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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING [dir. Noah Baumbach]


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.


Though she hasn’t seen her sister in years, Margot wants to travel to the Northeast to attend Pauline’s wedding. While there, she can hook up with her writing partner/lover Dick, and even work in a reading at a local bookstore. Son Claude has come along as well, and he finds an immediate bond with his distant relatives. He loves Pauline’s compassion, enjoys her fiancé Malcolm’s unmannered pretense, and finds the ongoing property struggle with the neighboring Voglers a source of constant curiosity. As the big day approaches, Margot’s natural buttinski personality takes over, and she questions everything about Pauline’s life - her choice of man (whose jobless and sketchy at best), where she lives (hermetically sealed in the family home), and her obvious lingering animosity. From her perspective, this marriage should never happen. Pauline, however, just wants her sister back, if only to share in her miserable memories of an abusive and empty childhood. Yet while they try to love and support each other, their past keeps coming back to haunt and harm them.


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference. Nothing is spelled out in this quasi-quirk out, actors with substantial performance chops trying to carry writer/director Noah Baumbach’s idiosyncrasies all the way to the awards podium. Unfortunately, we are dealing with subterfuge so scattered that we fail to see the forest for the failing family tree (which we get a literal example of). This is the kind of film where you don’t learn the character’s professions until midway through. It’s a narrative that hints at parental horrors, but never spells them out in obvious ways. It will introduce characters without explaining who they are or their import (the gay couple at dinner, the oddball next door neighbors) and drop situations that suggest there are major issues that need to be dealt with (sex with a teenage girl, a bad bite mark on a child’s neck).


Instead, what Baumbach hopes to achieve is a kind of snapshot of siblings struggling to reconnect. For Pauline, her ‘famous’ author sister is a constant source of pride…and embarrassment. While they haven’t spoken in years, Margot will take individual tragedy and personal pain and translate it into her own snobbish literature. For the know-it-all authoress, Pauline is a pathetic shell of what she really could be. She settles for men who Margot feel are far too flawed (including new slacker Malcolm) and limits her own potential by hiding inside the clan’s old seaside abode. The wedding itself is a ruse - a chance to get together and trade oh so clever quips and languid insights about the human condition…and we are supposed to convert these hoary heart to hearts into something meaningful.


Unfortunately, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t provide us with a primer. We don’t know why the family fights (though Margot’s use of their past in her fiction seems to drive some of the friction) and the whole issue with the neighbors and a dying tree seems lifted out of a bad TV drama. People as peculiar as the Voglers shouldn’t be feared - they should be locked up by the local authorities. Yet like a novelist without an editor, Baumbach keeps adding more, hinting that there are mountained molehills that the tone of this movie can’t manage. You keep expecting Tom Hanks and Corey Feldman to show up and start riffing on life in the ‘burbs. Since he has the talent to take on the material he wants to address, the mind behind The Squid and the Whale should have let his actors loose. Instead, his sense of surreality constantly hems them in.


The performances are indeed wonderful. While she’s usually a marquee mannequin, Nicole Kidman shows a nice ditzy vulnerability as Margot. She’s also one of the bitterest pills her relatives have ever had to swallow, and she balances both emotions with exceptional ease. Also marvelous is the usually showy Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dialed down to a more dour, reserved presence, she is perfect in a role that requires her to be both strong and stupid, enlightened and lost. When they are on screen together, these stars light up the limited dialogue. Supporting them are substantial turns by Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, and Flora Cross. Mr. Tenacious D may loose some of his focus toward the end (his crying tends to play as goofy instead of genuine), but he matches wits with Hinds’ haughty outsider expertly.


If there is a weak link in all this thespianism, it’s newcomer Zane Pais. Granted, he has the hardest role in the entire film, trying to portray adolescent coming of age, a parental breakup paradigm, and the budding interest in his long lost relatives all at once. Unfortunately, he’s too unrefined and raw to make it all work. Instead, he seems adrift, his unusually long hair constantly masking the emotion rippling across his face. Baumbach may have a way with words, but he fails to give Claude anything but a series of inquiries and arguments. We never know his place in the vague dust up between Margot, her absent husband, and the man she is sleeping with. Instead, we keep focusing on the tree, and a meaningless shoe that’s supposed to symbolize…something.


