical role for his screen personality, Broderick displays intelligence and good-natured roguishness that can have adverse consequences despite his intentions. David may be too smart for his own good, but his infectious enthusiasm and drive to fix the mess he’s made are innately human and make him all the more endearing.

The same applies to Sheedy, who shares an easy chemistry with Broderick. Her character often misses the larger picture for smaller observations. When David tells her about the computer programmer, she’s most attuned to the scientist’s physical attractiveness. Jennifer is understandably concerned when TV news reports on the computer breach, yet she also asks David if she can share the story with a friend. In a funny bit that reflects the capacity to mistake everything about oneself, she meets David in Colorado after he begs for her to buy him a plane ticket and wonders if his dilemma is related to changing grades on the school server.

Setting aside the moral warning WARGAMES issues about the nuclear arms race, it functions as a terrific thriller. The tense opening scene in the nuclear silo with two missile commanders communicates what is at stake on micro and macro levels. The pressure on David to bring the game to a non-disastrous conclusion and on NORAD officials to act appropriately with limited but alarming information is felt for nearly every moment. The climax, with the blossoming of missiles on the command center’s maps, serves as a chilling reminder of what could be if the wrong chain of events are triggered.

As a member of a generation that grew up worrying about nuclear war, WARGAMES still makes quite an impact nearly thirty years after its release because it taps into those fears so well. At some point in the 1980s I remember the Dayton Daily News printing a map with concentric circles, probably centered on likely target Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, that showed the effects a nuclear attack would have on the area. Understandably this freaked me out as a kid. Does WARGAMES have the same effect on those whose formative years have come after the fall of the Soviet Union? Obviously I can’t say unequivocally, but the film holds up as a nail-biting thriller and a lesson on entrusting too much faith to technology.

Grade: A

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Smurfs

THE SMURFS (Raja Gosnell, 2011)

The little blue guys and gal in THE SMURFS live mostly care-free existences in their quaint village nestled in the wilderness, even if the evil sorcerer Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael are constantly trying to find and capture them. Gargamel wants to extract the Smurfs’ essence and thus add some extra zing to his magic, but he is clueless as to their whereabouts in the Middle Ages-like surroundings.

The Smurfs are named after their personalities, so it’s the appropriately dubbed Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) who accidentally tips off Gargamel to their hidden homes. While escaping his clutches, six Smurfs are sucked into a portal that delivers them to present day New York City. Gargamel follows closely behind but temporarily loses track of the magical, three apples high creatures in The Big Apple.

The Smurfs wind up in the home of stressed marketing executive Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife Grace (Jayma Mays). While the Smurfs seem relatively unfazed in this unfamiliar world, they’re also eager to get back to the portal during the next blue moon and return home. Patrick and Grace graciously agree to assist them and keep Gargamel at bay when he pops up again.

Belgian comic book artist Peyo created the Smurfs in the late 1950s. They found popularity in the United States with the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. A computer-animated feature film about the Smurfs would seem to be the most sensible way to update this kiddie material for a new generation. Instead THE SMURFS and director Raja Gosnell take the eponymous CGI creatures and plop them into a boilerplate, live-action, fish out of water story.

Rather than catering to the kids, who are the only ones likely to care about a Smurfs movie in the first place, the makers try in vain to produce something hip to appeal to all ages, or at least the parents who grew up with the cartoon. Why else is Tim Gunn given a speaking part or do Joan Rivers and TOP CHEF’s Tom Colicchio make cameo appearances? I don’t think five-year-olds are demanding to see their favorites from Bravo’s lineup in this movie.

Such calculated decisions rarely pan out well on the creative side, and THE SMURFS provides a textbook example in the case against this treatment. First and foremost, THE SMURFS’ celebrity voice casting tends to value names that can appear on the poster and stars who will show up on the red carpet. Rather than use voice artists who might better embody these sweet blue beings, the film presents the jarring sounds of George Lopez as Grouchy and Alan Cumming doing a Scottish brogue as Gutsy. Then there’s the nondescript Katy Perry as Smurfette, whose inclusion seems to hinge on putting a Smurf twist on a joke referencing “I Kissed a Girl”. The only one who fits is Jonathan Winters, whose performance doesn’t rely on identifying him as Papa Smurf.

