Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010)****


The Kids Are All Right is a sharp and snappy comedic family drama, although neither Ozzie nor Harriet – especially Harriet – ever dreamed of a family quite like this. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore portray a lesbian couple in a long term relationship somewhere in the sunny California suburbs. Over the years, they have birthed and raised two whip-smart kids: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Lazer (Josh Hutcherson), each conceived by sperm from the same anonymous donor.


As Joni prepares to go off to college, she puts the wheels in motion to meet her donor-father, who turns out to be a free-spirited organic restaurateur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). A host of unexpected complications ensue, ranging from hilarious to poignant, and eventually they threaten the moorings that have kept this unconventional family together for so long.


Director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg) does a fine job of keeping this deceptively complex tale in coherent balance. It is a true ensemble piece, with all five characters critical to the story’s construction and all of them presented as believable non-stereotypes. Wasikowska and Hutcherson refreshingly portray their roles without the slightest bit of whiny teen attitude, and often seem like the most sensible and emotionally mature of the lot.


Mark Ruffalo’s Paul is exactly what you’d expect from this actor, and that’s a good thing. Ruffalo has the unique ability to transcend virtually any role he takes by contrasting his gentle, quiet physicality with a darker, calculating inner layer - you always feel there is more to one of his characters than meets the eye. Through experience, Ruffalo has perfected this persona and comes off as a healthier version of the Mickey Rourke of 25 years ago, before Rourke made bizarre and puzzling choices that caused his career to require its current resuscitation.


But Moore and Bening are the real draws here; their parts so well written and realized we swear we have met Nic and Jules somewhere before. They approach these roles as true craftsmen; their attention to detail creates a palpable sense of the many strata formed by decades of shared intimacy. Both of these glamorous actresses sport very little make-up in this film, and they wear their wrinkles and blemishes like battle ribbons awarded for the day-to-day pressures of raising their unusual family.


When the relationship hits a rough patch at the ¾ point, we sense Moore and Bening circle their emotional wagons and try to decide if their love, despite a new and formidable challenge, has enough tempered strength to survive. Moore gives a moving speech at the film’s darkest hour that is possibly the most accurate description of marriage, and the fortiude it sometimes takes to remain married, this reviewer has ever heard.


The Kids Are All Right is not in 3-D and is utterly devoid of vampires, zombies or state-of-the-art special effects. It has nothing to offer but good acting and good writing. And after it’s over - and you’ve laughed a lot and cried a little – you’ll realize that’s all a movie really needs.

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The Kids Are All Right (2010)****


The Kids Are All Right is a sharp and snappy comedic family drama, although neither Ozzie nor Harriet – especially Harriet – ever dreamed of a family quite like this. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore portray a lesbian couple in a long term relationship somewhere in the sunny California suburbs. Over the years, they have birthed and raised two whip-smart kids: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Lazer (Josh Hutcherson), each conceived by sperm from the same anonymous donor.


As Joni prepares to go off to college, she puts the wheels in motion to meet her donor-father, who turns out to be a free-spirited organic restaurateur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). A host of unexpected complications ensue, ranging from hilarious to poignant, and eventually they threaten the moorings that have kept this unconventional family together for so long.


Director Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote the script with Stuart Blumberg) does a fine job of keeping this deceptively complex tale in coherent balance. It is a true ensemble piece, with all five characters critical to the story’s construction and all of them presented as believable non-stereotypes. Wasikowska and Hutcherson refreshingly portray their roles without the slightest bit of whiny teen attitude, and often seem like the most sensible and emotionally mature of the lot.


Mark Ruffalo’s Paul is exactly what you’d expect from this actor, and that’s a good thing. Ruffalo has the unique ability to transcend virtually any role he takes by contrasting his gentle, quiet physicality with a darker, calculating inner layer - you always feel there is more to one of his characters than meets the eye. Through experience, Ruffalo has perfected this persona and comes off as a healthier version of the Mickey Rourke of 25 years ago, before Rourke made bizarre and puzzling choices that caused his career to require its current resuscitation.