Still, anyone who’s got a closet full of mother/father/offspring skeletons will probably connect with this movie on some primitive level. Margot at the Wedding tells a story perfectly poised for those who’ve yet to deal with their ever-present personal baggage. Even worse, it argues that there are no answers, that nosy sisters and reactionary siblings will always stay the same, that therapy brings no closure and relationship seminars don’t teach potential mates anything about staying away from temptation. There is a lot of good motion picture meat here (John Turturro’s cameo as Margot’s husband, Malcolm and Pauline discussing children), but you have to chew through so much mannered fat and gristle that it barely seems worth it. In the end, it’s the performances that will stay with you. The rest of Margot at the Wedding is like that socially mandated ritual - filled with preplanned pomp, resulting in very little actual finality.



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

LOOK [dir. Adam Rifkin]


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching.


We follow five different stories here - a young high school girl, desperate to show off her sexuality, decides to target a teacher. A pair of ruthless spree killers murder various victims around town. They go unnoticed mostly, except to a gas station clerk, his on again/off again gal pal, and his slacker buddy. In the meantime, a high priced lawyer with a wife and kids sets up a Nanny-cam to keep the new au pair in check. Of course, when he’s away at work, he has the occasional lunch meeting with his hunky attorney boyfriend. Then there’s the department store manager who snorts coke, watches porn on his computer, and screws every floorwalking gal on his watch. Finally, a disgruntled insurance adjuster who’s the butt of every prank pulled by those in his office decides there’s only one way to gain control of his life - and it’s not a very pretty solution.


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film. Rifkin, perhaps best known for his work as both a writer (Underdog, Zoom) and director (The Dark Backward, Detroit Rock City), takes the intriguing premise of life captured by surveillance camera and adds a few fictional twists to spice up the situations. Of course, no one will believe this is actual ‘caught on tape’ drama. The actors are obvious, everyone is miked for ease in understanding the dialogue, and logistical truths (how long would a store tolerate the outsized sexual appetite of such a supervisor/lothario) are pushed in order to puff up the running time. Still, any movie that lets the great Giuseppe Andrews preview a few of his masterful songs while playing a Clerks-like convenience store stooge has got to be doing something right.


It has to be said that not every story works here. The killers’ tale is interesting, and ends with a literal bang. And the teen sex queen and her desire to conquer her married (and soon to be a father) teacher has a nice level of lewdness and necessary law abiding…for both sides. Yet the whole narrative surrounding office dork Marty is too cruel and takes way too long to truly pay off, and the gay lover attorneys appear to be homosexual for the sake of something different, not an actual interpersonal dynamic. Still, we remain fascinated by Rifkin’s approach, wondering to ourselves how often supposedly private acts become part of a constant camcorder ideal. In fact, he’s careful to show both standard security footage intermixed with material captured on cellphones and other recording devices in order to emphasize the point.


Rifkin also found actors who walk the fine line between fake and fully aware. Andrews may sound like a mannered moron, but there’s a savant like specialty to what he does with a basically underwritten role. Similarly, Ben Weber is pathetic as Marty, just sad and clueless enough to earn our sympathy - that is, until his true side emerges. We’d love to know more about how Chris Williams’ George and Paul Schackman’s Ben ever got together, but they seem like a happy closeted couple. Indeed, all throughout Look, Rifkin’s attention to personal detail makes the frequently pat stories seem all the more real. In fact, one can easily see each scenario expanded and added to in a special edition DVD.


The most important thing the film establishes, however, is the theme of false privacy. When our school slut seduces her teacher, she’s shocked that it’s caught on tape. Our department story manwhore does things that no right minded person would ever attempt were they to know about the ever-present eye watching them. Look loves to push that concept to understandable extremes. The killers murder a cop, knowing full well it’s being captured on a windshield monitor, and every act in the convenience store - from singing to outright stealing - is preserved for future reference. This leads to the movie’s one minor complaint - the lack of realistic follow-up. Unless we are to believe that no one reviews these recordings, many of the situations repeated would have been legally nipped in the bud a long, long time ago.


Still, the human instinct to play voyeur matched by the morbid curiosity that comes when people are trapped in the act of being unbelievably inappropriate (to paraphrase one Candid Camera) makes Look a laudable effort. It may not be the landmark film that critics are cawing over - there have been other examples of the cinematic gimmick used here, including a crime thriller from 2001 created by Max Allan Collins entitled Real Time: Siege at the Lucas Street Market - but that doesn’t lessen the wonder in Rifkin’s approach. Indeed, in a new weird world order where we gladly substitute security for inherent rights, where we complain about the invasion but chalk it up to being protected, Look appears less like a stunt and more like a salient bit of future shock. Unfortunately, from what we see here, Orwell was right. 


 


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS [dir. Tim Hill]


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.