Whether it’s the inappropriate substitution of “smurf” for vulgarities or Smurfette recreating Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, the crass humor is out of place for a franchise that is known for sincerity sometimes to the point of sickly sweetness. THE SMURFS itself is one big merchandising trove, yet it’s also littered with scenes that are little more than ads for Guitar Hero and FAO Schwarz.

Harris does a yeoman’s job in not overacting among the CGI Smurfs. Azaria’s hammy performance as Gargamel is fun in its unrestrained weirdness. It’s readily apparent, though, that THE SMURFS would have been better served by sticking with the all animated introduction for the entire running time than adding live action. After all, bringing the story into the physical world often pulls focus from the title characters who are seemingly the attraction.

Grade: C-

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The NeverEnding Story

THE NEVERENDING STORY (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)

Still grieving the recent death of his mother and suffering at the hands of school bullies, young Bastian (Barret Oliver) is having a hard time in THE NEVERENDING STORY. His father’s advice is to get his head out of the clouds and buck up. It’s time to move on. No good can come from dwelling on the pain.

Such advice may sound all well and good, but for a kid who feels alone, these consoling words are neither comforting nor helpful. So Bastian retreats into books, which affords him the ability to escape his everyday worries and experience adventures from a safe distance.

One day while hiding from his three harassing classmates Bastian encounters a man in a book shop who is reading something he deems too dangerous for the boy. Like any child who has something forbidden dangled in front of him, Bastian can’t resist wanting to know what such a book might contain. He borrows it when the bookseller steps away for a few moments. Instead of going to class and facing his tormentors again, Bastian slips off to the school’s attic, a dusty old place that looks more like a medieval sorcerer’s quarters than an academic storage area.

Bastian curls up with the book, THE NEVERENDING STORY, and begins reading about Fantasia, a land which is being slowly overtaken by The Nothing. After this darkness in the form of encroaching storm clouds arrives, where once there was something, now there isn’t anything. The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) knows how to combat the malevolent force but is unable to resist it because she is dying. Enter the child warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who is summoned and sent on a quest to find a cure for the Empress before The Nothing destroys everything.

As a testament to the power of books, the often gloomy THE NEVERENDING STORY comes off as a READING RAINBOW episode covering existentialism. This is heavy stuff for an epic children’s fantasy, even if it’s leavened by Henson-esque creatures. The inhabitants of Fantasia and a mourning Bastian aren’t trying to ward off tangible villains but are dealing with the eternal struggle against despair.

Whether it’s the production’s German roots showing or the prevailing children’s psychology of the time, THE NEVERENDING STORY confronts angst head on instead of offering any coddling or easy reassurance. The directness empowers the tale’s frightened heroes because courage is defined as the ability to stand up to one’s fears and author solutions in the continuous battle with mortal concerns. Reading is not a passive activity for Bastian but an active engagement that permits safer interaction with individual and collective anxieties. In a bit of meta exercise, it is suggested that those of us viewing are similarly employing the imagination through THE NEVERENDING STORY to keep at bay or conquer fundamental doubts and uneasiness.

At the helm of his first English-language film, director Wolfgang Petersen treats the kid-oriented material seriously to overall benefit and detriment. THE NEVERENDING STORY doesn’t condescend to young viewers. In so doing it provides them with plenty to mull over while taking in the stranger delights akin to ALICE IN WONDERLAND by way of THE DARK CRYSTAL. The lighthearted moments and playful exchanges, such as a Rockbiter extolling the vintages of particular stones he’s chowing down on and an ancient turtle ambivalent about impending doom, hint at a less stern composition, but mostly the playfulness juts out awkwardly in a film whose personality prefers affection at arm’s length.

THE NEVERENDING STORY’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends with Benefits


As in NO STRINGS ATTACHED, the protagonists in the romantic comedy FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS seek to enjoy carnal pleasures with a trusted pal without a dating relationship’s emotional complications or commitment. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) gets to know Jamie (Mila Kunis) when she recruits him to become the art director at GQ. The job requires him to move from Los Angeles to New York City. Without a social network in his new home, Dylan starts hanging out with Jamie, and the two become fast friends.

Both were recently dumped in their long-term relationships. Dylan and Jamie are feeling frisky and attracted to each other but don’t want to risk ruining their new friendship. Instead, they agree to have casual sex without any expectations of romantic obligations. In fact, such feelings and action are not just discouraged but deal breakers.

For awhile the pair enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company in and out of bed without needing to perform the duties incumbent on those who are dating. Gradually, though, the arrangement proves to be harder to navigate without feelings getting in the way.