But Moore and Bening are the real draws here; their parts so well written and realized we swear we have met Nic and Jules somewhere before. They approach these roles as true craftsmen; their attention to detail creates a palpable sense of the many strata formed by decades of shared intimacy. Both of these glamorous actresses sport very little make-up in this film, and they wear their wrinkles and blemishes like battle ribbons awarded for the day-to-day pressures of raising their unusual family.


When the relationship hits a rough patch at the ¾ point, we sense Moore and Bening circle their emotional wagons and try to decide if their love, despite a new and formidable challenge, has enough tempered strength to survive. Moore gives a moving speech at the film’s darkest hour that is possibly the most accurate description of marriage, and the fortiude it sometimes takes to remain married, this reviewer has ever heard.


The Kids Are All Right is not in 3-D and is utterly devoid of vampires, zombies or state-of-the-art special effects. It has nothing to offer but good acting and good writing. And after it’s over - and you’ve laughed a lot and cried a little – you’ll realize that’s all a movie really needs.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Micmacs (2009)*****


After a brief sojourn in Hollywood, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has gone back to making French Films – thank goodness- and his latest effort is a charming, exuberant comedic adventure that rivals the visual inventiveness of his mega-hit Amelie. Micmacs is a fable just about perfect for our times: a group of circus performers, reduced to erstwhile rag-pickers by the global economic downturn, hatch a scruffy, yet elegant plot to bring down a couple of callous and egotistical war profiteers and, let me tell you, class warfare has never been so much fun.


Dany Boon, France’s answer to Adam Sandler, stars as a well-meaning schlub whose life has been turned upside down by the effects of “collateral damage” from random acts of violence. He has endured the loss of his father and faces sudden death from a stray bullet lodged in his brain, all due to a few of the world’s multitude of deadly weapons falling into undisciplined hands.


Boon joins forces with an exceptionally gifted band of dumpster divers, including a shy young woman with a calculator for a brain (Marie-Julie Baup), an eccentric metal sculptor (Michel Crémadès) and an acrobat of superhuman agility (Julie Ferrier, facemapped onto a real contortionist’s body). Their goal is to publicly humiliate and professionally ruin France’s two largest and most despicable arms dealers (Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier, the latter clad in an orange fright wig).


What follows is a grungy, do-it-yourself version of Mission Impossible, as Boon and company fashion hi-tech equipment from ordinary household discards and engage in a series of humorous and exciting adventures designed to fool the industrialists into competing for a large, and quite bogus, contract to supply arms for a fictional African coup d'état .


Jeunet and writer Guillaume Laurant cleverly set an irresistible trap for the unsuspecting executives, whose downfall is ultimately caused by their own arrogance and hubris. The action moves along briskly and, as in Amelie, the film is chock-full of quirky and amusing visual ideas. But Jeunet has not simply repeated his winning formulas, but clearly pays homage to other influences as well. Many scenes have the feel of classic silent comedies, as well a nod or two to the Coen Brothers at their breakneck best. But overall, the film is like a grown-up version of the classic Disney family comedies of the 1960s, where groups of kids banded together to extract revenge on a neighborhood grump.


And if you're feeling a little grumpy in this summer of our discontent, the cinematically refreshing breezes of Micmacs may be the perfect antidote.

IMDb

Add to Queue

Micmacs (2009)*****


After a brief sojourn in Hollywood, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has gone back to making French Films – thank goodness- and his latest effort is a charming, exuberant comedic adventure that rivals the visual inventiveness of his mega-hit Amelie. Micmacs is a fable just about perfect for our times: a group of circus performers, reduced to erstwhile rag-pickers by the global economic downturn, hatch a scruffy, yet elegant plot to bring down a couple of callous and egotistical war profiteers and, let me tell you, class warfare has never been so much fun.


Dany Boon, France’s answer to Adam Sandler, stars as a well-meaning schlub whose life has been turned upside down by the effects of “collateral damage” from random acts of violence. He has endured the loss of his father and faces sudden death from a stray bullet lodged in his brain, all due to a few of the world’s multitude of deadly weapons falling into undisciplined hands.


