Midnight in Paris

By , June 27, 2011 4:49 pm

Owen catching a few scenes of "Drillbit Taylor" on HBO.

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

I’ll leave it to Woody-philes to discuss the place of “Midnight in Paris” in the Allen canon.  Overlooked is that “Midnight in Paris,” a parable about romanticism and nostalgia, recalls Early Owen as much as Early Woody, which is the key to its success.

Allen’s cinematographic style is romanticize the setting so that it, in part, explains the neuroses of the Woody doppelganger.  Early Woody turned Manhattan into a postcard, inspiring a want of something more but at the same time a yearning for things to never change.  Thus, the melancholy strain underlying all truly romantic sentiments: Things can’t be as good as I want them to be, so is this all there is?  In “Midnight,” Woody adapts the style to literalize the nostalgia of intellectual Americans in Paris.  Allen’s time-bending conceit whisks a “Hollywood hack who never gave real writing a chance,” Gil (Owen Wilson), into a luxury Delage and off to parties with Scott and Zelda and some WWI vet speaking tersely about bulls.

Turns out that Gil’s novel—which is dismissed by his fiancé Inez, who is much more interested in his literary ability to churn out tv scripts that pay the rent in Malibu—is about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop, but Gil’s run into a dead end.  Now he’s in Paris with Inez’s family, broad stereotypes of rich right-wing a-holes who are unimpressed by Gil’s obsession with Paris.  In the most mysterious part of Allen’s script, these conservatives are charmed by Inez’ college friend Paul (Michael Sheen), sporting the facial hair equivalent of tweed-jacket elbow pads.  Regardless, Sheen is a horrifying vision of pedantry, conveniently in town to lecture at the Sorbonne—imagine touring Stratford-Upon-Avon with a recently-tenured Harold Bloom, and you get the idea. After a night of wine (“Paul’s an expert on Bourdeauxs.” “Really?”), Gil separates from the group for some air, and finds himself trying to bend the space-time continuum to get Gertrude Stein a copy of his novel.

Spoiling the cavalcade of Lost Generation cameos would be rude, so let’s move to Allen’s treatment of the theme. As such, all discussion of nostalgia should now begin with Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel pitch.

As Don points out, nostalgia’s roots are in pain from the past, which Americans have confused into bastardized celebrity-themed versions of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, an Ozarks vacation destination for conservatives who want freeze 50’s values in amber, and record stores trying to survive by peddling vinyl. Here, Allen acknowledges his own tendency toward self-destructive romanticism, which in his darkest works tends toward saudade.  This material could easily have turned into some sort of narcissistic self-flagellation, say, if he’d cast Larry David in the lead.  But the film becomes a poignant statement on happiness because of the masterstroke casting of Owen Wilson.

We forget that young Owen didn’t star in the “Wedding Crasher”s of the world.  He was Wes Anderson’s writing partner before Wes Anderson’s insufferably pretentious phase (if don’t count “The Royal Tenenbaums”).  Wilson’s co-written scripts (“Tenenbaums,” “Bottle Rocket,” and “Rushmore”) center on characters whose excessive romanticism creates a delusional sense of the world—a kind of nostalgia that breeds depression. 

We cannot, of course, peer into Owen Wilson’s soul, but considering the heroin-fueled wrist-slitting of 2007, the self-proclaimed “butterscotch stallion” of unsatisfying paychecks movies like of “I Spy,” “Shanghai Noon” (and a sequel), “I Spy,” “The Big Bounce,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “You, Me, and Dupree,” is much darker than he appeared.  Filtered through this lens, the self-loathing nebbish of Woody Allen fits Owen Wilson’s hotdog drawl—he’s a slacker Woody, an Alvy Singer 78 played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.  Watching this older Owen—especially with the baggage he brings to the screen—interact with “artists” is poignant, as if we, and he, are rediscovering Owen Wilson’s indie roots.  Considering that this is Owen Wilson’s first leading role since his suicide attempt, an otherwise light bauble feels more urgent.

Intentional or not, Wilson’s wide-eyed wonder compliments Allen’s script, where the Lost Generation sounds exactly like how we imagine them.  “Scott” Fitzgerald troubles to keep up with his flighty Zelda, who blazes across town fueled by bohemian pretention and absinthe.  Hemingway throws back scotch, then spits out terse sentences about manhood.  Gertrude Stein delivers frank, spot-on criticism of whatever’s in front of her.  Adrien Brody’s cameo as a certain famous painter is the most life he’s shown onscreen since this Diet Coke commercial.  And it goes from here, until Gil is confronted with a choice between pre-fascist professional muse Marion Cotillard and the current-day gold-digger McAdams.  Let’s just say that—no offense to Miss McAdams, who is quite lovely—if she got overshadowed by Isla Fisher in her last Wilson screen-romance, what chance does she have against Cotillard in a flapper?