Just as Dylan and Jamie wish to stake out a relationship on their own terms but ultimately conform to the norm, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS wants to blow up the romantic comedy formula but finds itself succumbing to the template’s demands and sentiments. The characters and the filmmakers think they are more evolved than to follow established patterns. The time-tested sturdiness of these structures prevails, but the different paths to these ends is just as rewarding.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS benefits from Timberlake and Kunis’ sparkling lead performances. While it may seem common logic to build a romantic comedy around two people liking and getting to know each other, so many films in the genre substitute petty bickering for compatibility and push the lovers apart so they can have a big reunion. Timberlake and Kunis show why that way of doing business is often wrongheaded. As they flirt and grow fond of each other, so too does the audience gain affection for them. Here is an attractive pair matching wits and deepening their connection whether they realize it or not. In some respects, that’s all this type of movie requires. The lead actors use their star power to radiate warmth and humor. It’s simple and effective yet frequently bungled by the purveyors of romantic comedies.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS also looks better as the second film of the year with a similar but less successfully executed premise. Here the set-up and follow-through regarding commitment-free sex is actually explored, unlike in NO STRINGS ATTACHED. It helps too that FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS’ Dylan and Jamie don’t seem pathological in interpersonal communication, which was the defining characteristic of Natalie Portman’s NO STRINGS ATTACHED character.

Through its magnetic stars, funny crudity, and observation of people’s foibles in relationships, FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS consummates the deal that viewers enter with romantic comedies. Deliver regular laughs. Construct an atmosphere in which love can thrive. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) doggedly attempts to sign up for military service during World War II. His puny stature gets him declared 4-F time and again, but each rejection just makes him try harder on his next recruiting office visit.

Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices Steve’s selflessness and nobility and offers the gung-ho New Yorker a special opportunity to serve his country. The expatriate German scientist has developed a treatment that can transform Steve into a super soldier. Being dosed with the serum and vita-rays will greatly enhance his physical appearance and moral fortitude. Although the procedure is not risk-free, Steve accepts without hesitation.

Despite reaching his full potential through technology, military superiors limit Steve to playing the role of Captain America to promote war bond sales. While on tour to perform for the men fighting on the Italian front, Steve finally gets the chance to prove himself in battle. British officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and genius inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) help him slip away for a daring one-man rescue mission of captured troops.

It’s here that Steve encounters Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), otherwise known as Red Skull. The onetime Nazi commander underwent an earlier and flawed version of Dr. Erskine’s treatment, which has magnified his capacity for evil. Schmidt has designs on taking over the world himself and has split from Hitler to lead HYDRA. Schmidt possesses a powerful cube of the gods called the tesseract and is harnessing its energy to create unbeatable weapons. If Steve is to protect his countrymen and the world as a whole, he must defeat Schmidt.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER director Joe Johnston also helmed the retro comic book adventure THE ROCKETEER. Once again he shows a knack for conveying old-fashioned awe and wonder in patriotic service without shifting into jingoism or recruitment ad. Both films feature heroes who are quite square, but the period settings play to the advantage of the characters’ sincerity. By golly, Steve Rogers is going to perform his civic duty however he can. In the era of the tortured superhero in movies, it’s refreshing to come across one with enthusiasm and a pure spirit.

By virtue of his unsullied goodness, Captain America himself is a one-note character, but help is on the way from a strong supporting cast. As Red Skull, Weaving makes an exceptional villain to be feared. The latex mask he wears in the bad guy’s disfigured condition looks exponentially better than the CGI’d GREEN LANTERN character he resembles. Cooper gives the perfect amount of swagger and smarts to the character who will be Iron Man’s dad.

Atwell’s Peggy Carter is more than a romantic prop for the hero. She’s as tough and driven as the boys fighting the good fight, yet she also let down her guard when admiring Steve and being disappointed by him. For as misguided as CAPTAIN AMERICA’s conclusion is, Peggy and Steve’s radio conversation, which echoes Powell and Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, identifies the human cost that pays for valor.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is the last cinematic piece of the puzzle that will make way for next summer’s superhero extravaganza THE AVENGERS. At times it feels as though CAPTAIN AMERICA suffers because it is a prelude to the blockbuster-to-be. The opening scene not only ruins the potential emotional impact of the climax, but it also gives it away within the first ten minutes. On top of that, the final scene suggests that everything preceding it was merely a long teaser for the admission to be bought next May. Johnston’s fleetly assembled superhero film deserves better, but the botched finish doesn’t undo all the goodwill that CAPTAIN AMERICA earns.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


