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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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.


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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.


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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bunchie's Vacation (2010) *****

First stop is Vegas...

We've got tickets to a swell show!

Look for posts from the road...

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.


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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jar City (2006) ****

Fans of somber, hard-nosed police procedurals will find much to like in Jar City. Set in Reykjavik and environs, director Baltasar Kormákur lays on the Icelandic atmospherics with a trowel, and every scene is washed in a cold and forbidding blue-green patina.

Here we follow a jaded, crotchety detective named Erlundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) as he investigates the murder of a middle-age bachelor whose only distinguishing characteristic was an obvious addiction to internet porn. Meanwhile, a young forensic scientist (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson), can only watch helplessly as his daughter lies dying in a local hospital; her fatal illness caused by a rare genetic disorder.

While these events are seemingly unrelated, Erlundur uses an old photograph found at the victim’s home to methodically trace a web of violence and corruption back 30 years to the jail cell of a notorious sociopath (Theódór Júlíusson), whose decades in prison have made him old and flabby – but no less dangerous.

But all is not treeless landscapes and bleak gray skies, as Jar City has its moments of earthy humor and eccentricity, and Erlundur’s relationship with his young partner Oli (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) provides many of them. Oli, trained in America, clearly considers himself a sophisticate and Icelandic cops clueless rubes; a misconception Erlundr crustily dispels at every turn. And then there’s the mercifully brief glimpses into rustic Icelandic cuisine which, suffice to say, is not a threat to French or Italian.

In fact, munching on any kind of snack while watching Jar City is an activity only for the hardy, as Erlundr’s ongoing investigation necessitates the exhuming of long dead bodies, numerous autopsies and an eerie visit to the crime lab’s formaldehyde vault, where human organs and body parts float like grotesque pickles in cloudy containers.

Jar City ultimately rises above typical detective fare due to the strength of its characters and clever writing, aided greatly by Iceland’s gloomy sense of light and space. It’s great fun to watch this undermanned (an apparently unarmed) police force tackle difficult and dangerous situations with a stoic sense of resolute duty. And through Inspector Erlundur’s world weary eyes, we see how a contemporary version of original sin may bear deadly fruit for generations to come.


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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The White Ribbon (2009) *****

The modern age deadly sins of envy, greed and terrorism all converge in Michael Haneke’s disturbing period piece. Set in rural Germany just prior to the outbreak of WWI, The White Ribbon explores the effects of sudden, and seemingly random, acts of brutality on a quiet, bucolic community. Christian Fiedel, as a kind-hearted school teacher, serves as narrator and cataloger of a year of shocking events in the tiny hamlet, and reluctantly finds himself thrust into the role of investigating detective.

A horseback riding accident serves as a trigger to the realization all is not well in this agrarian fiefdom, as a cursory investigation by the authorities shows that it was likely foul play that bought down the village doctor and his galloping steed. Soon other odd tragedies beset the villagers - a sawmill worker succumbs to a freakish accident, the son of the town baron disappears and is found severely beaten – and no pattern, no connective tissue can be found to link the events to a central source.

Meanwhile, the town minister (Burghart Klaussner) – a humorless dry sock – berates his two oldest children for, well, not being perfect, and makes them wear armbands of white ribbons as a reminder of their foul deeds. And they must wear these demarcations until the minister capriciously decides that he “can trust them again”.

As clouds of war gather in the European skies, the families find themselves grappling with the aftermath of inexplicable violence: a victim’s husband commits suicide and the injured Doctor returns home bent on rejecting, indeed demolishing, any expression of love that comes his way; while a beloved child with Down’s Syndrome becomes the latest target of the mysterious brutality sweeping the village.

Director Haneke made his career with gritty dramas that explore the thin line between civilization and barbarism in modern urban life. This film is a significant departure in terms of time and space, and the director has adjusted his approach accordingly. Gone are the handheld cameras and voyeuristic long takes, in favor of a more traditional approach to scene coverage. Editor Monica Willi presents conversations as intercut medium close-ups – a filmic convention the director cleverly avoids in much of his earlier work – but the resulting editorial time compression and expansion is used to great effect.

One scene in particular is a stunner. The doctor’s children have a discussion of mortality one morning shortly after the accident. The editing of the exchange is perfectly timed; its pace slowing like a dying pulse as the younger child eventually realizes, for the first time in his life, that he, too, will one day face death. A particularly poignant scene when one considers that this little German boy will in his 20s when Hitler invades Poland.