Allen’s ending is far more ambiguous than the “pat epiphany” some critics have suggested.  Would some people truly be happier in the past?  Or are those types perpetually unhappy—nostalgia as a form of depression?  Perhaps Allen’s ending is sentimental, and maybe Gil is romantic and impulsive and spellbound by a Paris that doesn’t really exist.  Still, Wilson’s palpable release as he walks over Pont Neuf Bridge convincingly dramatizes the counter to this kind of “realism.”    It recalls this palliative caregiver’s list of common deathbed regrets.  Maybe Woody Allen’s self-critique isn’t especially incisive, but this is a man who retains artistic control (for better or worse) over his films, who married the woman he loved despite society’s condemnation, and who has dabbled in “real writing” with good results.  Woody Allen doesn’t really care what we think, and having the courage to live the true rather than the expected life is a virtue in modern life.  Especially for a talented Hollywood hack like Owen Wilson.

The Pitch:

2 1/2 Love and Death

2 1/2 Love and Death

2 1/2 Love and Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Zelda Fitzgerald

2 Zelda Fitzgerald

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 1/2 Midnight in Paris

4 1/2 Midnight in Paris

4 1/2 Midnight in Paris

4 1/2 Midnight in Paris

4 1/2 Midnight in Paris

Bridesmaids

By , June 26, 2011 8:51 pm

"Are you ready for Jon Hamm's Jon Hamm?"

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

I want to join with the critical majority and declare “Bridesmaids” “the raunchy women’s comedy we’ve been waiting for.”  I really want to.  Like other critics, I’ve been clamoring for a Apatow-produced female character, if for no other reason to intellectually justify his brand of comedy beyond the “guilty pleasure.”

Unfortunately, the best female character in the Apatow canon is still Trish, Catherine Keener’s GILFy eBay shopkeeper from “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” While I agree that the proper Apatow heroine should be neurotic and somewhat unlikable, as is Annie in “Bridesmaids,” the tortured relationships in this movie haven’t quite been thought through.  The result is that the film paints the same broad, bitchy stereotype of women that Apatow’s guy films do.

Annie (co-writer and overpraised SNL go-to Kristen Wiig) lost her Milwaukee cupcakery in the recession and lives with overweight, vaguely incestual British siblings in a knotty pine apartment. Her bestie Lillian (Maya Rudolph), in contrast, has a nice place with a nice husband and a nice job in the nice part of Chicago.  I say “nice” because we know virtually nothing about her life, leaving us to guess about Lillian’s motivations (more on this in a bit).  When Annie proves herself a too incapable and cost-conscious maid-of-honor, Lillian hands the job to Helen (Rose Byrne), the ostentatiously wealthy new friend who sees “making things special” as giving out pure-bred puppies as bridal shower favors.  

Annie has been praised as “human,” and she is the most fully realized part of the movie.  The best Apatow characters are usually Paul Rudd’s, the confused nice-guy husband/boyfriend pulled back to adolescence to reclaim his manhood.  Annie has a few Rudd-ian qualities: She’s Jon Hamm’s playboy/a-hole “fuck buddy” who makes clear Annie is “third in line”, and she self-sabotages a promising relationship with understatedly charming, British, and slightly unbelievable Wisconsin Highway Patrolman Nathan (Chris O’Dowd).

The problem is the girl-love triangle. The comic set pieces revolve around Helen’s passive aggressive humiliations of Annie, who flounders in self-destructive class resentment.  The problem is that Helen is so awful she’s an unrealistic foil: Basically, like Reagan did the Soviets, she spends Annie into self-destruction.  But Lillian knows Annie’s financial situation, so why would she let Helen dictate the terms of the bachelorette party?  Why would Helen so ruthlessly take down such an inferior foe?  She must know that, in the end, she’ll look like one of those high-heeled puppy-crushers.

Thus lies the problem: “Bridesmaids” thinks Helen is the villain, but really, it’s Lillian.  Because Helen is so overtop and Annie is such a disaster, we wonder why Lillian passively lets it all happen.  If she’s so “together,” how can she be so blind to the riff in her wedding party?  Is she distracted?  Is she a social climber?  Professional pressure?  Ultimately, her character is a void that can’t hold the story together.  Her fiancé is in the movie less than Doug in “The Hangover,” and we get no sense of whether she’s motivated by obligations to him or her family.  There’s really no answer for her tone-deafness other than, well, women are just like this.