BADLANDS (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Set in the late 1950s, BADLANDS follows 25-year-old garbage collector Kit (Martin Sheen) and 15-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek), who are running from the law for their killing spree that stretches from South Dakota to Montana. Kit looks like James Dean and shows interest in the red-haired, freckled-faced teen, who admits to not receiving that kind of attention at school. It’s no wonder this man from the wrong side of the tracks captivates her. That her father (Warren Oates) disapproves only makes Kit more attractive. Kit and Holly’s outlaw adventure across the Great Plains is instigated when he kills her father and burns down her home. It’s them against the world as the couple hightail it out of town for a life of survival off of the land and anyone who gets in their way.

BADLANDS is loosely based on a similar string of real-life killings by Charles Starkweather and his young girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, although writer-director Terrence Malick uses their story as a jumping off point for his interests than an investigation of true crime personalities. Instead of a psychological portrait of two young killers on the road, it studies the mundanity of murder. Kit and Holly seem not to be disturbed or excited by taking lives. Killing comes naturally and is carried out without consideration for the act’s meaning. They kill because it is an avenue to getting what they want or preserving themselves. They kill because it’s what they do.

The way of nature is a consistent theme in Malick’s films, and here in his debut he cuts to the chase regarding an unyielding universe that operates outside of philosophical constructs. In the animal kingdom Kit and Holly’s deeds would not be judged within a moral framework, nor would they be when considering man’s dominion over all creatures great and small. Shooting a dog to punish a child or tossing a catfish into the yard to suffocate because one is angry are not doings deserving of guilt or ethical penalty much like raising cattle for slaughter is unobjectionable. (In these instances one must account for when the film takes place and was made.)

But of course humans conduct themselves within the parameters of what society deems acceptable and unacceptable. This is why Kit and Holly’s brazen attitudes about the sanctity of life shock the sensibilities. Holly’s flat, matter of fact narration and Sheen and Spacek’s dispassionate performances reflect the emptiness in their characters and the problem of living outside higher and human-determined law. (In fact, the only time they appear to conform to the world’s expectations is when they hide out in the forest free of constraints and playact as civilized people.) Kit and Holly are frightening not because they are unknowable but because their actions stem from nature.

Additionally, this outlaw pair is scary because they’re dumb and likable. Malick has come to be known and revered as a cinematic poet and philosopher, as a filmmaker who explores big ideas, but in BADLANDS in particular he also shows a knack for off-kilter humor. Kit’s cocksure carriage, as though he’s embodying a role in a movie in his head, and the weird ideas that both verbalize breed affection. There’s something hilariously twisted about an adult killer insisting his girlfriend stop by school to get her books so she can keep up with her studies while they are on the lam. If only their strange notions and convention breaking were less sociopathic.

BADLANDS is a clear announcement that Malick is and would be a major talent to watch.

Grade: A

Friday, July 15, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

WINNIE THE POOH (Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, 2011)

In WINNIE THE POOH the tubby little cubby and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood work together to overcome the two issues of a most pressing nature in their community. Eeyore (Bud Luckey) has lost his tail, so a contest is held to find the best replacement. The prize for finding the ideal tail is a big pot of honey. Pooh (Jim Cummings) is already eager to help his pal, but the prospect of satisfying that rumbly tummy of his in the process doesn’t hurt his motivation.

Additionally, Pooh and the others plot to capture the Backson, a frightful creature that is imagined when Owl (Craig Ferguson) misinterprets Christopher Robin’s note and his promise to be “back soon”. A litany of terrible things the Backson does is invented, but the animals persevere in an effort to rescue the boy.

With its hand-drawn style (even if it is computer-animated) and quiet sincerity, the latest Disney animated film featuring A.A. Milne’s beloved characters is a delightful throwback to classic children’s entertainment. WINNIE THE POOH is what it always has been, or at least what many know from the decades of shorts and features the studio has made.

The characters aren’t susceptible to the prevailing trends of their times but instead submit to simple and gentle storytelling that endures across generations. Going to the Hundred Acre Wood at the movies is the equivalent of visiting a nature preserve. Here’s a space where viewers can take a break from the hustle and bustle that dominates the options in kids’ media diversions.

