Friday, March 23, 2012

REVIEW: The Muppets (2011)

One of the most purely joyful films of the year, The Muppets is less a franchise cash-in than a labor of love from one generation (spearheaded by co-star/writer Jason Segal) to the children’s icons of yesteryear, who haven’t been on the big screen since their last movie flopped way back in 1999. It's also (and here's where it gets postmodern) less a “Muppet movie” than a movie about Muppet movies. One critic called it a work of "canonical fan fiction", and there's no better description, since what we have here is a tribute to the tropes, themes, characters, style, and importance of children's entertainment, with the creators inserting themselves into a franchise they grew up on. Indeed, given its sensibility, the whole thing may have more in common with "Flight of the Conchords"—from which it gets its director and principle songwriter—than it does with previous Muppet films. And while most Muppet fans I know have loved what Segal and co. did with it, I have, in all fairness, encountered a few who reacted adversely, not least of which is Frank Oz, the original Miss Piggy, who left project over creative differences.

Still, if the film's execution comes self-consciously from hip newcomers, that outsider perspective also gives the film the most crucial aspect of its identity. The classic characters are resurrected here with such nostalgia that when “The Rainbow Connection” is brought out near the end, it’s not self-plagiarism but homage, and it caused a feeling of reverence to settle over the theater. Yes, the film is so indifferent to its own narrative that it solves the main plot conflict in an outtake. But it knows that the secret to comedy is throwing the jokes so fast that if one is too easy, a better one will arrive before long, and it sustains this energy so well that to complain about anything as trivial as a narrative risks coming across as sociopathic. And with moments like the opening musical number ("Life's a Happy Song", performed in the colorful streets of Smalltown, USA), the film hits a peak.

You don’t need to get the in-jokes or know the “Flight of the Conchords” connection to recognize that the Muppets here aren’t just for children, but for the media-savvy, hip-to-be-square young adults who still have a soft spot. So the film is well aware that the world of children’s entertainment is so squeaky-clean that it's begging to be parodied—but it doesn’t want to cynically write off this innocent wonderland, either. It may sometimes gets a laugh from irony, but it knows that unashamed sincerity can be so much better. See it and be merry.

4 out of 5 stars.


The Muppets is out on DVD this week from Disney.

Friday, March 16, 2012

REVIEW: The Kid With a Bike (2011)

For social realism—if you’re into that sort of thing—they don’t come more dependable than the Dardenne brothers. Their last 5 films all played at Cannes and all won top prizes (including two Palmes d’Or), cementing the Belgian duo as the filmmaker laureates of Europe’s lower-middle class, even if they’ve never cracked the American market in the same way that Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, and Wong Kar-Wai have. All of their strengths, and a few of their weaknesses, are on display in The Kid With a Bike, which won the Grand Prix (second place) at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It opens today in select cities.

It's strange to talk about story in a film like this, because so much of the film's power has less to do with plot than with character: it's the way each person feels real and flawed, and how the most potent moments feel like an ugly, unstaged moment of truth that the camera just happened to be there to catch. The center of this is a young boy whose father is unwilling and too irresponsible to take care of him, so he's passed to a state facility. He's eventually brought in by a stranger, who does her best to ease the angst he feels from abandonment.

The subject matter and tone are familiar territory for the Dardenne brothers, and indeed, The Kid With a Bike plays so much like an extension of their earlier film L’Enfant that a review of one could easily be a review of the other. My impression, there as now, is that they start strong, but go too far: they don’t trust the heartbreaking simplicity of their character’s dilemma to stand on its own, so by the end, they try to force a cinematic situation onto what would be better served by a lighter touch. The result is that it all risks crossing the line from social realism to social melodrama. Which is a regrettable fly in the ointment, since they really know how to get a performance and shoot a scene.

4 out of 5 stars.

