Do you like movies about movies? Or, even more, movies about people talking about movies? Then Gerald Peary’s talking-head documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism might provide some interest, though Variety‘s South by Southwest review, by Joe Leydon, also brands it “once-over-lightly fare,” and posits it could play better as an educational aid rather than a cineaste’s feting. As it should be, perhaps — the more people have a grasp of the value of informed and rooted film criticism, the better. There’s a time for wonkish, inside-the-Beltway self-celebration, but given the death rattle of this occupational siege, this isn’t that time.
Sex sells, of course, now and forevermore. That much is a mortal lock. But if prurience intrigues us, we also have a very complicated history and relationship with what stokes the fires down below — one inextricably intertwined with the times in which we live, no matter the individual moral shading of our sexual compass. With this in mind, there’s plenty to titillate the top brain while watching the new documentary American Swing, a go-go snapshot of partner-swapping and anonymous group sex in New York City felled by, among other things, the burgeoning AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
The year was 1977, and even as New York hurtled into bankruptcy, the city’s nightlife hit unprecedented heights. In midtown, the ultra-exclusive Studio 54 was a cocaine-fueled celebrity playhouse. Downtown, at the spartan CBGB’s, punk rockers set out to thrash and destroy pop music’s status quo. Meanwhile, in the basement of the prestigious Ansonia building on the conservative Upper West Side, Plato’s Retreat opened its doors to ordinary couples who came to dance, swim, enjoy a terrible buffet and, oh yeah, swap sexual partners.
The brainchild of former wholesale meat purveyor Larry Levenson, Plato’s Retreat quickly emerged as the epicenter of public sex for the “me” generation, coming several years on the heels of the breakthrough mainstream success — fueled in large part by long runs in Times Square — of porn flick Deep Throat. Previously, swinging was mostly an underground activity, engaged in primarily by the attractive and well-to-do. But Plato’s welcomed anyone and everyone; it was a “poor man’s Playboy Mansion,” as one interviewee recalls, where it didn’t so much matter the size or shape of your body. For a mere $25 to $35, couples checked their pedigrees and judgments at the door. At this clothing-optional Disneyland, debutantes got it on next to bus drivers, and Wall Street movers and shakers gave secretaries the “starlet treatment.” For Levenson and others, Plato’s was utopia; for some, it’s a time capsule they’re eager to forget. Utilizing exclusive interviews with former patrons, employees and family members, and intercut with never-before-seen archival materials, American Swing brings this epicenter of sex and excess to the big screen.
If only it did it better. Co-directed by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, and based on an article by veteran journalist Hart, American Swing is undeniably engrossing, insofar as sex is inherently interesting, and the notion of serial, strings-free couplings even more so. Unfortunately, despite the exhaustiveness of their efforts in tracking down some of the key players in the story of the club, the filmmakers have less success in constructing a cogent, contextualized narrative about the rise and fall in popularity of Plato’s Retreat, let alone an insightful examination of its founder. Certain subjects are identified only by their first names, and at times it’s not immediately clear, with the editorial cross-cutting, if they’re talking about one another or their experiences in general. The film isn’t helped by the fact that Levenson’s voice is silenced (he passed away of heart illness in 1999, though appears liberally in clips from Donahue and other talk shows), but it further does itself no favors in its handling of interviews with surviving family members, like his first wife, and sons. The movie’s press notes make mention of hundreds of hours of interviews between Hart and Levenson, spanning years, up until his death, and it also references Levenson’s estrangement from his sons. But, astonishingly, the film doesn’t include this material, or even Hart’s refracted thoughts on the curious fall of this brash character. Everything about American Swing is only thumbnail-deep, from its intimations of Mafia investment to the true nature of Levenson’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend and Plato’s Retreat co-owner.
Thankfully, there are more than a few moments of piercing, smirky humor, as when writer Buck Henry speculates on the value of post-coital dialogue between people who’ve just met, and another former patron remembers “women talking and trying to figure out about carpooling to Hebrew school in the morning.” (Robin Leach just came “to look,” one former worker notes, while Abbie Hoffman failed to get laid.) Most of the more lurid, vivid descriptions of reminiscence pertain to the “mattress room” (above), a sexual-free-for-all zone which one interviewee likens to a writhing bucket full of worms.
Photographer Donna Ferrato, meanwhile, recounts an amazing (apocryphal?) anecdote about swimming under arcs of male ejaculate, and notes that the mattress room was “terribly exciting, but also depressing, because it kills any notion or sense of romance you might have.” It’s just that level of substantive emotional analysis that the film is most missing. As a curious artifact of the sexual revolution, Plato’s Retreat has plenty of intrigue, both for older audiences who — wistfully or otherwise — missed out on the experience firsthand, and younger audiences now grappling with the sensibility and repercussions of ever texting naughty photos of themselves. American Swing captures a bit of that glossy surface engagement, but it doesn’t have, ahem, the rigorous thrust necessary to leave a lasting impression. (Magnolia, 81 minutes, unrated)
His first film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, still hasn’t hit theaters, but Jonathan Levine, writer-director of The Wackness, has found another project, according to The Hollywood Reporter: Fox Atomic’s The Sitter, billed as “an irreverent comedy that will harken back to 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting,” following a (male?) college student who, after getting suspended for a semester, returns home and gets talked into babysitting the eccentric kids next door. OK, fine, but where’s the babe factor? Because guys will not want to pay to see a guy babysitting kids, period. Even if it’s Justin Long or Jonah Hill.