Boon joins forces with an exceptionally gifted band of dumpster divers, including a shy young woman with a calculator for a brain (Marie-Julie Baup), an eccentric metal sculptor (Michel Crémadès) and an acrobat of superhuman agility (Julie Ferrier, facemapped onto a real contortionist’s body). Their goal is to publicly humiliate and professionally ruin France’s two largest and most despicable arms dealers (Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier, the latter clad in an orange fright wig).


What follows is a grungy, do-it-yourself version of Mission Impossible, as Boon and company fashion hi-tech equipment from ordinary household discards and engage in a series of humorous and exciting adventures designed to fool the industrialists into competing for a large, and quite bogus, contract to supply arms for a fictional African coup d'état .


Jeunet and writer Guillaume Laurant cleverly set an irresistible trap for the unsuspecting executives, whose downfall is ultimately caused by their own arrogance and hubris. The action moves along briskly and, as in Amelie, the film is chock-full of quirky and amusing visual ideas. But Jeunet has not simply repeated his winning formulas, but clearly pays homage to other influences as well. Many scenes have the feel of classic silent comedies, as well a nod or two to the Coen Brothers at their breakneck best. But overall, the film is like a grown-up version of the classic Disney family comedies of the 1960s, where groups of kids banded together to extract revenge on a neighborhood grump.


And if you're feeling a little grumpy in this summer of our discontent, the cinematically refreshing breezes of Micmacs may be the perfect antidote.

IMDb

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Family Nest (1979)****

Bela Tarr’s dispiriting look at the effects of collectivism on domestic life firmly establishes 1970s Budapest as a banana belt of bleakness. We peer into the lives of the harried and quite grumpy Kovacs family, whose government issued apartment is so overrun with family, in-laws and assorted runny-nosed kids that the modest flat often resembles the crowded stateroom from Night at the Opera. But the principles do not tumble out in a rousing comic catharsis, but rather the pressures of cramped living build until we see a young family severely damaged and possibly destroyed.

Family patriarch Gabor Kun – in an amazing performance – holds court at his family’s tiny kitchen table, and loudly issues ill-formed opinions on everything from the virtues of watery soup to the deficient child rearing abilities of his long suffering daughter-in-law Irén (Laszlone Horvath). When his alcohol-addled son Laci (Laszlo Horvath) unexpectedly returns from a shortened stint in the military, all is celebratory sweetness at the Kovacs’ until Dad begins to wonder what his son did to get out of his military obligation early… and a slow and slanderous emotional snowball forms that drives the remainder of the film.

While Laci and his ne’er-do-well brother Gabor reenact shocking aspects of their military service with a family friend, Dad decides it’s finally time to rid the cramped apartment of Iren. In a malicious bit of brainwashing, Kun convinces his son that Iren engaged in serious hanky-panky during his enlistment, and that a woman of such low morals is unworthy to breathe the rarified air of the family’s dinky digs. Irén trudges to the housing authority and, in a riveting scene, pleads with a humorless bureaucrat for an apartment of her own. But the Kafka-esque vagaries of Soviet housing policy prove to be too much for the young woman, who leaves with the bitter realization that she is powerless against her judgmental and hypocritical father-in-law; a man set on ruining the little joy her meager existence affords.


Like the Kovacs apartment, Family Nest bursts at the seams with manipulation, vengeance and the dark edges of generational conflict. While its depictions of everyday life are simple to the point of milky blandness, the characterizations are so effective and believable we sense every churning layer of strife. Eventually our suspicions are confirmed as revelations about the true nature of this family come fast and furious in the final act. There are times when you want to reach through the screen and throttle Gabor Kun, and you’ll want to offer your spare room to Iren and daughter Kristi. But there are no spare rooms in the Budapest of 1977, as the totalitarian regime has learned that doling out living space is a wonderful means of controlling a weary populace.