WINNIE THE POOH toys with its storybook origin, as the titular bear wanders onto the page, collects letters from sentences to assist in a task, and interacts with the narrator. These fourth wall breaking techniques never feel like meta intrusions on the material but like a child’s interaction with a parent reading the tales. The writers and animators have great fun playing with the text to sneak in some small lessons about narratives and make their funniest jokes.

Pooh isn’t smarter than the average bear, but he and his friends serve as wonderful examples for the little ones following their adventures. Although the gloomy Eeyore seems under a perpetual cloud, Pooh and company are typically filled with good cheer and courage, even when experiencing doubt and worry. Ever mindful of how children perceive a world that is at turns wondrous and scary, the film approaches the challenges these characters face in a manner that remains optimistic while not ignoring the bittersweet. To do so is to respect the youngsters who are watching.

WINNIE THE POOH is aimed squarely at kids, and its abbreviated running time of 69 minutes is just long enough to pass the time before they get too squirmy in the seats. It also shouldn’t be too long for adults who, like me, may find some of this overly familiar. (I swear I’ve seen these specific subplots before, but maybe they were variations on similar incidents.) I should note that the screening I attended had an inexplicably and verging on painfully loud audio presentation, one that’s in defiance of the tranquil nature of the work. It likely affected the degree of my evaluation for what is intended as a quiet, low key charmer.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 08, 2011


ZOOKEEPER (Frank Coraci, 2011)

Five years after being rejected during an elaborate marriage proposal on the beach, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) finally appears to be getting over the heartbreak. His ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) spurned him because his job isn’t important enough in her eyes, but he excels in his chosen profession and has become the head zookeeper at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. Seeing Stephanie at his brother’s engagement party rekindles old feelings and has Griffin working hard to impress her again.

The zoo animals want Griffin to be happy and scheme to make him look good in front of her, but true to form, he bungles the staged rescue. At this point the creatures choose to break their code of silence with humans and speak to Griffin so they can instruct him in the animal kingdom’s ways of courtship.

Griffin is understandably freaked out that he can talk to the animals, but he quickly adapts and follows through on the pointers he’s given. He begins walking with a swagger and marking his territory, even if it means urinating in potted plants at a classy restaurant. Still, Stephanie doesn’t seem really interested in Griffin until he leaves the zoo to work at his brother’s luxury vehicle dealership.

If a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters can produce Shakespeare, then ZOOKEEPER must have been banged out by one primate pecking away at a keyboard between sessions playing on a tire swing. This nearly laugh-free amalgamation of DOCTOR DOLITTLE and NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM spends far too much time on romantic comedy machinations and away from the talking animals that are presumably the film’s calling card.

ZOOKEEPER is targeted at a family audience seeking amusement in the silly exploits of conversant zoo inhabitants, but it expends a lot of its running time and energy on the main character’s pursuit of a shallow woman everyone knows he’s not meant to be with. As unfunny as the wise-cracking zoo animals are, their antics are preferable to a boilerplate romance that no one’s heart is in. If a love story is absolutely necessary--and it really isn’t in a movie meant for children--keep it in the workplace. Have the animals conspiring to bring together Griffin and his compassionate co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson). At least that way there will be more scenes with the zoo denizens.

Another ZOOKEEPER miscalculation can be spotted in the celebrity voice cast. Featuring Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion couple, producer Adam Sandler as a monkey, and Nick Nolte as a sullen gorilla, the roster is notable for its collective weirdness than effectiveness. Granted, the performers have been handed dire material, but the familiar, if not always easy to identify, voices put in minimal effort and tend to distract.

Nothing about ZOOKEEPER suggests it was ever anything but a crass excuse for selling tickets to parents perhaps tired of taking the kids to animated movies. Still, the product placements in the film are the most shameless of any in recent memory. Out of nowhere the gorilla asks if a casual dining place is as great as it sounds. Later on the zookeeper and the gorilla spend a raucous evening living it up in this particular establishment. More thought seems to have been put into this virtual commercial and truly strange scene than the remainder of this lazy excuse of a film.

Grade: D

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Back to the future

A report from day 4 at Ebertfest will have to wait until I've returned home. Too many nights burning the midnight oil and whatnot, not to mention the four to five hour drive on Sunday.