Jason Lee stars as the post-modern Dave Seville, a hard working adman who longs to be a successful songwriter. Unfortunately, his old buddy, record executive Ian Hawke, thinks his music stinks. When our hapless hero stumbles upon a group of talking chipmunks in his apartment, he immediately thinks he’s gone crazy. After some convincing, the human strikes an accord with the talented critters - he’ll let them stay in his house if they sing his songs. When the rodents express a desire to have their very first Christmas, Seville is inspired. He writes a nutty novelty tune, plays it for Ian, and the rest is history. As the reticulated boy band burns up the charts, their two legged guide tries to patch things up with ex-girlfriend Claire. This distraction allows Ian to swoop in and steal the varmints from under his pal’s nose.


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife - all in service of a crass commercial statement. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals (Jon Vitti - ex-Simpsons, and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi of Pete and Pete fame) who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. Had it strived for anything subversive or revisionist, the lack of sell-through support would only be matched by the bellyaching coming from the Bagdasarian camp.


It’s clear that the owners of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore don’t cotton to the modern comic sensibilities. The Chipmunks are never anything more than a vehicle for sloppy slapstick, surreal non-sequitors, and an overdose of pallid pop references. If you think CG critters cracking hip-hop wise is the last word in witty, you’ll adore this dreck. In fact, the script seems stuck in the early phases of the 2000’s, a time when rap and urban slang flooded the commercial concept of culture. It makes the use of the band’s old standards (both “Witch Doctor” and “Christmas” make multiple appearances) and their frequent freaked out cover versions (“Funky Town”? Please!) all the more bizarre.


It would be nice to think that the adults could balance out the saccharine shtick. Unfortunately, neither Jason Lee nor comedian David Cross (as Ian) can deliver. Lee is lost, mostly playing at a pitch right above psychopath. Instead of being frustrated by his new roomies - thereby guaranteeing Seville’s trademark shriek of “ALVIN!!!” - the My Name is Earl star seems to be having a hissy for no apparent reason. Cross is even more clueless, trying to riff on the surreal situation of talking, singing vermin in a plausible post-modern way. It doesn’t work. About the only actor who finds the proper tone is Geena Davis lookalike Cameron Richardson. She’s light and airy, as fluffy in her self-effacing superficiality as the movie is loud and lumbering.


And then there’s the question of marketing. Who is actually aching for a live action Chipmunks movie? It can’t be the Boomers who grew up with the gimmicky act. There is nothing in this adaptation to make them smile. It can’t be the Gen-Xers who made the Saturday morning cartoon series from the ‘80s sail. Again, this film avoids anything remotely resembling the character’s retro past. If it’s aimed at current wee ones, then Hollywood really thinks children are dumb. As long as it’s colorful, corny, and constantly in motion, it should hold the bratlings at bay, right? Wrong. Alvin and the Chipmunks is so lacking in legitimate fun that even the simplest of small fry brains will have a hard time finding a reason to rejoice.


Even the CGI looks second rate. In an attempt to make the trio as ‘true to life’ as possible, a weird combination of approaches has been employed. The bodies are like that of real chipmunks, but the faces have that blank, dead-eyed stare of an attempted anthropomorphizing. Instead of going with something more suggestive, the contradictory combination makes the main characters look unnecessarily busy and blurred. When the action does slow down, Alvin and the boys get away with a lot of cheesy glances. And don’t let the voice talent fool you. Justin Long (Alvin) Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore) might just as well have not shown up for the recording sessions. They do nothing that’s memorable.


In the end, Alvin and the Chipmunks comes across as another nostalgia raiding stab by Tinsel Town directly into the heart of many an individual’s childhood memories. Like the equally unseemly (but much more successful) Underdog from Disney, studios can’t seem to recognize that every old school kid vid character doesn’t need a mid-millennial update. You can make them krump and Emo everything to kingdom come, but these weird wildlife sensations stand as a specific symbol from a specific era. As an old novelty act, they may have some staying power. But it’s clear that Bagdasarian’s babies can’t carry a big screen comedy - not even one aimed at the single digit age demographic. 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

I AM LEGEND [dir. Francis Lawrence]


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.


The year is 2012. A cancer cure based on the measles has mutated, wiping out 90% of the Earth’s population. Those who did not die have turned into blood craving creatures, adverse to sunlight and primal in their brutality. The last supposed survivor is Dr. Robert Neville. Along with his German Sheppard Sam, he’s stayed behind in an abandoned New York City in hopes of finding a cure for the remaining monsters. He spends his days foraging for food and trying to contact anyone else still alive. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, avoiding the horrifying beings outside. One day, he discovers something frightening - the fiends are no longer acting instinctually. Instead, they appear to be thinking, determining the best way to get at Neville - even if it means their own destruction.