Critics and audiences have lauded “Bridesmaids” for precisely this reason: Oh man, that’s what bridal parties are like!  But because Lillian is as flimsy a character as any in the Apatow canon, we’re left with women’s cattiness as the only explanation for the Annie/Helen rivalry.  Isn’t this stereotyping of women the exact complaint about Apatow’s male-pack movies?     

In fact, “Bridesmaids” takes this stereotyping one further.  The movie’s most raunchy set piece involves bridesmaids dresses, unclean and undigested Brazilian steakhouse food, much sprinting away from stainable carpets, and about ten minutes of Jeff-Daniels-on-the-toilet sounds effects.  In some critical circles, this scene has been hailed as some sort of victory of feminism, that the poop-joke glass ceiling was gloriously shattered.

But when was the artistic genius of the Apatow films ever about flatulence?  The Apatow films are marked by its dialogue riffing on the cultural trivia bonding a generation of Gen Y man-boys.  Why is this sub-Farrellyian spectacle not just lauded, but celebrated?  Because women did it?  Isn’t the whole point of Apatow that Tarantino-quality comedic banter destroyed Sandlerism? 

“Bridesmaids” features some of that kind of female bonding, like when Annie and Lillian steal exercise by doing “boot camp” workouts behind a tree in the park.  But by filling the vacuous hole of Lillian’s cluelessness with explosive diarrhea, the film undermines the whole “Apatowian Female Comedy” idea.  To be fair, Wiig’s extended valium-and-scotch induced airplane freakout is really funny, and her continuous attempts to get pulled over by her would-be boyfriend cop is a virtuoso performance.  But why is so much screen time given to the Melissa McCarthy, who plays the grotesquely fat comic relief without the sad self-consciousness of a Chris Farley?  Why so little of Wendi McLendon-Covey as the family-weary, resentfully-domesticated descendent of Vince Vaughn in “Old School”?  Her relationship with the Jack McBrayer-ish innocent Ellie Kemper (Pam’s replacement on “The Office”) holds so much promise, yet it’s totally abandoned by the last hour of the film.  Imagine if “The 40 Year Old Virgin” just forgot about Seth Rogen, Romany Malco, and Paul Rudd?

Every so often, Hollywood trots out this kind of feminine gross-out, and we realize anew that Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with funny women since its directors stopped cutting their teeth on Shakespeare.  “Bridesmaids” is a class above, say, “The Sweetest Thing” and “Say It Isn’t So,” but let’s not overpraise this small step as a giant leap for womankind.  But perhaps I’m not giving Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s script enough credit. I left the theater feeling sorry for Helen because Helen just did what Helen does:  Turn a social event into an extravagant spectacle.  If you don’t want that, then don’t let Helen plan anything.  Thus, the movie comes from a dark place:  It’s cruel not to recognize when you’re asking someone to spend money they don’t have, as Lillian does.  The other dark place is the fact that there’s a giant poop scene where great dialogue should be, as if they needed that to sell a “female comedy.”  I’d like to see Wiig and Apatow take another shot at this, but with a more character-driven script.  It might work, it might not, but Annie’s hi-po boyfriend would give them great advice:  “Just because you didn’t make any money at it doesn’t mean you failed at it.”    

The Pitch:

1 1/2 The Sweetest Thing

1 1/2 The Sweetest Thing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 I Love You, Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 Bridesmaids

2 1/2 Bridesmaids

2 1/2 Bridesmaids

Hangover 2, The

By , June 16, 2011 12:33 pm

The Wolfpack check out their Tomatometer rating.

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

The problem with “The Hangover 2” isn’t that it’s the same movie as the first.  Todd Phillips has deeply-thought ideas, and is willing to alienate his audience for long periods.  But the result slightly xenophobic at best, and outright racist at worst.

The genius of the original “The Hangover” was its tight, Sophoclean structure.  It begins in media res with Doug’s bachelor party and wedding.  After some necessary exposition, the story captures twenty-four hours where our initial impressions of the characters give way to larger truths.  The storyteller gradually reveals sordid details about the past, and the characters reveal themselves under extreme stress.  In modern times, Ibsen revived the structure, which was then borrowed by, among others, Tennessee Williams and noir films.  Phillips strictly applied this classical structure to a modern genre, creating an virtuoso exercise in comedic form.  Perhaps the most accurate description of “The Hangover” is a Apatowian A Doll’s House, where we see Stu kick his emasculating bitchy wife to the curb like Nora walks out on her condescending and psychologically abusive husband.

Sure, the big reveal isn’t some Ibsenian insight into human nature, but director Todd Phillips brilliantly creeped back the details of their night, tearing apart the initial impressions of Phil, Stu, and Alan.  Stu buries his id under a veneer of mild-mannered middle class dentistry.  Phil acts douche-bag cool, but is in many ways the squarest of the bunch.  And Alan’s cultural pomposity masks deep insecurities about his ability to connect with people.  Again, this ain’t Antigone, but Phillips does have something to say about the fronts put up by American men.

If you really want to give Phillips credit, he imagines Las Vegas as the American id, where what happens in Vegas is the indulgence of desire, which must stay in Vegas for man to return to “real” life back in the suburbs.  In the film, Las Vegas is what men repress in order to have good jobs, good wives, and good houses.  For dentists like Stu and social outcasts like Alan, this makes sense.  More interesting is that in Phillips’ imagination, the most outwardly Vegas-savvy guy is a paradox:  a men’s magazine cool middle school Catholic teacher.

Thus one of two major issues with “The Hangover 2.”  First, the sequel is about Stu’s marriage to a Thai heiress who is, to put it mildly, way out of his league and whose dad calls him soggy white rice during the rehearsal dinner.  In reconstructing this hangover, we discover the same thing as we did in the first:  Mild-mannered Stu is a repressed dynamo.  Phillips should have focused on one of the other characters—probably Phil.  Again, Phil is the Moe of these three Stooges, and again, we find that when the roofies are on and the inhibitions are down, Phil is the lamest of the bunch.  In fact, he seems to have the most stable marriage in a socially-responsible job…what gives?

This leads to the second issue with “The Hangover 2.”  Large stretches of this movie are not funny.  Without spoiling too much, it’s not funny when Phil gets shot by Russian mobsters.  It’s not funny when, if you think about it, Stu is put at serious risk of contracting HIV.  If anything, “The Hangover 2” is more of a horror film than a comedy. 

You may think the problem is that by trying to out-do the first, all the gags are amp-ed up, miscalculated into shock-horror rather than shock-comedy.  And that may be right to an extent.  But Todd Phillips is way too good a comedy director to not know this isn’t funny. 

Instead, Phillips seems to have a much larger point.  By putting these thoroughly white-bread, middle class Americans in the third world, Phillips is saying, look, guys, we’ve all been to Vegas, and sure, it’s wild and crazy fun.  But it’s safe.  If you mind your business and don’t count cards, you’re not going to get shot or stabbed or have the mafia cut off your fingers, and there aren’t tranny prostitutes running through the Belagio.  Vegas is staged decadence, sanitized for your protection.  If you really want to indulge your darkest appetites, truly break free of all social constraint, here’s what that freakin’ looks like.

Or, as Asian gangster Mr. Chow says, “Bangkok!  Holla, City of Squal-lah!”  In fact, that should have been the subtitle to “The Hangover 2.”  As said several times about Stu’s lost brother-in-law, “Bangkok’s got him now.”  There are lots of allusions to the city’s child sex trade, the pervasive drug and disease culture, international organized crime exploiting the city’s poor…the whole Bangkok thing.  Again, most of what happens (including a tear-gas gang riot outside a night club) really isn’t that funny.

On the surface, Phillips is making a good point by inviting comparisons between Vegas and Bangkok.  Yes, the standard of living is going down, too many people don’t get proper health care, there are large urban and rural food deserts, and the drug war has in some areas created a virtual police state.  All these are true.  But for most Americans, things are safe, and if our idea of decadence is Las Vegas, then we really don’t understand  how good we’ve got it.

But this argument also echoes Heart of Darkness.  African writer Chinua Achebe (Things Falls Apart) famously declared Joseph Conrad a racist for using Africa as the “backdrop for the breakup of one petty European mind,” arguing that by symbolically making Africa the id, he dehumanizes the entire continent.  Basically, by thrusting “civilized” white people into this “savage” culture, he treats the “natives” (itself a dehumanizing term) as a lesser species.

This argument haunted Danny Boyle’s Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” which depicted Mumbai as a city of violence, thievery, corruption, sexual depravity, and squalor.  In short, poverty porn.  Remember the scene where the boy swims through an outhouse shit poind to get a movie star autograph?  The opening with the police torturing the hanged man at the station?  The acid eye bath?  The man set on fire?  And it goes on from there.  Man, what a messed up place that Mumbai is!  But jeez, how entertaining that Danny Boyle makes it!

This is precisely what Todd Phillips is going after—it has to be, or why else would he up the ante by setting his unfunny “Hangover” movie in…Bangkok?  Because Bangkok is worse than Vegas, this movie is going to be more outrageous!

This leads to the question of racism.  On the one hand, Phillips’ point about sanitized Vegas is valid and necessary.  Look not only to the odd family-friendly Vegas makeover of the last decade, but also to the new generation of Nevada strip-mall casinos in the sprawl of Carson City and Reno.  There are very real consequences in Vegas, but as long as you keep yourself in check, it’s still America—there’s not CONSEQUENCES. 

On the other hand, is Phillips’ depiction of Bangkok exploitative?  Is he trading on the perception of the lawlessness of non-America/Europe to make his movie seem cool?  And really, is most of Bangkok that much worse than the worst slums in the Western world?  On the other hand, Gary Glitter was not frequenting the Strip.  I’m not sure how to answer this question, but in “The Hangover 2”I hear faint echoes of the astoundingly racist Heart of Darkness argument in the wake of the Lara Logan rape in Tahrir Square:  Basically, “Well, what’d you expect when a pretty white girl goes into Africa?”

To quote Peter King, the only thing I think I think about “The Hangover 2” is that it’s not as brazen and hypocritical as “Sex and the City 2,” a film that was offended by people who would find something offensive in something so offensive.  And the n-bomb is dropped a conspicuous number of times in a movie without black people.  Still, I can’t shake the Stu/tranny scene.  Without giving away too much of the gag, Stu has an encounter with a prostitute, just like in Vegas.  But the way this happens, according to many studies from world health organizations, Stu might have up to a 50% chance of being infected with HIV.  Yet the sodomy is a running joke, but the potential consequences aren’t even mentioned.  If you found out you did that in the red light district of Bangkok (without a condom, which is part of the joke), wouldn’t you be first concerned about getting tested, then concerned about getting you and your two dopey friends to the altar on time?  In the end, it seems like Todd Phillips wanted to make a hard-edged satire, and in many ways, I admire that he was willing to challenge his audience.  On the other hand, he didn’t follow his ideas to their logical conclusion.  Imagine if the Wolfpack just gave up after returning Mike Tyson’s tiger and left Doug on the roof of the hotel. 

The Pitch:

1 Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Slumdog Millionaire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 The Hangover 2

2 The Hangover 2

Beaver, The

"And that's why Mr. Beaver says the Jews have caused all the wars in the world."

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Jodie Foster doesn’t really care if you like “The Beaver.”  Really, giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to “The Beaver” is beside the point.  Jodie Foster wants to lecture us, Mel Gibson, Hollywood, and Matt Lauer about…well, something about leaving people alone, except when they need help, but only then, from certain people.  Everybody else stay the hell out of it.  Or something like that.

Whatever Foster’s message, she’s got one, and she wants to make damn sure you know it.  You may think, like the audience I sat with, that a movie about a guy who fights depression with a ratty old bucktoothed beaver puppet would be a boilerplate Hollywood all-you-need-is-love-to-triumph-over-adversity story, with the middle-aged patient sad about his failures, but then realizing the love of his family is all you need.  The movie opens with a vaguely Australian accented voice-over to introduce Walter Black, the son of a recently deceased toy company CEO, collapsing under the weight of expectations, thus turning to sleeping in the pool and pouring vodka on the tv during Kung Fu’s “young grasshopper” wisdom.  Considering that this movie is called “The Beaver” and features Mel Gibson talking through a puppet during sex with his wife, you’d think this should be funny in the “failed suicide is funny in a comedy because we know he’ll snap out of it” kind of way. 

But it’s not.  Soon, Walter’s wife Meredith (Foster herself) kicks him out of the house and away from his two boys, the fifth-graderish kid who thinks his dad can do no wrong, and the teenager with post-its of why he hates him all over his room.  When Walter tosses out some old possessions, he pulls the beaver puppet out of the trash and improvises a kind of at-home psychiatric therapy.  Eventually, Meredith allows her husband to integrate himself back into the family, but she just can’t stand this puppet thing!  Why can’t he just snap out of it!

In real life, Foster has defended her friend Mel Gibson through his, shall we say, moral failings.  That’s not the Mel I know, she says.  He’s not himself when he’s saying those awful things about Jews and gays and womenSomething, she says, must be wrong with him.  So here, if we imagine Meredith and Walter as proxies for real life, it seems like Foster lecturing Gibson through this movie.  Look, Mel, whatever is bothering you—this crap is ridiculous.  Just snap out of it!  This isn’t the Mel I know!

Seemingly, both Meredith and Foster refuse to accept that the sick Walter/Mel is a real aspect of the complex and contradictory Walter/Mel.  In their minds, the bad part is just a phasesomething’s not right.  As dramatized by “The Beaver,” Foster’s message is confusing.  Foster shows us the intimate details of Walter’s depression, the vodka-soaked televisions, the crippling inability to stay awake during a board meeting.  Thus, we recognize that this isn’t a phase—his depression is a sickness that will require a years of therapy.  So when Meredith can’t keep it together during an anniversary night out at a fancy restaurant, we see her point but are dumbfounded that she doesn’t recognize the depths of his illness.  Meredith tries to badger him out of it, which alienates the audience because we’re made to sympathize with his condition.

And this is where Foster’s message really gets weird.  Part of the reason Meredith alienates us is that Foster presents Walter’s illness in an absurdist way.  How are we supposed to make sense of this graying, wrinkled, angry Hollywood icon—whom we cannot separate from his angry anti-Semitic and misogynist rants—playing a clinical depressive, juxtaposed with a googly-eyed, bucktoothed, fuzzy stuffed puppet?  When Walter uses the beaver for inspiration to save his failing company, and thus creates a nationwide toy sensation, the entire scenario is funny because, well, this CEO has a damned puppet on his hand at all times.  Foster invites us to laugh because of the expectation that she’s going to give us the Hollywood ending.  The puppet has served its purpose, and soon it will come off and the Blacks will be one big happy family once again.

Then Walter goes on Today with Matt Lauer.  Lauer refuses to treat Walter as an eccentric on a rebranding mission.  Instead, he wants to know whether the beaver is symptomatic of a larger crack-up, and why are you, a clearly disturbed man, using your illness a vehicle to sell toys?  Whether Lauer (or John Stewart, who also cameos) realizes it, they are also being lectured by Jodie Foster.  The obvious question is, hey Matt Lauer, if you’re so disturbed by Walter Black’s exploitation of the media, then why are you exploiting Walter Black on the most-watched morning show in the country?

Thus is “The Beaver”’s seminal moment:  Walter—though Foster must intend for us to see Mel Gibson in this line too—tells Lauer “People love a train wreck when it’s not happening to them.”   

If you’re keeping score at home, Jodie Foster has lectured:

1)    Mel Gibson for being a train wreck and embarrassing his family and friends (including Jodie Foster)

2)    Matt Lauer and the rest of the celebrity-media complex for exploiting said train wreck

3)    The audience for rubber-necking at the train wreck.

4)    And maybe Oksana Grigorieva for not understanding the nature of her baby-daddy’s illness.

Point 3 is where Foster’s movie really gets scolding over the last half hour.  We’re invited to giggle at scenes of Walter dirty-talking his wife through the beaver puppet, then told it’s a train wreck, and then she thrusts the absurdity of the beaver in a our face while Walter does some truly horrific, self-destructive things.  Really, how else does Jodie Foster expect us to react to scenes like this:

Without spoiling, let’s just say that there is a moment is which Jodie Foster asks you to feel like the worst person in the world for ever having snickered at Mel Gibson with a beaver puppet on his hand.  She doesn’t care whether this makes you hate her movie or not.  She’s out to make a point, dammit, and that point is that Mel Gibson isn’t funny, and we’re all complicit in thrwarting Mel Gibson’s recovery.  Except that Mel won’t just snap the hell out of it.  Whatever, everybody’s just wrong and shameful, ok.  QUIT LAUGHING AT THE BEAVER PUPPET, YOU HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE PEOPLE!

This doesn’t even mention Walter’s son Porter (Anton Yelchin), who would seem a candidate for the Trench Coat Mafia if not for his odd friendship with valedictorian/cheerleader/underground street artist Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who hires him to write her graduation speech.  As cliché as this sounds on paper, Yelchin and Lawrence bring intensity to the relationship that, frankly, transcends the rest of the film.  The characters are broad and obvious (in doing others’ papers, you see, he’s putting voice to what others can’t seem to say themselves—just like Walter’s puppet!), but Yelchin’s aggressiveness creates a harder-edged Ricky Fitts from “American Beauty.”  Imagine Fitts falling in love with a cross between Mena Suvari and Banksy, and you get the idea.  In fact, Lawrence matches Yelchin’s cold-eyed cynicism with the underlying ruthlessness of those burdened by great expectations.  Lawrence understands that her Renaissance girl act doesn’t idealize Norah in an abstract way, but humanizes her by commanding Porter’s respect not just as a hot chick with some brains.  She helps you see how Norah would find the jockocracy, undoubtedly at her beck and call, boring and unworthy of her ambitions, while Porter is interesting because his resistence prevents him from idealizing her.

If we take these characters to the meta-level, perhaps its Yelchin who voices the audience’s proper reaction to Jodie Foster’s badgering of the audience.

Really, is this some kind of joke?  You let Mel Gibson back into our lives with a talking hamster, and we’re supposed to take this seriously?  Like Porter, it will make you put your head through a wall.

The Pitch:

1 American Beauty

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Tickle Me Elmo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 The Beaver

2 The Beaver

Summer Movie Preview, June 2011

By , June 3, 2011 12:49 pm

Hollywood's Vital Contribution to the Education Reform Debate?

June 3rd

X-Men: First Class

The first “X-Men” film, directed and co-written by Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”), framed the mythology of “mutants” as the Civil Rights movement; militant Magneto is the Malcolm X figure, with Professor Xavier as Dr. King.  Singer recruited two titans of the Shakespearian stage, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, to embody the adult roles, which leant the film a certain gravity.  Singer’s ambition was to explore these lines of thought in a pop-psychology way, resulting in a blockbuster that the savvy filmgoer didn’t have to defend as a “guilty” pleasure.  The second “X-Men” was similarly ambitious, updating the theme to how nativist Americans see minorities: In “X2”, the mutants are ostracized because they’re different—not just different, mind you, but threatening because they aren’t understood. They’re a problem, so say the senators, and they must be dealt with by legislation like the Mutant Registration Act.  The next two “X-Men” films abandoned ambition entirely, so it’s exciting to see a director with ideas (Matthew Vaughn, “Kick-Ass,” “Layer Cake”) back at the helm.  This explains the odd framing of the X-Men’s origins around Kennedy voiceovers of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I’m not exactly sure where it’s going, but this franchise has a history of thoughtful popcorn films. –Stephen Himes

Beginners 

Ewan McGregor plays a man who learns two things about his seventy-something father (Christopher Plummer) concurrently: he has cancer and he’s now an uncloset-ed gay man. It’s billed as a comedy, and the trailer is wicked funny with McGregor imagining Plummer in a fashionably fitted purple silk V-neck sweater when he breaks the news.  It’s from Mike Mills, the guy who directed the vastly “Thumbsucker”, based on the experience he had with his own father.  Mills has a nice touch mixing the bitter and the sweet, and getting exceptional performances from actors of different generations.  Should make for a nice jaunt down to your local art house ghetto. –James Owen

Submarine

Speaking of art house fare, here’s another indie flick about a sensitive young genius who wants to lose his virginity and bring his divorced parents back together. Youthful angst much, sensitive young self-styled genius filmmaker? It’s British, so stereotypes will be easily explained away by talking about the tradition of English cinema; maybe throw in some Mike Leigh references, or drop Nick Hornby references to sound less stuffy. The trailer teases some twisted plot points and the gifted kid jumping into a cathartic pool (submarining himself, perhaps?) with a suit on. Speaking of twisted, it also stars Sally Hawkins and her smile. Hey-oh! Paddy Constantine plays the dad; over a decade now, and Isle filmmakers are still trying to figure out what to do with that guy. –James Owen
June 10th

Super 8

Can a geek like me not see writer-director JJ Abrams team up with producer Steven Spielberg and not get beyond excited? Perhaps a tad too much “Close Encounters”/”ET” nostalgia (a thriller version of Greg Molotta’s “Paul”?) might set the bar too high. A bunch of filmmaking kids (yes, another quasi-bio) witnesses a train wreck involving some sort of alien/beast/Abrams’ Macguffin. The trailer has a Abrams creepy vibe with enough Spielberg sunshine to indicate that the film will develop the kids’ characters. Looking at Abrams’ filmography, it’s rather obvious that he owes much to Spielberg.  An homage is approprie, but actually having Spielberg produce seems a bit indulgent. If the work is good, then I’m happy to let them indulge themselves. –James Owen

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer

So this is how it went for Heather Graham.  From Rollergirl to the It Girl in “The Spy Who Shagged Me” to, well, according to her IMDB mini biography, “Her roles consisted of prostitutes, strippers, porn stars, and lesbians.”  Recently, Graham has starred in little-seen and often little-acclaimed indie movies, often in what are just short of Skinemax roles.  Now she’s crazy Aunt Opal driving a car through the neighbor’s yard.  It’s not quite Eddie Murphy as The Klumps, more like Vin Diesel in “The Pacifier.”  Either way, it’s bad, and Graham has no franchise to fall back on. –Stephen Himes 

 
The Trip

On the surface, a meta-movie with Steve Coogan as “Steve Coogan” and Rob Brydon as “Rob Brydon” on some sort of tour of ten restaurants.  The director, Michael Winterbottom, is one of films’ most…eclectic talents, so expect some sort of meta meta-iness.  These three filmed Tristram Shandy, which is like trying to take a swim in a sandbox. –Stephen Himes      

June 17th

The Green Lantern

It took me a good ten minutes to figure out Ryan Reynolds was not starring in an action hero film with Seth Rogan and to realize that The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern were two different characters. Here, our ripped wiseacre dons a mask with powers granted by some sort of alien force. He uses this power to battle Peter Sarsgard, who looks like he’s wearing Rocky Dennis’ face.  But it also puts him in with a league of superheroes…that are not The Avengers. It’s got Blake Lively (which is turning into a plus, surprisingly) and Geoffrey Rush doing voice work—which would have been better with a stuttering Colin Firth, right? Tim Robbins completely and totally unpredictably voices a smarmy politician.  It’s directed by Martin Campbell, who has made some pretty fun movies (decent Bond films and the not-bad Zorro movies), but this looks like some sort of sequel to “Battlefield Earth” if directed by Joel Schumacher. Hopefully, Reynolds has saved himself plenty of “leverage.”  –James  Owen
Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Jim Carey is a semi-successful New York professional person of some type whose apartment is infested with penguins.  In the 1938 kids book, Mr. Popper is a ne’er-do-well house painter who writes Admiral Drake, who responds by sending him a penguin in a box.  There’s a lot more to the story, but in part it’s about assimilation and exploitation.  Here, the film looks like a boilerplate Rich Successful City Person Learns to Care About the Little People movie.  Though, director Mark Waters has some movies on his resume, specifically “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls,” where he’s twisted the conventional into the unexpected.  Some kind of global warming or bed bugs metaphor, perhaps? –Stephen Himes

   
The Art of Getting By

Freddie Highmore, better known as the “Finding Neverland” kid, and Emma Roberts, better known as Julia’s niece, are high school weirdos who find each other.  It’s writer/director Gavin Wiesen’s debut, so no matter how well written the characters, expect some narrative clichés—the trailer gives away the Running To Tell Her Before It’s Too Late scene.  And maybe this is Emma Roberts’ last chance to master the Slightly Counter Culture Cool High School Chick so she can move on to her graduate courses in Slightly Awkward and Shy College Nerd Chick, and maybe get her PhD in Overworked Professional Women Who Just Needs to Let Loose in a time for Summer 2020. –Stephen Himes

Page One: Inside the New York Times

If you are a real nerd or want watch a newspaper hatch a bunch of liberal plots that keeps the “Lamestream Media” and the “Blame America First” crowd going, check out Andrew Rossi’s documentary on a year in the life of the Media Desk of the Grey Lady. Rossi gave similar treatment to Al Jazeera as a producer of 2004’s excellent “Control Room,” so hopefully this will be as introverted and wonky as a daily edition of Politico. Win the summer, nerds! –James Owen

June 24th

Cars 2

Pixar deserves a lot of slack just because their product is so consistently impressive; so consistent, in fact, that it’s easy to take for granted. “Cars” was a rare exception for me, a film Mr. Himes accurately described as woozily sentimental and unnecessarily nostalgic. Anyway, we’ve got the sequel now, subtracting Paul Newman but with the continued inclusion of Larry the Cable Guy, whose schtick will live on at august venues all through the South and the Bible Belt and…Maryland. This flick is directed by John Lasseter, which is like seeing a Mad Men episode directed by Matt Weiner.  Except in 3-D with earning potentials into the billions. –James Owen
Bad Teacher

Forget Davis Guggenheim’s propagandistic hero worship of Michelle Rheethis movie looks like the ultimate argument for Tenure Reform and Performance Pay.  Here’s the set-up:  Cameron Diaz plays the tenured don’t-give-a-damn teacher who decides that the only way out of her dead-end job is to marry a rich guy.  Enter Justin Timberlake.  Diaz needs a boob job she can’t afford, so she redoubles her efforts to win the cash bonus from the state for getting the highest test scores out of her students.  People, for all the high-falootin’ policy analysis you get from “thinkers” like Diane Ravitch and Matthew Yglesias, this is the underlying theory, right?  Teachers aren’t properly motivated to do their jobs because their pay isn’t tied to performance, and for the most part, they’ll never get fired as long as they don’t do something really bad.  So, you can motivate them with more money, which will in turn drive up test scores.  In the education community, this is a key flashpoint of the reform debate.  I patiently await Cameron Diaz’ contribution to the dialogue. –Stephen Himes

A Better Life

Chris Weitz leaves behind the blockbusters (“The Golden Compass,” “New Moon”) for what looks like an argument for the DREAM act.  An East L.A. landscaper tries to earn a good enough living to move him and his son out of a gang-ridden neighborhood.  Hopefully Weitz avoids angel-izing his hero to create a complex portrait of the immigrant experience in America.  He directed Hugh Grant’s finest performance in “About a Boy,” which explored the dark side of the Grant narcissism.  The touch is there, but can he wrap the personal around a social message without being preachy?  Weitz’ talents seem more suited to this kind of work rather than, say, filming Taylor Lautner with his shirt off a lot. –Stephen Himes

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