In place of a full entry for the day, here's a photograph of a DeLorean with Washington state plates that presumably a festival attendee drives. It's been a minor sensation among the film fans here, as well it should be. It's been a long time since I've seen one of these in the wild.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Day 3

Film festivals tend to be exhausting experiences. The lack of sleep, programming choices that often favor emotionally taxing films, and eating out of convenience contribute to festivals putting attendees through the wringer. It's too much of a good thing on a daily basis. Obviously there could be worse problems to have.

This year's Ebertfest may have presented challenges on the sleep front, but I've noticed that the collective tone of the films screened so far is much lighter. I don't know if this was a conscious choice or it just happened to work out this way, but I appreciate not feeling like I've been pummeled film after film.

Ebertfest has a Midwestern sensibility about it, and that often carries over to some of the selected films. Movies and filmmakers with Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, or Illinois connections have typically found a welcome home at this festival. The documentary 45365 does not showcase the Land of Lincoln, nor are the co-directing brothers from there. The setting is two states to the east in Sidney, Ohio, yet this impressionist examination of the filmmakers' hometown could also reflect any small American city.

(45365 co-directors Turner Ross and Bill Ross)

I grew up about forty miles from Sidney and surely set foot in the city at some point, even if nothing specific comes to mind. (Probably I was there for something related to my family's grain elevator business.) Sidney High School was and is in the same athletic conference as my high school. While Sidney isn't a bustling metropolis, its population of approximately 20,000 is a good bit larger than the 600-700 people who resided in my hometown. I've not lived in that area since the summer after my sophomore year of college, but having been away may have merely increased my interest in seeing 45365.

I explain this because my connection to the part of the region depicted means I'm likely looking at the film differently than most who encounter it. Do I recognize anywhere or anyone? How accurately does this resemble my memories and observations of the area? Does it feel like home? Clearly it is difficult for me to approach the film in an objective manner.

Parts of the film feel very familiar to me. The old farmer talking in the barn and the old women sitting around a table seem exactly like people I knew growing up, primarily because of their voices, expressions, and reactions. Until I went to college, I didn't consider myself to have an accent, yet I'm aware there is a Midwestern twang in my voice that I share with some of these people. (My ears are even accustomed to those who mumble through thicker accents in the film.) Identifying with people and characters we see in movies is part of the cinema's pleasures, but it's kind of disorienting to feel like I am being shown on screen, even if there's not really any one person in the film that corresponds to who I think I am.

45365 is a movie of small observations rather than big moments. The background reaction of a frustrated barber who is thwarted in cutting the hair of a talkative customer, a truck doing donuts in a snowy strip mall parking lot, and the men keeping a heavy rainfall from caving in a performance tent say plenty about the people who live and work in this place. Enough of these accumulate to make this a worthwhile film, even if my concerns about the repetitions and shapelessness still remain after this, my second time seeing it.

(Ali Arikan, Me and Orson Welles director Richard Linklater, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)

A sense of community is important in 45365 and at Ebertfest, so it is fitting that Richard Linklater has a film included among this year's selections. Watching ME AND ORSON WELLES it occurred to me that the characters in his films often are searching for an idealized corner of the world to call their own.

The protagonist in this film, a supremely confident 17-year-old who snatches a part in Orson Welles' and the Mercury Theatre's production of JULIUS CAESAR, may not at first seem to have much in common with the bright misfits and outcasts that populate Linklater's films. Gradually we come to see that he too has a specific idea of where he wants to and thinks he belongs, how his conception of this place clashes with reality, and how he's able to synthesize his vision and experience into a hopeful mindset. As in much of the director's work, the character and the film stake out firm philosophical ground.

The takeaway, though, is Christian McKay's outstanding performance as Welles. The danger in a role based on someone with such a strong and well-known personality is to lapse into an impersonation. The audience doesn't see a person or a character but someone doing Welles. McKay inhabits the part from the first time we see him bellowing among his company that he vanishes into the character. In being an unknown actor it may be easier for him to do so, but he does remarkable work in playing the range of being intimidating, tender, funny, generous, and cruel.

World building is usually talked about in terms of superhero movies, but it merits mention in ME AND ORSON WELLES. The seductive bubble of the theater and the entertainment industry blocks out the rest of the world. It becomes easy to understand how someone like Zac Efron as the main character Richard could get swept up in the thrill of being part of this insular environment and lose sight of everything else. Welles' play turned out to be a landmark event, as we are well aware, but the characters don't know it. Linklater treats this period in a contemporary manner, as though the fate of the 1937 production is being discovered as the story unfolds. This stylistic choice makes an enormous difference in the film feeling organic and vibrant rather than as though it's being recounted out of a musty history book.