Filmed in B/W, The White Ribbon is an astonishing film to look at. Haneke and cameraman Christian Berger meticulously researched old photographs from the period, and their efforts resulted in a film that simply looks and feels right. Rather than going the fashionable high contrast route, Berger creates a more muted look – you could almost call it black-and-gray – taking great care to always feature the white ribbons the children wear as the brightest value in the palette.

Haneke offers no easy answers or logical resolutions in this film, and that only adds to the pervading atmosphere of creepiness. Here, the powers of good and evil collide and good has little to offer except a paralyzing sense of tepid impotence. And ultimately, the conflict may lie between those that are loved unconditionally and those who must work for every scrap of affection they receive. The White Ribbon may not be our favorite Michael Haneke film, but it is likely his best.


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Friday, July 2, 2010

Brainstorm (1983)***

First of all, Brainstorm is a 30 year-old film about cutting edge computer technology. So, yes, it’s going to look very dated. The scientists here carry around their “portable” computers in padded cases the size of steamer trunks. And connect to networks via clunky old Bell telephones. So yes, from a 2010 perspective, all this is quite hilarious.

There are other chuckle-inducing aspects too: the ridiculously wrong casting of Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken (has there ever been an on-screen couple with less romantic chemistry?) and there’s the stupidly slapstick sequences where Walken manipulates the computer at the secret military lab and all the robotic arms go berserk, creating a goofy scenario right out of I Love Lucy.

Still, one feels like a total jerk pointing out the liabilities of Douglas Trumbull’s flawed masterpiece, because many of those flaws may not actually be anyone’s fault. Of course, as is well known, the production suffered an enormous tragedy: the death of Natalie Wood. And that shocking death occurred at a point in the production before all of her scenes were shot, but too late to start over without her. After a two year struggle of shooting with body doubles and inventive editing, Trumbull was able to cobble together an assembly of scenes that at least had a vague resemblance to the story he originally set out to tell.

Louise Fletcher, in a very strong performance, leads a team of randy scientists in the cloistered confines of the Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, NC. Their mission is to create a virtual-reality-on-steroids device that records the sensations of real life experiences; be it a relaxing, early morning horseback jaunt, a thrilling rollercoaster ride, or the schtupping of a willing young coed.

Then, by wearing a small piece of headgear, a consumer can experience each of these moments – every bounce of the saddle, every precipitous drop, every ecstatic orgasm - in full sensory detail. Not just the sights and sounds of the events, but the smell, taste and touch of them as well.

Walken plays Fletcher’s partner in this project, and it is clear that their long hours together in the lab have led to an office romance, at the expense of Walken’s relationship with his now estranged wife (Natalie Wood). As the team progresses towards a marketable device, their efforts draw the attention of the U.S. Military, who think this would be a wonderful way to target missiles (I don’t really get the logic), and threatens to take over the entire project and replace Fletcher and Walken with scientists more sympathetic to military applications.

Alone at the lab one night, a team member suffers a devastating heart attack and decides to record the experience in a heroic effort for science. Despite the scientist’s lifeless body, the machine continues recording; its digital displays indicating it is still receiving sensory input, thus creating a tape that may hold the ultimate answers to human existence.

At this point, the film devolves into a not-too-clever story of spy vs. spy, as Walken, determined to experience the tape, attempts to elude the military guys who want to use it for their own, ill-defined, ends. Walken and Wood rekindle their romance, and the upper levels of the military are made to look like a group of over-paid clods. Unfortunately, this is one of the few aspects of the film’s final act that rings true.

However, it’s impossible to know if the disappointment that pervades the film’s final minutes is the result of necessary patchwork due to Wood’s demise or a poorly developed script. I tend to think the former, for the first half of Brainstorm is a tight, engaging sci-fi thriller full of exciting moments, effective pacing and excellent performances.

Cliff Robertson, as the project manager with the unenviable task of keeping both the scientists and the military happy, strikes the right note of disco-era leisure suit sleaze, and is a pleasure to watch. And Walken, never the most compelling leading man, comes off as a quite believable moody genius with a heart of gold.

Wood is not given very much to do, and seems distracted and out of place here, as if she belongs to different era. The brave new world of the 1980s doesn’t seem to quite suit her. Sadly, it was a decade she would not have to deal with it for very long.


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