REVIEW: The Descendants (2011)

Despite the backlash it sometimes gets, I always found Alexander Payne’s Sideways to be one of the more exceptionally well-written and -acted American films of the last decade, carried by a keen sense of how to balance comedy with tragedy and how to build characters’ lives out of little details. So it’s sad that, its Oscar win notwithstanding, Payne’s first feature since then bears so many of the hallmarks of sloppy screenwriting: over-reliance on voiceover and on-the-nose dialogue; tonal inconsistencies; a climactic speech that feels unearned; and contrived comic setups, where one-note characters stay one-note even in situations where all experience with human behavior would suggest otherwise. On the flipside, it’s anchored by a strong performance from Clooney and buoyed by a handful of select moments where everything clicks. But lots of it doesn’t feel natural, and if you want to handle serious themes like middle age, unhappy marriage, and white privilege, it had better. Students of the 90s take note: Matthew Lillard is now playing weaselly tools in grown-up dramas, too.

2 out of 5 stars.


The Descendants is out on DVD this week from Fox Searchlight

Thursday, March 15, 2012

REVIEW: Young Adult (2011)

Depending on who you ask, Juno was either a breath of fresh air or a case study in late 2000s pseudo-indie ostentation—more interested in congratulating itself for its own hipness than telling a satisfying story. It rocketed screenwriter Diablo Cody into the spotlight (indeed, it's one of those rare cases of the screenwriter being treated and accepted as an auteur), but it also earned its share of scorn along the way. The debate has died down, and seen after the fact, it becomes clearer than ever that the underrated strength of that film was always the Jennifer Garner-Jason Bateman subplot; the pregnant teenager angle may have been safe and pandering, but it was when Cody turned her attention to Gen Xers grappling with adulthood that the story found its most sincere emotion. So with the sudden arrival of Young Adult, I was curious to see how she’d do if she placed those Gen Xers front and center.

The story centers on Mavis (Charlize Theron), a dissatisfied hack writer pining for her glory days as a popular high school student. When her old boyfriend announces that he and his wife have had a kid, she heads back to her hometown with a deluded plan to "get him back." Reuniting Cody with Juno director Jason Reitman, the film largely swaps the colorful cuteness of an indie comedy for the muted palette and dour rhythm of an indie drama; anyone hoping for (or worried about) an excess of hip dialogue will be surprised how relatively little dialogue there is at all. Mavis herself is a fascinating trainwreck, a character who’s magnetically, almost irredeemably unlikable, making the film the sort of character study that dares the audience not to flinch.

That having been said, the writing is often too clunky to carry the weight of raw realism, so the film comes across less as an adult drama than an awkward imitation of one, like Cody is throwing serious issues (disabilities, failed marriage, hate crimes, miscarriages) at the screen and hoping that some of them stick. Some do, but the result is an oddly tactless film that’s as manipulative in its darkness as Juno was in its lightness. Of Reitman’s films, this is the first to not tack on a happy coda, but it's also his least smooth or satisfying. Credit must go to Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, who knock their big scenes out of the park, and while Cody is definitely better as a wit than as a dramatist, I can’t deny that she has what they call “a voice.” My best wishes to Fox Searchlight for the uphill battle in marketing this as a fun movie (the David Bowie song in the commercial helps).

One small issue: the male love interest is incredibly bland and uninteresting. But male writers have been doing that to female characters for years, so I suppose it serves us right.

2 out of 5 stars.


Young Adult is out this week on DVD from Paramount

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

As one of the relatively few Americans raised on The Adventures of Tintin and one of the many Americans raised on Indiana Jones, I was enticed by the prospect of a Spielberg adaptation since at least the Clinton administration. Tintin remained a cult following here in the states, but over in Europe, he's an absolute icon. Penned by an artist and writer named Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin were a series of Belgian graphic novels in which a young reporter of indeterminate age traveled the world, getting tangled in webs of intrigue that involved pirate treasure, drug smugglers, priceless artifacts, ancient curses, and so on. It's easy to see why Spielberg was drawn to the material, and shortly before he died, Hergé and his estate signed off on Spielberg as the right director for the job. 25 years of "development hell" later, Tintin arrived in multiplexes and now on DVD with A-list trimmings.

There's certainly no shortage of talent involved. In addition to Spielberg, Peter Jackson was on board as producer, and as if to ward off fears that Tintin would be Americanized, a lot of the principle cast and crew are drawn from abroad. The script was by Stephen Moffat ("Sherlock", "Doctor Who"), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), to ensure a dash of British wit. Wright's frequent collaborators Nick Frost and Simon Pegg add comic relief. Daniel Craig (the closest the film goes to a Hollywood celebrity) gets to growl as the villain. WETA Digital did the effects, and because its all motion-capture, Andy Serkis played a main role. And of course, it gets a John Williams score.

And yet, something has happened since Spielberg's blockbuster heyday. It's not something that Spielberg caused—more likely a broader shift in cultural taste—but he (and George Lucas) have been implicated in it as much as anyone. And the issue is that plots have sped up to an awkward rhythm.

Gone are the days when Spielberg could tease us with glimpses of the shark, or take half an hour to set everything up before the dinosaurs broke loose. In his latest blockbuster films (War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull, and now Tintin), we bound from set piece to set piece, plot point to plot point, without enough attention paid to how they flow or how relevant everything is when taken as a whole. It's the sort of movie where no one can give an expositional speech unless they're also being chased. And the result is that, even if the pieces by themselves are solid, their placement feels haphazard, the emphasis on action for its own sake rather than purpose. Part of this may be because they tried to combine at least two graphic novels into one story—generally a risky move, prone to muddying structure—but watching the film always feels vaguely like walking into the middle of it.

This is not to come down too hard on the film, or to be slave to nostalgia. Spielberg is very knowingly mixing past and present, adapting a graphic novel from 50 years ago using the latest cutting-edge technology—not just motion capture, but 3D, for those who saw it in theaters. There are moments (the opening title sequence, a fond in-joke near the beginning, a ring of canaries that escape from a pet store to circle a dazed man's head) that capture the mixture of innocent cartoon adventure and light-hearted slapstick of the source material as well as any moving image could. And there is at least one sequence—a climactic chase done in a single take—that belongs in the Spielberg Hall of Fame. Two, if you count the flashback to the pirate ship. But the ultimate verdict ends up being like so many tentpoles over the last decade: see it, but don't get your hopes up. Which is a shame, since when it comes to tentpoles, getting your hopes up is part of the fun.

3 out of 5 stars.

The Adventures of Tintin is out this week on DVD from Paramount.

Monday, March 12, 2012

REVIEW: Melancholia (2011)

It all ends. I’m not talking about the world—though that ends, too—but rather my platform of noninvolvement when it comes to Lars von Trier. Considering that he’s one of the most acclaimed/hated directors of the last 20 years, there was a certain purity to never having seen a single one of his films, and thus not having any opinion one way or another on whether he was a cinematic luminary or a manipulative hack with a misanthropic sense of humor. Having seen only one, I can’t say anything for certain except that he’s a talented image-maker, as well as the sort of guy who puts his name above the title and imagines his depression as nothing less than the end of all life on Earth.

The story of Melancholia is divided discretely into two parts. The first centers on the marriage of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman of no specific background whose problems in life (family, work, sex) all get compressed into a darkly comedic and flagrantly illogical wedding party from Hell. And though this occasion should be the happiest of her life, she instead feels a crushing loneliness. In the second part, the party is over, everyone has left, and Justine has sank into deep depression. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to console her, but to little effect. Meanwhile, a strange new planet called "Melancholia" has appeared in the sky on a collision course for Earth. And as it gets closer and closer, Claire searches for answers, and Justine's depression turns to tranquility.

If nothing else, the film is a powerhouse of aesthetics and performances. Kirsten Dunst, who’s most recognized for being rescued by Tobey Maguire (three times), gets a role that she can truly dig into; she goes all out, gives one of the most remarkable performances of 2011, and strikes a blow for actresses everywhere that get written off as eye-candy. And if von Trier’s characters scarcely resemble recognizable human behavior, he at least pursues this approach so single-mindedly that he pushes the film successfully into the realm of dreams and metaphors.

But with an approach so grandiose, the question emerges, aesthetics aside, of what it all adds up to. The narrative is scattershot, and even as the bursts of Wagner and the image of Dunst’s deteriorating body can shake you in your seat, I’m really not sure what the film is saying about depression, except for equating it (unadvisedly) with a kind of pessimistic enlightenment. In other words, it indulges depression rather than examining it. The result is an unforgettable film that shows talent, virtuosity, atmosphere, vision, and still feels empty. Reactions to the film vary, but that, I suppose, is the essence of von Trier.

3 out of 5 stars.


Melancholia is out on DVD this week from Magnolia.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

REVIEW: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodóvar has been in a rut for the past few films: the skills were still there, but all you need to do is go back to his 80s work to feel that his latest pictures have been low on energy and a bit forgettable. To break the routine, he gets back in touch with his dark and kinky side (as well as Antonio Banderas, whose career he launched) for this truly twisted thriller-horror-melodrama. As with all Almodóvar films, synopsis should be kept at a minimum, so you can enjoy the next sharp right turn without any warning. Suffice it to say that it combines obsession, revenge, and medical experimentation into one diabolical corkscrew of a plot. No one could ever call it forgettable—in fact, it may make you long for the safety of Blue Velvet—and it’s likely to leave many viewers in a state of revulsion. But stick with it, and you may find that this is a very rich and knowing film whose horror comes from provocative points about the gap between outward appearance and inner identity—and how we’re forced to live with one even if it doesn’t fit with the other. In other words, it’s a gender studies horror movie in the same way Peeping Tom is a media theory horror movie, and I expect many college papers will be written accordingly. Tread carefully, and for god’s sake, don’t bring a date.

4 out of 5 stars.


The Skin I Live In is out on DVD this week from Sony Pictures.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

REVIEW: War Horse (2011)

One of the best things about cinephilia is its omnivorousness; when you reach a certain level, you can find someone willing to defend just about anything for one reason or another. Thus, while many savvy, 21st century viewers may balk at a film as schmaltzy and Oscar bait-y as War Horse, you may encounter a few film buffs and critics who are willing to stand by it as a tribute to How Green Was My Valley-era John Ford and a distinctly old-fashioned brand of Hollywood sentimentality. For truly, this is a work of cinematic nostalgia, from its pastoral ideal to the highly-saturated hues that evoke the good old days of Technicolor. Naturally, the film’s old-fashioned, unashamedly cornball approach does leave many things riding against it: the characterizations are archetypal to the point of paper-thin, child actors don't sound natural when faking anonymous European accents, and if you’re ever unsure how a moment is supposed to make you feel, John Williams will be happy to tell you. But if you’re willing to set aside cynicism, you might see that this is not a crassly pandering film, but one that aims to express a genuinely optimistic worldview. It’s significant, rather than an oversight, that Spielberg ignores the politics of World War I or why it was being fought in the first place. It’s enough that the war is happening: the focus is on the people involved, rather than the sides, and to win the war is to survive it. And there are even a few moments when this central thesis—that despite the cycle of conflict, basic human goodness and mercy transcend national barriers—is expressed very well through drama and through cinema. But the rest, particularly towards the end, is a bit awkward, a bit cursory, or a bit much. So enjoy what it has to offer, and as for the Best Picture nomination, I can’t get too enthusiastic. Does they Academy grade primarily on production values, are they too easily won over by 20th century costume dramas, or is it that Spielberg has a lifetime invite? Or is everyone just getting old?

3 out of 5 stars.