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong. About as faithful to Richard Matheson’s novel as I, Robot was to the work of Isaac Asimov, this pointless exercise in production design strives to be the most understated blockbuster in the history of the format. Sadly, it fails to realize that there already is a category for this kind of film - it’s called the ‘lackluster’. Smith’s star power might guarantee tickets and fans in the seats, and he does hold the screen with a desperate charisma that’s hard to challenge. But when you come to a post-apocalyptic thriller, you expect solid sci-fi and considered cinematic chills. Sadly, we are only partially satisfied.


Though it tends to look like a backlot gone to seed, the digital rendering of Manhattan into a gloomy ghost town is very effective. The quarantined buildings, aging shredded plastic drifting in the breeze, look remarkably real, and when Smith interacts with famed facades (Union Station, Times Square) we get a feeling of grandeur and scope. Lawrence does a good job in these moments, making up for times when the script stifles his efforts, and there’s one particular sequence where Neville cases his dog into a horrific hive of evil that exemplifies what I Am Legend could have been. But then the movie shifts over into Cast Away mode, and we’re stuck with another superstar talking to mannequins.


Indeed, the foremost problem with the film is the lack of intrigue. Since we don’t see the actual destruction of New York (flashbacks fill in some blanks, most dealing with how Neville lost his family) or the nature of the monster’s terror, we are left without the necessary context to create suspense. Even worse, the occasional scares are limited to the standard horror film histrionics - the sudden appearance of deer, the trailer highlighted arrival of a lion. For a narrative wanting to work on a much more subtle, slow burn nature of fear, these jolts feel forced and completely calculated.


Even worse, the movie has to manipulate our feelings by sinking to animal endangerment as a means of mining emotion. Since Smith is given little to do except weep and look despondent, it’s up to his sidekick to provide the pathos. Even worse, when a last act twist triples the population, lame ideas about religion, destiny, and faith come crashing into the mix, making the movie even more scattered than it needed to be. With the unexceptional CGI used to render everything outside Neville’s domain (the various wildlife, as well as the creatures, look sloppy and second tier) and the failure to come up with a satisfying finale, I Am Legend plays like 80 minute of set-up in service of 10 minutes of mindless mediocrity.


While fans have often complained about Price and Heston’s efforts, one thing about previous versions of Legend are crystal clear - Matheson’s main themes were mostly respected. Here, Goldsman and fellow scribe Mark Protosevich toss out 90% of the novel, and instead appear to remake 28 Days Later by inserting albino zombies lacking anything resembling a personality or purpose. There is no real interaction between the two sides - Smith does some doctoring stuff on the fiends, but that’s about it. Gone are the confrontations where semi-salient beings discuss their issues with our hero. Instead, we get stupid sequences of Neville ‘renting’ DVDs and mimicking the dopey dialogue of Shrek.


Even worse, we really don’t care about Neville’s plight. Since we are unaware of the danger, unsure of how he’s managed for over three years without a great deal of “only in the movies” luck, and fail to fully experience the devastation that he has witnessed (both literal and personal), we wind up with enigmatic visions that offer nothing but art department air balls. Neville’s methodical daily routine is only interesting once. After that, it becomes an illustrated guide to the amateur survivalist. The backdrop looks great, but it’s never really explored. There are dozens of unanswered scientific questions (why can’t the monsters just wear lots of protective clothing before venturing out? why aren’t deer and lions affected?) as well as issues involving basic human nature (why didn’t Neville simply sail away, or conduct his research somewhere else?)


It all adds up to a movie that’s more puzzling than evocative. Smith can still carry almost any concept, but he has to work overtime to get this mess to gel. Lawrence is even less guilty, since he builds a decent playset out of some horribly hackneyed screenplay parts. What could have been compelling, if done right, ends up looking great but feeling very, very hollow inside. For those hoping that the third time (or if you count off title rip-offs, forth) would be the charm, you’d better be ready for a dire disappoint. The only place this movie is legendary is in its own feeble mindset. 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

James Bond was the very image of British postwar cool and indeed the Bond stories were something of an assertion of confidence and the importance of Britain in the world at large following the dissolution of Empire. That would have meant nothing though without the suave leading men and cutting-edge gadgets that drove the film series’ popularity. Now Bond fans have a reason to rejoice. You can now have every single Bond movie ever made—including the recent Casino Royale—complete with a wealth of extras detailing every last element of the Bond universe, in one big box. Each film is restored and burns up the screen as never before. Perfect for indulging in all those Connery vs. Moore arguments.


 


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