(Anath White, Only You director Norman Jewison, and Olivia Collette)

Rounding out the day was Norman Jewison's 1994 romantic comedy ONLY YOU. Although recently engaged, Marisa Tomei's Faith impulsively leaves Pittsburgh for Venice when she learns that the man she thinks she is destined to marry is traveling there. A ouija board and a fortune teller told an 11-year-old Faith that her soul mate was named Damon Bradley. Now 25 and less than two weeks from her wedding day, the prospect of meeting this long-imagined lover, whose existence she knows of only through a phone call for her fiancé, is irresistible. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, he appears in the form of Robert Downey Jr. as a shoe salesman from Boston.

ONLY YOU is a standard issue romantic comedy that is both a throwback and very much of the mid-'90s. In comparison to a lot of what is produced in the genre today, it shows signs of being made with a formal rigorousness and seriousness of purpose that these films don't often receive. Longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist worked on ONLY YOU, and the screenplay isn't larded with a bunch of pointless subplots.

Perhaps the theory I'm going to propose won't stand up to the data or the light of day, but my gut feeling at this late point in the night is that this particular type of light entertainment is rarely made by veteran directors anymore. They've become the domain of inexperienced or undistinguished filmmakers and are thus susceptible to reductive treatment of the story and characters.

For example, whereas many of the current romantic comedy protagonists frequently behave like idiotic children, the leads in ONLY YOU still act like adults. Faith is being irrational, but one or two minor instances aside, she still comports herself like a grown woman rather than a socially inept kid who has trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The film wants to embrace the grand romantic fantasy, but it doesn't enable the sort of foolishness that Faith is engaging in. Sure, everything works out for her, but it comes down firmly on the side of making one's own destiny rather than chucking everything based on unrealistic notions of destiny.

Tomei gives an appealing performance, even if seems like she's still revved up in MY COUSIN VINNY mode, as if it was to be her permanent screen persona. She's well-matched with Downey Jr., who is nimble with the comedy in a thin role. The Italian cities and landscapes provide gorgeous backdrops. While the plot in this type of film is usually predictable, screenwriter Diane Drake drops a couple unexpected but well integrated twists into the mix.

The big surprise is Bonnie Hunt as Faith's sister-in-law and sounding board while the two of them are in Italy. It's a classic supporting character role played in a warm and funny way that makes one long for the major breakthrough that has never come for the comedic actress. With her Chicago roots, I'm a little surprised she isn't at the festival. Her fantastic performance in ONLY YOU reminds me of the gem of a romantic comedy RETURN TO ME that she directed, wrote, and acted in. That would be a good one for a future Ebertfest (hint, hint).

Day 3 grades:

-45365: B-
-Me and Orson Welles: B+
-Only You: B-

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: The social network

I intend to get around to writing about the three films that played on day 2 of Ebertfest, but that will have to wait until another day. A night out on the town with several of the attending film critics and far flung correspondents and a few of the filmmakers gobbled up the time I would have otherwise spent alone in the hotel room writing until in the wee hours of the morning. Which sounds more fun to you?

That delay may have been for the best as I'd already seen UMBERTO D, MY DOG TULIP, and TINY FURNITURE theatrically. I watched the latter two within the last six months and wasn't crazy about either one. My opinions remain unchanged, although I'll ease up a smidgen on my rather harsh original assessment of MY DOG TULIP. I still could do with a lot less of the emphasis on the dog's excretory functions, but I didn't find this content as intensely distasteful as I did during my first viewing.

I mentioned earlier that the festival is about more than the movies; it's about the community of people who come together for the event. Keeping true to my word to interact more with those I met at last year's festival and those I've become familiar with via social media, I headed out with the group of critics and filmmakers for karaoke night at a Champaign bar.

But first, before leaving the Virginia Theatre I was able to have a conversation with NATURAL SELECTION star Rachael Harris, who attended the same small liberal arts college I did. That was a pleasant surprise, but it is also the sort of thing that this festival permits more easily. Granted, it didn't hurt that the polo shirt I was wearing had the school's name on it, which she and her director spotted as soon as I joined the group ready to head out for some Champaign nightlife. (And yes, I was truthful when asked if I'd seen her film the previous night and what I thought.) Although I had an in, by and large the filmmakers mingle with the festivalgoers and do so happily.