The film makes clear that oppression can be used as a wedge to drive families apart, and the ensuing hopelessness magnifies small issues into the raging and unsolvable. There is no escape from Iren’s toxic father-in-law, and her attempts to build a life apart from his influence brand her as anti-social and rebellious; two character traits no communist society will endure.


It would be a dozen years before the people of Hungary would taste the sweetness of freedom, but here Bela Tarr bravely shows us the slow boil of revolution and the dire reality of life under an unsustainable system. By cleverly disguising it as a small story of familial strife, Tarr managed to create a grimy and powerful metaphor of the human spirit, and gave a poignant yet resilient face to the huddled masses.

IMDb

Add to Queue

Family Nest (1979)****

Bela Tarr’s dispiriting look at the effects of collectivism on domestic life firmly establishes 1970s Budapest as a banana belt of bleakness. We peer into the lives of the harried and quite grumpy Kovacs family, whose government issued apartment is so overrun with family, in-laws and assorted runny-nosed kids that the modest flat often resembles the crowded stateroom from Night at the Opera. But the principles do not tumble out in a rousing comic catharsis, but rather the pressures of cramped living build until we see a young family severely damaged and possibly destroyed.

Family patriarch Gabor Kun – in an amazing performance – holds court at his family’s tiny kitchen table, and loudly issues ill-formed opinions on everything from the virtues of watery soup to the deficient child rearing abilities of his long suffering daughter-in-law Irén (Laszlone Horvath). When his alcohol-addled son Laci (Laszlo Horvath) unexpectedly returns from a shortened stint in the military, all is celebratory sweetness at the Kovacs’ until Dad begins to wonder what his son did to get out of his military obligation early… and a slow and slanderous emotional snowball forms that drives the remainder of the film.

While Laci and his ne’er-do-well brother Gabor reenact shocking aspects of their military service with a family friend, Dad decides it’s finally time to rid the cramped apartment of Iren. In a malicious bit of brainwashing, Kun convinces his son that Iren engaged in serious hanky-panky during his enlistment, and that a woman of such low morals is unworthy to breathe the rarified air of the family’s dinky digs. Irén trudges to the housing authority and, in a riveting scene, pleads with a humorless bureaucrat for an apartment of her own. But the Kafka-esque vagaries of Soviet housing policy prove to be too much for the young woman, who leaves with the bitter realization that she is powerless against her judgmental and hypocritical father-in-law; a man set on ruining the little joy her meager existence affords.


Like the Kovacs apartment, Family Nest bursts at the seams with manipulation, vengeance and the dark edges of generational conflict. While its depictions of everyday life are simple to the point of milky blandness, the characterizations are so effective and believable we sense every churning layer of strife. Eventually our suspicions are confirmed as revelations about the true nature of this family come fast and furious in the final act. There are times when you want to reach through the screen and throttle Gabor Kun, and you’ll want to offer your spare room to Iren and daughter Kristi. But there are no spare rooms in the Budapest of 1977, as the totalitarian regime has learned that doling out living space is a wonderful means of controlling a weary populace.


The film makes clear that oppression can be used as a wedge to drive families apart, and the ensuing hopelessness magnifies small issues into the raging and unsolvable. There is no escape from Iren’s toxic father-in-law, and her attempts to build a life apart from his influence brand her as anti-social and rebellious; two character traits no communist society will endure.


It would be a dozen years before the people of Hungary would taste the sweetness of freedom, but here Bela Tarr bravely shows us the slow boil of revolution and the dire reality of life under an unsustainable system. By cleverly disguising it as a small story of familial strife, Tarr managed to create a grimy and powerful metaphor of the human spirit, and gave a poignant yet resilient face to the huddled masses.

IMDb

Add to Queue

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

You the Living (2007) ****


Director Roy Andersson is back with another humorously bizarre collection of stupefied Swedes going about their daily lives. You The Living is sort of an unofficial sequel to 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor, but this time Andersson has narrowed his target a bit – he’s no longer trying to pick a fight with the entire culture of Christendom – and focuses instead on individual foibles and foolishness.


As in Songs, there is no central plot, but a seemingly random display of short vignettes, presented in Andersson’s highly stylized, and at times merciless, visuals. Think a 3 Stooges movie directed by Ingmar Bergman with sets designed by Edward Hopper, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Andersson is up to.


There are some absolutely hilarious moments here. In a recurring vignette, we meet a middle-aged woman who loudly bemoans her unsatisfying life as her obese boyfriend stares at her adoringly. Meanwhile their Pekinese pup - dogs steal many of the scenes in this film - speaks for the audience by registering a mildly bored disgust.


We encounter a young groupie in mauve go-go boots who falls madly for a disinterested blues guitarist, and in an impressive and imaginative bit of scenery engineering, we see her absurd romantic fantasies brought to life. And in a molasses-slow traffic jam (another Andersson staple), a bricklayer tells us all about his dream involving some expensive china and a failed attempt at the tablecloth trick.


The film loses some of its comedic drive in the middle segments. Many of the vignettes seem like meandering sketches rather than fully developed ideas, and this reviewer’s attention meandered a bit as well. But all is righted with a scene of a man engaged in sexual relations who takes this opportunity to tell us all about his under-performing mutual funds; a scenario so hilarious your sides will ache from laughter.


Andersson made his career as a sought-after director of commercials and You the Living has the feel of a feature length assembly of TV spots. But the goal is not to sell us soap or cereal, but the realization that many of life’s disappointments are the result of repeated history.


The film gets in a few digs at Europe's dark past and some societal issues, particularly the way the justice system is seemingly driven by an endless thirst for revenge. As a man faces the death penalty for a relatively minor crime, his victim continues to verbally berate him even as he is strapped into the electric chair, while other witnesses munch on popcorn and simply enjoy the show. I suggest you get a copy of You the Living and do the same.

IMDb

Add to Queue

You the Living (2007) ****


Director Roy Andersson is back with another humorously bizarre collection of stupefied Swedes going about their daily lives. You The Living is sort of an unofficial sequel to 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor, but this time Andersson has narrowed his target a bit – he’s no longer trying to pick a fight with the entire culture of Christendom – and focuses instead on individual foibles and foolishness.


As in Songs, there is no central plot, but a seemingly random display of short vignettes, presented in Andersson’s highly stylized, and at times merciless, visuals. Think a 3 Stooges movie directed by Ingmar Bergman with sets designed by Edward Hopper, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Andersson is up to.


There are some absolutely hilarious moments here. In a recurring vignette, we meet a middle-aged woman who loudly bemoans her unsatisfying life as her obese boyfriend stares at her adoringly. Meanwhile their Pekinese pup - dogs steal many of the scenes in this film - speaks for the audience by registering a mildly bored disgust.


We encounter a young groupie in mauve go-go boots who falls madly for a disinterested blues guitarist, and in an impressive and imaginative bit of scenery engineering, we see her absurd romantic fantasies brought to life. And in a molasses-slow traffic jam (another Andersson staple), a bricklayer tells us all about his dream involving some expensive china and a failed attempt at the tablecloth trick.


The film loses some of its comedic drive in the middle segments. Many of the vignettes seem like meandering sketches rather than fully developed ideas, and this reviewer’s attention meandered a bit as well. But all is righted with a scene of a man engaged in sexual relations who takes this opportunity to tell us all about his under-performing mutual funds; a scenario so hilarious your sides will ache from laughter.


Andersson made his career as a sought-after director of commercials and You the Living has the feel of a feature length assembly of TV spots. But the goal is not to sell us soap or cereal, but the realization that many of life’s disappointments are the result of repeated history.


The film gets in a few digs at Europe's dark past and some societal issues, particularly the way the justice system is seemingly driven by an endless thirst for revenge. As a man faces the death penalty for a relatively minor crime, his victim continues to verbally berate him even as he is strapped into the electric chair, while other witnesses munch on popcorn and simply enjoy the show. I suggest you get a copy of You the Living and do the same.

IMDb

Add to Queue

80 Years at the Races

Most Marx Brothers aficionados agree that 1937’s A Day at the Races was the last truly great film featuring the zany siblings. Produced by ...