Within hours of its online sell-through site for its classic DVD archive going live, Warner Bros. was swamped with demand that crashed its site, according to Anne Thompson. Well, sure. Were they really surprised? This is the great untapped resource of studios with deep vaults, and the Hollywood equivalent of Big Auto sitting on and/or muffling emergent technologies until it figures out how to wring every last dollar out of existing platforms and mediums. If Hollywood worked at creating actual, lasting fans of cinema rather than merely chasing the short money offered in Hot-Shit Videogame Adaptation XIII, they’d be able to even more lucratively leverage these vast reservoirs of captured entertainment, for generations to come. Warner Bros.’ initial slate of 150 films never before released to DVD includes everything from 1943’s Mr. Lucky, with Cary Grant and Laraine Day, and 1962’s All Fall Down, with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, to 1986’s Wisdom, with Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez.
The Best Picture Oscar victory of Slumdog Millionaire, along with the surprise commercial success of director Danny Boyle‘s film, only serve to underscore the reality of India’s emergence on the world stage. Now, in the form of the superlative, gorgeously photographed six-part documentary The Story of India, there’s a deeper exploration of the country’s rich culture and history to further contextualize that ascendancy.
Hosted by acclaimed British historian-filmmaker Michael Wood (Conquistadors, In Search of Myths and Heroes, Legacy: The Origins of Civilization), and neatly segmented into six hour-long episodes that stretch back 50,000 years, this title is a fascinating and surprisingly intellectually spry exploration of India, from the country’s historical roots and its culture, customs and people to its present-day status as a rising
economic leader in the global marketplace. A complex and at times contradictory land of history and myth, opulence and poverty, spiritualism and science, India is now recognized as the world’s largest democracy. Yet it also remains a place barely known to many Westerners, only 60 years removed from winning its independence from Great Britain.
Even though this ancient civilization is poised at the precipice of an immense economic expansion — with its computer
technology, industrial production and the professional acumen of an
educated, upwardly mobile middle class powering exponential growth even in the face of recession elsewhere — India’s real fortune has always been its wondrous culture, and the astounding diversity of its people. From the deserts of Turkmenistan to the Khyber Pass, from war-torn Iraq to the palm-fringed shores of Kerala, personable multi-hyphenate Wood journeys across the Indian subcontinent and beyond to uncover the fabulous sights, dramatic history and dazzling achievements of the world’s oldest and most influential civilization.
One of the more interesting portions of the film is its opener, “Beginnings,” which covers 50,000 to 1,000 B.C. All non-Africans can trace their lineage back to India, and Madurai Kamaraj University Professor R.M. Pitchappan’s research in Tamil Nadu offers up a fascinating confirmation of this; geneticists testing the DNA of remote tribal villagers confirm migrational history when they discover a genetic marker identical to that of the earliest known man. Equally interesting is a portion of the movie that examines the Brahmin religious chants. Dating back tens of thousands of years, before human speech, they do not conform to any human language, and are thus unable to be transcribed; instead, they’re passed down only orally, and featured in a ritualistic 12-day ceremony that concludes with the burning down of the very huts in which the celebration is held.
As one might surmise, The Story of India touches on Hinduism significantly throughout, but also somewhat lightly at times. It highlights dharma, or virtue; artha, or wealth and success; kama, or pleasure; and moksha, or enlightenment, but at times reduces creation myth to ham-fisted voicover (“The first humans came from a golden egg laid by the king of the gods in the churning of the cosmic ocean”). Furthermore, the religion’s mutually sustaining caste system is given somewhat of a free pass, reduced to a colorful symbiotic quirk which will strike some Christians (or even agnostics) as cruelly hegemonic. That said, this is still an engrossing portrait of a country on the rise — and a place that Americans should definitely want to learn more about.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a snap-in tray, The Story of India comes spread out over two discs. Presented in widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions, the program comes with 5.1 surround sound and closed captions and audio descriptions for the visually impaired. Its sole supplemental bonus feature comes in the form of nine minutes of “sights and sounds” footage, some replicated in the program’s credits, which spotlights arty, time-lapse photography as well as portraits of Indians from all walks of life. It’s a double-edged sword; a title this rich and in-depth packs a lot into its massive running time, alleviating the real need for any further non-fiction featurettes. Still, a brief making-of featurette or some other behind-the-scenes material would be nice, given the quality of what else is here. To order any DVD release directly from PBS Home Video, click here; to purchase the DVD via Amazon, meanwhile, click here. For those interested, The Story of India is also available on Blu-ray. A- (Movie) C- (Disc)
Currently in Iron Man 2 rehearsals, Jon Favreau still has time to sling up a few photos to his Twitter account, including this autographed picture from Ronald Reagan, with the inscription “You’re so money!” That’s awesome… almost as awesome as the story of how that photo came to be. Details, Favreau!
Written by Allan Loeb and directed by Susanne Bier, Things We Lost in the Fire centers on Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), who, after her husband Brian (David Duchovny) dies unexpectedly, develops and nurtures a symbiotic relationship of need and guilt with an old childhood friend of Brian’s, a recovering drug addict named Jerry Sunborne (Benico Del Toro).
For reasons even she can’t fully articulate, Audrey invites Jerry to
move out of the flophouse in which he’s staying, and come live with she
and her two children. Still wounded by their dad’s sudden departure,
10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry)
latch onto Jerry, and he to them. Jerry even gets help and a job offer
from one of Brian’s friends (John Carroll Lynch), and strikes up a
casual acquaintanceship with a fellow recovering addict (Alison Lohman)
with whom he crosses paths in a 12-step meeting. And then… other
stuff happens — big, yes, but mostly small. That logline suffices,
since Things We Lost in the Fire is chiefly about coming back to life after loss, and the unlikely blooms that develop after fields have been burned low.
It sounds weird, I realize, but one tangential, if esoteric, way to analyze/praise Things We Lost in the Fire is to say that it feels like an adaptation of one of Bier’s superlative Danish films (Family Matters, Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding).
It’s a movie that has the same intimacy and disarming honesty as much
of her previous work, and that’s how easy and form-fitting the union of
material and helmer feels.
The fractured structure of the film
works to its advantage in that we don’t see “user Jerry” early in the
movie; when he inevitably backslides (this is what addicts do, after
all), it’s almost more of a shock than it should be. There’s not much here narratively that’s formally shocking,
though it is intriguing to witness the movie indulge Audrey’s
foregrounded resentment and anger toward Jerry to the hearty degree
that it does. This is a bit of a change-up from the films of weepy,
lean-on-me reconciliation that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, and
something I appreciated even if I found the character of Audrey still a
bit of a cipher. Chiefly, though, Bier has the great benefit of Del Toro, whose eyes convey the force of an inner turmoil.
There’s a whole other off-screen story in those eyes, and Jerry’s tale,
while an uncomplicated one (a smart guy who dabbled in drugs and
quickly got in over his head), is what gives this movie its pull. We
witness how fragile and slippery the nature of recovery truly is, as
well as how helping others heals ourselves.
Things We Lost in the Fire
comes to Blu-ray presented in superb 1080p high definition, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
with a crisp English language
5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track. Other audio options includes French and
Spanish language 5.1
Dolby digital surround sound tracks; optional English SDH, French,
Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also included. Imported from its previous DVD release, the bonus material kicks off with a collection of seven deleted scenes, running about nine-and-a-half minutes in total. Most are understandable snips, but one big sequence
feels like it should’ve been left in — a scene where Audrey gives
Jerry a cabinet she was working on before her husband’s death, and
confesses an argument in which she believed him to have stolen money
out of her car. The only other supplemental feature is a 20-minute, thematically-oriented featurette about the movie with interview snippets from all of its principal players,
including Berry, Duchovny, Del Toro and Bier, as well as writer Loeb
and producers Sam Mercer and Sam Mendes. There are plenty of insights
and interesting tidbits herein (Berry talks about trying to find
“different levels of shock” for her character, for instance, which I’d argue that
perhaps she doesn’t fully do), but the Achilles heel of this piece is that
too many clips from the movie — far more than necessary for
illustrative purposes — are interspersed between the interviews,
ruining any delicate sense of flow or momentum. Also included is a high-definition version of the movie’s theatrical trailer, and 12 minutes of previews for other Paramount titles, including Margot at the Wedding, Into the Wild, Beowulf and The Kite Runner. To purchase the Blu-ray via
Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B (Disc)
After 10 years and three studios, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have finally hammered out the above-line casting for their long-in-gestation Three Stooges flick, according to Variety. Sean Penn has signed to play Larry, and talks are proceeding with Benicio Del Toro to play Moe, and a beefed-up Jim Carrey to play Curly. This all seems about right. I’ve always thought that the Russell Crowe rumors were a bad idea.
As part of a stacked ensemble cast on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters,
Matthew Rhys plays a character, married gay lawyer Kevin Walker, who
has achieved a measure of stability and happiness in his personal life.
In John Maybury’s The Edge of Love,
Rhys plays much more of a spinning top — carousing Welsh poet Dylan
Thomas. Less a conventional biopic than a love trapezoid set against
the bohemian underworld of World War II-torn London and, later, the
Welsh countryside, the film costars Keira Knightley, Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller (below right). I spoke with
Rhys recently about tackling a national hero, Thomas’ melancholic
yearning for the past, and learning to embrace the “vagabond existence”
of an actor’s life. The conversation is excerpted below:
Brent Simon: Did you have any fear or trepidation in tackling a historical figure like Dylan Thomas?
Matthew Rhys: Oh, enormous! Wales is such a small country anyway that heroes are few and far between, and literary heroes are almost non-existent. There are two, so to take on, in my mind, the biggest was an enormous pressure, really, and compounded by others always saying, “Oh, he’s never been put on screen!” Even my dad said, “Don’t mess this one up.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” What’s ironic is that because there’s relatively little television footage of him, people have their own image or idea of who he is, and that tends to be quite strong and well defined, so in the run-up to the film I had all these people pitching in their takes on who Dylan was.
BS: Did you find that advice was conflicting, or at odds?
MR: Absolutely. [Dylan] was a real rogue, there were elements of him that were quite naughty. And some hold him in that golden hero esteem that he could do no wrong, whereas others said, “You can’t shy away from what he was and what he did.” That came from John Maybury in many senses, because he wanted a true depiction of who Dylan was, and [not] a chocolate box depiction. There were some very real, painful things that went on in his life, and I think we captured that in the film.
BS: What was at the heart of his roguish behavior, as you describe it? Was he truly emotionally troubled, or just living out the grand artistic cliché?
MR: What I learned of Dylan, in the research I did, was that he was an intensely complex man with a lot of demons. He desperately hankered for the golden years of innocence and youth — he writes about it in poems like “Fern Hill.” He always looks back, and he was deeply melancholic for the past, which I think is a Welsh trait — because somehow the past is always better. He was loved beyond belief by his mother, because his mother and father had a pretty bad relationship, so she poured all her love onto Dylan and spoiled him, treated him almost like a child his entire life. Therefore every woman he encountered, I think he wanted that kind of relationship — he wanted them to mother him, and love him unconditionally and intensely. And that’s what led to certain infantile behavior — the way that he regarded women, which was set up by his mother.
BS: The film revolves around a sort of love trapezoid, with no sides seeming quite equal all at once. Naturally, that means a lot of flirting and carousing with your on-screen female costars, so what was it like working with Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley?
MR: We had a tiny bit of time for rehearsal, but I knew both ladies a little socially. I think what helped was that we started our filming in a relatively remote part of Wales, where we were thrown together in a hotel and the early bonding happened there, really, because we had no choice. I think what also helped enormously was that all four of the main actors had a great love of the script and a healthy attitude toward what the film should be, so we were willing to throw ourselves in and pitch in as best we could to make it work.
BS: One of John’s other films, The Jacket, is partially about a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress. In The Edge of Love, in the relationship between Dylan and William, Cillian’s character, there’s something interesting and not often addressed in movies — the tension between men who have served and seen horrors of war firsthand, and those who haven’t. …Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but do you think there was a lot of shame or self-disgust on Dylan’s part?
MR: That’s an interesting question. I can’t completely answer for Dylan, but I think deep down there may have been that, because he was unfit to join (the Army), he had bad lungs, and he despised machismo, and anything that resembled that. He does have that scene with William where he talks about warriors and says that if he could have his way he’d tell God to bring him back as a warrior because this way, being that sensitive, is too hard. I feel a bit unqualified to answer on his behalf because there are so many different angles. He sort of resented those men under the guise of them being macho, whereas it could have come from somewhere a lot deeper, as you suggest. And there as a longer scene taken out, which I was sad about, where Dylan plagues William with questions about what the war was like, but all the time making light of his serious answers. He almost can’t deal with it.
BS: He obviously has a very strong sense of what he wants visually, yet I don’t think many would describe John Maybury as a visual stylist, per se. How would you describe him as a director?
MR: It’s a perfect marriage, really, because having trained and been a very successful artist himself, his eye for composition is stunning. When he works with (cinematographer) Jonathan Freeman, the two of them feed off of each other’s passion. But he also has an artist’s ability to talk with actors about emotion and through-line, and he gives you everything you want. In my mind he marries both approaches very seamlessly.
BS: Where does Brothers & Sisters stand?
MR: We finish shooting our season finale tomorrow, and then we’re done until July… if we come back. We’ll find that out at the end of May.
BS: Is that ever weird as an actor — that sense of pervasive uncertainty with regards to work, and your next job?
MR: The sooner you embrace that, the easier that is for your sanity. The sooner you accept and learn to love your vagabond existence in life, the easier it is to deal with the randomness of it all.
BS: What first set you on a path to acting?
MR: Funnily enough, the Welsh specifically have these national festivals twice a year that are pretty ancient, and they encourage the youth to participate in folk singing, dancing, poetry recital and a whole host of traditions, so I think as a Welsh child you’re plunked on a stage from an early age, and it was the sort of thing that I became accustomed to. I discovered a love of theater, really, and it went from there — that’s what inspired me to apply for drama college in London.
BS: Wales is famously grey, and windswept. Has California, and specifically what I call our big, dumb sun affected your favorite leisure time activities?
MR: In coming to California, I said to myself, “Well, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here.” So I’ve tried to do as much as I can, and enjoy all that the outdoors will offer. I did a dirt bike course in the Mojave not long ago, and went rafting on the Kern River. So that’s what I try to do — take advantage of my time here and do some things I wouldn’t be able to do back home. And if there’s one thing I always seem to enjoy doing, it’s horse riding.
From the future Oscar nomination files, per studio email blast yesterday, Anne Hathaway has been attached to star as iconic performer Judy Garland in film and stage adaptations of Gerald Clarke’s 2001 biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, both for The Weinstein Company. Based on hundreds of interviews plus Garland’s own unfinished and unpublished autobiography, Get Happy delves into the dramatic highs and lows of the cultural icon’s life — from her tumultuous early years as a child performer to her tragic last days. “We’re thrilled to have the brilliantly talented Anne Hathaway portray stage and screen legend Judy Garland,” said Harvey Weinstein. “I’ve worked with Anne on projects in the past and have known her for many years, and she will be a true class act in this challenging role. Gerald Clarke’s biography is a fascinating and comprehensive look at Garland’s life, and is particularly outstanding because of its exclusive details from her own writings. Her story is incredible subject matter for both theater and film, and we look forward to bringing it to audiences.” Unstated but understood is that Weinstein also looks forward to the awards campaign for the film, culminating in a Best Actress nomination for Hathaway.
A long, stacked day, beginning with a screener, then three on-site screenings, and, finally, about to be capped with the last two episodes of Breaking Bad, in advance of an interview tomorrow with Aaron Paul. More to follow on those events, but it’s worth at least mentioning in offhand fashion that James Toback’s Mike Tyson documentary, which opens in late April from Sony Pictures Classics, would make a great New Beverly double feature with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which I called “a fascinating, cathartic, from-the-ground-up reconstruction of an American pariah.” Oh, there are some parallels. As well as plenty of ammunition for nurturists.
In quarter-hearted fashion (the entire piece reads like a sigh, frankly, a fact that I dig), Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton takes a stab at the recent flare-up in film blog pissing matches, and concludes it’s cyclical, and wearying. Without waging into the breach myself — because, truly, I care not — I will say that the incidents cited in this piece, and others like them, are exactly why I find so many film blogs kind of tiresome, and it reminds me of two other things:
1) The old saw about the politics of academia — that the squabbles are so nasty because the stakes are so low.
2) My firm belief that “Toldja!” is the scrappy, upwardly-mobile middle class intelligentsia’s equivalent of the rotted celebrity bitch line “Do you know who I am?,” and its unironic deployment, especially in print, is a sign of mental inferiority, tackiness and/or low self-esteem.
Truly, madly, deeply… one of the stranger dreams I’ve had recently — a cross between Lucino Visconti’s The Leopard and Billy Madison, except set in space, at a camp for kids. Seriously.
The second film behind the camera from Michael Clayton writer-director Tony Gilroy, Duplicity, would have you believe it’s a spry little battle-of-the-sexes con movie — a two-handed theatrical holdover for the same audiences that have flocked to Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, until the schedules of its Hollywood heavyweights can be coordinated to crank out another installment. It is not. Not really, not first and foremost. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Quite the opposite, really.
No, instead Duplicity is a subversive high-wire romance, with the MacGuffin, or unknown plot element, serving as a metaphorical placeholder for the surging hormonal attraction, trepidation and uncertainty of love’s bloom. It’s true that Duplicity recalls other con/heist flicks, from obvious benchmarks like Out of Sight and the chatty, erudite Heist to more stylized or colorfully drawn character fare like Lucky Number Slevin and James Foley’s Confidence. But Duplicity is incidentally a con movie. It’s also fun, engaging and pleasurable as all get-out.
The story centers on Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen), two spies turned corporate security operatives who work hard and flirt harder. An abbreviated romantic encounter many years ago gives the duo plenty of backstory. That shared history comes bubbling to the surface when they meet again and find themselves on opposite sides of a brewing corporate war between two captains of industry (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti), bitter enemies who are each out to secure a product that promises a fortune to the company that patents it first.
The major-chord plot is crisply drawn and smartly studded with little mysteries. Mainly, though, the film is about deceit and honesty — the boundaries and limits of the latter, and the freedom it ultimately affords. And it’s here that Roberts and Owen (a man born to wear linen suits) excel, capturing the inner head-games of two smooth, natural-born deceivers who are trying to reconcile their basic mutual attraction and problematic personal lives with the very impulses, namely distrust and doubt, that make them such valuable professional assets. In this regard, Duplicity might be called a romantic procedural, because in the end it’s less about the sizzle-chemistry of its stars than the moods and tones of first falling under love’s sway. All that money? Big stakes, for sure. What the heart wants? Even bigger stakes. For the full review, from H Magazine, click here. (Universal, PG-13, 118 minutes)
He wrote and directed 1998’s Safe Men, which played at the Sundance Film Festival, but it was filmmaker John Hamburg’s rewrite of the 2000 mega-hit Meet the Parents, and subsequent work with Ben Stiller, which brought him fame and industry clout, and his since formed the thematic spine of his work. That same heavy, mostly unleavened affinity for serial masculine debasement has charted the course of Hamburg’s career, and, for better and worse, it’s all over I Love You, Man, his first feature-length film behind the camera since 2004’s Along Came Polly.
I Love You, Man, an unhinged “bromance” about a betrothed young professional who embarks on a wild quest to find a best man for his upcoming nuptials, has the sun-ripened benefit of excellent casting, and the good sense to let its charming players carp and needle one another in loose, lived-in ways. It also feels willfully crude, though, with its relationships defined as broadly as possible, and in ways that don’t allow for a full-bodied exploration of the film’s rich conceit.
After Los Angeles real estate agent Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones, above right) he’s stung and slightly unnerved to realize that his family’s teasing about him never really having a male best friend is at its core true. Not wanting to come across as overly clingy to Zooey or her friends, Peter tries to extend his social network by going on some “man dates,” several of which are arranged by his gay younger brother Robbie (Andy Samberg). He eventually meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segal), an oafish Venice Beach day-trader who expands Peter’s calendar of activities and allows him to reconnect to an avocational passion for music, even as his coarse manner helps create new problems between Peter and Zooey.
I Love You, Man‘s premise is modern, and brilliant; it could easily be used to delve substantively into the new, post-feminist (evolving? constricting? wounded?) male psyche. But the film eschews anything too complicated or dark, like either Peter not succeeding in his friendship quest, or Sydney turning out to have clingy, Cable Man-esque sociopathic tendencies of his own. The resulting laughs are the difference between pleasant surface engagement and a gratification to which you can return, something that feels built for the long haul, and rooted in reality. The cameo inclusion of Lou Ferrigno — who more or less acquits himself, as a home-selling client of Peter’s — feels forced, and as the movie wears on there’s massive drag in the second and third acts. With its watered-down, Fire in the Belly-type lessons, I Love You, Man is on some level the thirtysomething white dude equivalent of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, expect with a pinch more sex talk.
What most connects in I Love You, Man are the bits that aren’t afraid to not be funny to certain groups of people. Just as The 40-Year-Old Virgin wasn’t afraid to dis Coldplay or bizarrely name-check Kelly Clarkson, Hamburg’s movie summons up Dana Carvey’s decades-old “Church Lady” sketch, has some fun at the expense of The Princess Bride, and features a dog named Anwar Sadat. Of course, it also features a sequence with the projectile vomiting of chili. That’s the sort of lowest-common-denominator Hollywood concession that pays for the conceptual noodling, I guess, but it also makes I Love You, Man at least a bit less easy to love. (DreamWorks, R, 105 minutes)
Bunnytown: Hello Bunnies! is not the sort of “as-seen-on-TV!” title advertised on Comedy Central at 2 a.m. (In other words, no, it’s not these sorts of Bunnies, or any of their brethren.) So it’s not necessarily in my personal wheelhouse. Yet empirical research, in the form of forced viewings with two target-demo kids, confirms that the DVD is a pleasing mix of color and sound for the pre-adolescent mind.
A hit Playhouse Disney series, Bunnytown is a collection of
colorful puppet characters, silly skits and groovy, original music combined
with lessons about sharing, teamwork and perseverance. This DVD compiles four episodes of the show: “Hello Bunnies,” “Bunny-a-Go-Go,” “Bumblin’ Bunnies” and “G’Day Bunnies.” This allows tyke viewers to sail the seas with Pirate Bunnies, watch Super Bunny save the “Crunchy Carrot Festival” from the unibrowed Lil’ Bad Bunny and his Carrot Picker 3.0, and soar through the galaxy with Space Bunny as they go about their musical day. Pleasingly, for both kids as well as parents who might not have the same tolerance for the repeat viewings bound to ensue upon purchase, the musical numbers run the gamut with respect to genre, touching on rock ‘n’ roll, country, bluegrass and even disco music. The puppet characters are fuzzy and appealing and the voicework is all chipper and peppy, which mitigates the telegraphed moralizing of the age-appropriate dialogue. For colorful entertainment with a solid message, Bunnytown: Hello Bunnies! makes the solid Easter gift.
Housed in a regular Amaray plastic case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, Bunnytown: Hello Bunnies! is presented in a 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio, with Dolby digital sound tracks in both English and Spanish. DVD bonus features consist of an interactive ”Bunny Dance” segment, in which residents of Bunnytown and the Bunny Band use silhouetted dance moves to teach viewers how to dance; a multiple-choice-style game, entitled “It’s That Time Again,” which spotlights segments with King Fluffy the Forth and Jester Bunny; and an exclusive sneak peek of the all-new Disney Mickey Mouse Clubhouse movie Mickey’s Adventure in Wonderland. For what it’s worth, there’s also an outside cover sticker good for a free plush bunny (minus only a
$2.49 shipping and handling charge) with the purchase of the DVD. So be ready to surreptitiously remove that notice if you’ve already reached your household limit on stuffed animals. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Show) B- (Disc)
The presence of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as a carousing lead character gives The Edge of Love some edge and verve to which it otherwise wouldn’t and couldn’t rightly lay claim, but the film overall still never truly sets sail. It’s a gorgeously shot, grand romantic misfire.
Written by Sharman Macdonald and directed by John Maybury, the movie is, at its core, a World War II-set love quadrangle melodrama centering around Thomas (Matthew Rhys), his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller), Thomas’ childhood pal Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley)
and a soldier, William Killick (Cillian Murphy), who slowly insinuates his way
into Vera’s heart. It opens in the London underground during the air blitz of 1940, where Vera croons torch songs to help steel the resolve of passersby. She and Thomas reconnect, and some hyper-literate flirting over cigarettes ensues; naturally, because he’s a roguish cad, Thomas fails to mention the fact that he’s married, and even has a kid.
Not that it matters, really. Though domesticity and the decisions that it foists upon folks are in theory thematically in play here, since The Edge of Love spans several years, the laxness and intellectual dishonesty with which they’re handled makes for plenty of eye-rolling and awkwardness. When Vera eventually yields to William’s amorous advances — just before he goes off to war — she gets pregnant, which leads to she, Caitlin and Dylan eventually moving back to Wales, where grey-skies moping and infidelity ever-so-predictably follows.
There are bits and pieces of intrigue here, chiefly in what Maybury puts under the
microscope, and most particularly the parallel notion of homefront (i.e., “non-heroic”) men
grappling with returning veterans, who themselves are
grappling with re-entry into society at large. The love stories and all
the romantic friction, though — the vast majority of the movie, both in substance and in terms of what drives the movie’s tone — feels poorly sketched, melodramatic and leaden. I also couldn’t wrap my head around a character
like Caitlin, and why she would permit (and even encourage) an
emotional infidelity between her husband and putative best friend, and then retain any legitimate sense of
shock/betrayal when things got physical. That is one of a couple key incongruities in Macdonald’s screenplay.
I previously branded the film as seemingly spliced together from outtakes of The End of the Affair and Atonement, which actually gives it nominal credit for a scope and grandeur that it doesn’t really achieve. Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti provides another characteristically lush and beckoning score, but this isn’t even really a movie for the Danielle Steele set. The Edge of Love is a bit too arty and concerned with quasi-historical detail to catch fire as a romance (doomed or otherwise), and it’s too yawningly familiar in its major chord plotting to set sail as a honest character ensemble. (Capitol Films/BBC, R, 111 minutes)
Spike Lee turns 52 years old today, and Clint Eastwood probably does not call to wish him a happy birthday.
A carefully observed autumnal character study loosely in the vein of 2007’s Starting Out in the Evening, Elegy is based on a novel by Philip Roth, and directed by Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me). The film charts the relationship between a celebrated, notably indepedent and emotionally distant college professor, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), and Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz),
a gorgeous student who punctures his wry, protective veneer. As their
affair ignites, frays and recommences, Kepesh must come to grips with
the possibility of a deeper love — something with which he’s never felt comfortable.
I initially felt that Elegy, as adapted by The Human Stain screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, with undulating rhythms that alternate between gallop and yawn, wasn’t quite built to cover as much narrative ground as it does, even at 112 minutes. Upon a second viewing, though, the ambition of its narrative roots feels much more firmly anchored and deeply etched; this is an intimate and quietly engaging film, and one perhaps made for the confines of a small, dimly lit den, with a glass of wine. The major leg up that Elegy has on
a lot of thematically similar tales of power-imbalanced romance is that
Kepesh is of course a very literate and self-aware figure, so we enjoy
an articulated sense of inner turmoil, of how one no-strings-attached lover (Patricia
Clarkson) is merely a comfortable point of carnal contact with past
self-confidence, while a similar arrangement with Consuela scares him
so. In fact, despite the fact that he’s had more than 50 lovers to her five, Kepesh becomes preoccupied with her sexual past.
Even as he takes the advice of a fellow ladies man and colleague (Dennis Hopper), and pushes Consuela away, Kepesh can’t locate peace, or centeredness. Part of the reason stems from his estranged
relationship with his married son (Peter Sarsgaard), who feels
compelled to act out in the same ways that his father did years before.
The performances here are committed and quietly engaging
(Cruz does wonders with her eyes), and Coixet, serving as her own camera operator, beautifully captures
the lingering, jangled spaces between all parties, and how even the
most intelligent among us can build up a justification for walls of
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Elegy comes presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English subtitles that can of course be utilized in conjunction with the disc’s audio commentary track with screenwriter Meyer. Though marked by long passages of silence, Meyer is a smart guy and his commentary showcases his thoughtfulness, especially when he discusses how he picked a title to capture “the movie version of the novel,” and how it grapples with coming to terms with age. Meyer also confesses he’s not typically interested in traditional plot hooks so much as “people trying to figure out which way is up, and how to just live.”
The only other bonus supplement is a five-minute making-of featurette comprised of brief interview clips with Coixet and the stars, with Kingsley solemnly intoning, “Love, loss, age, jealousy — we’re here to define words that get very lazily used.” This is a half-notch above your typical EPK-type featurette, mainly due to the insightfulness of its contributors, but overall there’s still more disc input needed from Kingsley, Cruz and Coixet. Rounding things out are previews for Volver, Breaking Bad, I’ve Loved You So Long, The Lodger, Fragments, What Doesn’t Kill You and other Sony home video titles. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B (Disc)
At times it doesn’t seem real, but 20th Century Fox’s Twitter feed is kind of hilarious — they’re currently talking shit about the lawsuit money they’re wringing out of Warner Bros. for Watchmen.
In advance of its DVD bow, the director of the show-within-the-show from Bolt speaks out…
Question: Can you tell us exactly what a television director does?
Answer: A director is the top dog on a television show. He’s the person in charge, the person who everyone reports to. He’s also the guy the network comes to when things go wrong with a show.
Q: Sounds like it’s a very important job…
A: Oh, it is. I’m in charge of everything from the look of a show to the casting of actors and animals.
Q: How would you describe your star dog, Bolt, and his TV show?
A: Bolt is the greatest superhero on television. He has amazing super powers including super speed and super strength. He’s always saving a girl called Penny from the evil clutches of Dr. Calico. It’s an amazing show.
Q: There’s a rumor going around that folks from the network have been to see you recently…
A: Really? Who told you that? Have you been snooping around or something? Well, you’re right. Mindy Parker from the network came down to the studio recently. Oh, Mindy. Poor, poor Mindy. I didn’t like her one bit. She didn’t have a clue about the show or the dog.
Q: And what did Mindy say?
A: She told me that 18-35 year-olds weren’t very happy with the show. The network didn’t like the way that we weren’t appealing to that age group, so they asked us to make some changes. They wanted more drama and said the show was predictable. How outrageous!
Q: So you didn’t like her comments?
A: I didn’t like them one bit. How dare she come into my edit suite and talk to me like that! She didn’t know a thing about Bolt. She didn’t even know that he doesn’t even realize he’s in a television show.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Bolt thinks his powers are real. He doesn’t know he’s the star of a TV show.We jump through hoops to make sure he believes everything he sees is real. That’s why we don’t miss marks. That’s why we don’t re-shoot. And that’s why we most definitely don’t let the dog see a boom mike, which is something that happened recently. If the dog believes it, the audience believes it. That’s the key to our success.
Q: And did Mindy agree with you?
A: Mindy didn’t care. All she wanted to see were increases in viewing figures and that’s it. Mindy didn’t care for the dog. She just thinks of him as any other animal, but I don’t.
Q: What do you see when you look at Bolt then?
A: I see an animal who believes with every fiber of his being, every fiber, that the girl he loves is in mortal danger. I see a depth of emotion on the face of that canine that has never been seen on the small screen before.
Q: You sound very passionate about the dog, and the show.
A: That’s because I’m the director! I put my heart and soul into this project, and I’ll be damned if a network executive like Mindy Parker is going to ruin my show. I’ll make sure she doesn’t if it’s the last thing I do!
An email from the French Embassy’s Los Angeles Film and TV Office landed in my inbox this morning, with an invitation to a screening of Jacques Doillon’s Ponette… held on March 6. Further ignoring the fact that it was in Valencia, I really wish this invite had arrived, you know, in advance of the actual screening, since Doillon was there in person.
An arresting bereavement drama refracted through the eyes of a little girl, this film is an absolute heartbreaker, and features one of if not the most affecting child performance I’ve ever seen. Victoire Thivisol (look at that face!) plays 4-year-old Ponette, who must come to terms with grief following the death of her mother in a car accident. She gets little sympathy and support from her atheistic father, who just dumps her with her aunt while, wrapped up in his own denial and anger, he goes back to work. Ponette’s aunt and her young friends confuse her with a mixture of religion and fantasy, to the point she ends up believing that her mother will soon be coming back to visit her.
It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, and though I don’t at all doubt its staying power, I do ponder whether this is a case of actual performance, or just deeply superb, marionette strings manipulation-as-direction. Thivisol won the Best Actress Award at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, but four years old is awfully young, and the movie, largely in the contrast drawn between Ponette and her father, has a lot of substance to say about so-called truths that crumble into uncertainties when adults are called upon to try to explain them to children. It’s for this reason that I would have loved to talk to Doillon.