Best as I can tell, critic Ali Arikan is the unofficial social chair. Wrapped in a cape-like blanket, he led the pack to a local bar that was quickly overrun with us Ebertfest attendees. The chances of me getting in front of everyone to belt out a number were slim to none, but what a blast it was to be in the mix to cheer on IFC's Matt Singer get things started with his smooth Michael McDonald-like stylings, Harris tackle Salt-N-Pepa, and Roger Ebert's wife Chaz perform "Superfreak".

Ebertfest is a celebration of movies and their power to unify. A memorable night such as this, which brought together thirty or forty people from the festival and a few locals who happened to be at the bar, is as much in the spirit of the event as sitting down to watch the films. For those who don't understand the tweets and reports buzzing about a university town film festival whose purpose isn't to find the next hot thing in cinema, a couple hours tonight at Bentley's would have cleared it all up.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ebertfest 2011: Opening Night

(Chaz and Roger Ebert)

The vintage marquee in front of the Virginia Theatre is no longer there, but otherwise things seemed to be the same as usual at Roger Ebert's Film Festival. Anticipation was high to get things underway, and what better start can you ask for than seeing one of the all-time greats, METROPOLIS, and a live score performed by The Alloy Orchestra. I believe this is the first repeat film at Ebertfest, as it and the band were here for the fourth festival in 2002.

Of course, the easy justification for bringing it back are the restored scenes that make this version as close to an original full cut as is likely to be seen. I believe I've seen three different cuts of the film, with this being my second encounter with this so-called complete METROPOLIS.

Plenty has been written about Fritz Lang's 1927 film, and all of it is going to sound more studied than whatever I type out here at almost 2 a.m. Instead, permit me to rave briefly about this movie. It boasts unbelievably audacious filmmaking. The sets! The setpieces! The sustained climax that must be at least forty minutes long! Basically everything from the "Furioso" title card on is an action avalanche on a ridiculous scale. The restored version makes a lot more narrative sense. The Alloy's live score was a real treat to hear again. The only bad thing about their performance is that we don't have it to look forward to yet in this year's festival.

(Michael Phillips with Natural Selection's writer/director Robbie Pickering and actress Rachael Harris)

Opening Night's second film was the late addition NATURAL SELECTION. After seeing and admiring it at this year's South by Southwest, where it won the jury and audience awards for narrative feature, Ebert found extra room for it.

Rachael Harris stars as Linda, whose marriage of 25 years has been abstinent for nearly the entire duration. Since she is unable to conceive, her husband's religious beliefs compel him to avoid having sex with her purely for pleasure. When Linda is called to see him at the hospital after he passes out while making what turns out to be his regular contribution to a fertility clinic, she feels more than a little betrayed. She was oblivious to how he'd been channeling all of that pent-up energy.

Linda's husband asks that she find the children created from his donations, which eventually leads this frumpy Texas Christian to the Florida dwelling of Raymond (Matt O'Leary), a junkie and escaped convict. She desperately wants to bring this biological son back to her husband. Their misadventures on the road home comprise the majority of the film.

NATURAL SELECTION got off on the wrong foot with me, enough so that it never recovered. Much of the early humor comes from mocking devout conversatives--or an exceptionally rare type of fundamentalist--and there's nothing especially funny about these cheap shots. (In a similar manner, CEDAR RAPIDS got off to a very shaky start with its sneering attitude toward professed Christians while not demonstrating any tangible understanding of those who identify in such a way.)

I didn't find the characters to be particularly credible, especially when they're together. A pivotal scene in a dark restaurant finds Linda and Raymond exchanging painful secrets. The sequence is well-acted, but not for a second did I buy that these two people would connect in this manner. The shortcoming is in the writing rather than the performances. Harris handles the shifts between serious and jokey tones with aplomb. The derision toward whatever beliefs her character holds--something that's never clarified yet ought to be--is in writer-director Robbie Pickering's managing of the material, not her acting.

The loneliest time in a crowded movie theater is when practically everyone is laughing except you, and was I ever feeling it during this film. When you're not enjoying something, it's easy to turn to nitpicking something to death. (I'd point to the unfailing tracking sense that one character possesses.) To its credit, NATURAL SELECTION displays some visual adroitness and eventually settles into a decent storytelling groove. Lose the caricatured character constructions, though.

Opening Night grades: