29 September 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Directed by: Peter Sollett
Written by: Lorene Scafaria
Full credits from IMDb

While director Peter Sollett’s first feature, Raising Victor Vargas, dealt with la vida hispánica on the Lower East Side, he turns his attention here to another significant downtown demographic — hipsters from out of town. In Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the title’s two Bridge & Tunnel teens (Michael Cera & Kat Dennings), hung up on exes, spend a Manhattan night falling for each other while enjoying rock n’ roll music. Sollett and screenwriter Lorene Scafaria can’t squeeze much out of that, so the movie replaces its young-adult source novel’s breathlessly propulsive stream-of-consciousness with a series of diversionary asides: where’s Norah’s drunk friend? Where’s the best-band-ever’s secret show? (These mini-mysteries might account for the title’s otherwise inexplicable Thin Man reference.)

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25 September 2008

Smiley Face

Directed by: Gregg Araki
Written by: Dylan Haggerty
Full credits from IMDb

Unfortunately, Smiley Face is not immune from adopting some of the stoner movie’s most tiresome clichés. Please, can we have a moratorium on the talking dogs? But otherwise, Gregg Araki’s (practically) straight-to-DVD potxpolitation flick might still be the best of its ilk—not that that says much—thanks to two virtues: its star, Anna Faris (Scary Movies 1-4), and its director’s sharp, subjective expression of the out-of-sober experience. (In contrast to Pineapple Express, which garnered most of its laughs by allowing the audience to assume an objective standpoint and therefore laugh, condescendingly, at its stoner protagonists.)

Araki’s previous film, Mysterious Skin, laughlessly tackled teenagers coping with childhood sex abuse. Here, he tackles how an unemployed actress’ whole day can be thrown off-kilter when she makes short order of a tray of marijuana-laced cupcakes. Tonally, and subject-wise, it’s a very different kind of movie from the New Queer dramas for which Araki is primarily known; it’s a kind of one-day Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, as Faris travels from an audition to a dentist to a slaughterhouse. But the alternating wonder and nightmare she experiences don’t result from anything inherent in the world she inhabits, as Pee-Wee’s were a result of Tim Burton’s psychotropic set design; they’re only in the way she perceives it.

From a purely objective point of view, the film would play out as a mundane series of errands—which might explain why Pineapple Express relied on police corruption and gang wars to liven things up; here, Araki frequently enters us into Faris’ mindset, more in line with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, capturing the scatterthought, short-attention-span absent mindedness and slow-motion paranoia of being high—the way quotidian minutiae can seem sinister when stripped of their context (e.g. the softly beeping smoke alarm presented as a shrill siren); how cruel and hostily impatient people can treat others; and how easily minor problems compound and escalate.

Araki’s knowing details—Faris is dependent on to-do-list making and smitten with her comfortable bed, just like my (lovely) stoner girlfriend—lend the ostensibly sitcomish (TV-MA!) and episodic proceedings a measure of credibility, as does Faris’ performance. A critical darling without, hitherto, a movie on which to hang her reputation (save perhaps this one), Faris proves her comic mastery in the simple way she slumps on a couch—legs akimbo, arms dangling—or the way she heaves after a run—easily the funniest breathing I’ve ever seen (outside of cartoons). She is perpetually confused and easily frightened, her red-rimmed eyes a dead giveaway to her inebriation, but she doesn’t assume an idiotic smirk a la Jim Breuer; she is never less than a real person, a sweet and utterly pitiable kid even as she gets into trouble—and even though the audience is well aware that it’s her own damn fault for being so damn high! (Given how acutely stoned she is, it seems more likely that she ate psychedelic-mushroom cupcakes.)

Faris’ sympathetic portrayal helps Smiley Face build to an ambiguous conclusion: superficially, it seems conspicuously, and disappointingly, propagandistic, in that Faris is arrested and punished for her misdeeds over the last 80 minutes; marijuana is illegal and the transgressors must be disciplined. But on the other hand, the finale is a bit more subversive, from the way it leaflets L.A. with "The Communist Manifesto" to the fact that not only is Faris super-likable but it’s not like she ever hurt anyone! Her arrest, then, might be meant to be less of an illustration of a necessary punitive measure than just another illustration of how mean the sober world can be. Grade: B

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12 September 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Written & Directed by: Woody Allen
Full credits from IMDb

Every character and every relationship (but not every city) in Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a clear opposite that illuminates its parallel. It bursts with contrasts, first and foremost among them its eponymous Betty and Veronica dichotomy. (Allen ditches titular commas, presumably because characters and city are meant to mush into an inseparable whole.) Vicky, the stern brunette (Rebecca Hall), plays foil to her biffle, the fun loving, platinum blond Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, shaping up to be this decade’s Woody Allen It Girl, for better or worse); the former is working on an impractical Master’s in Catalan Identity, while the latter is a wannabe artist with an ulcer; each is a girl in need of direction and, since this is a Woody Allen movie, they get it, for a spell anyway, from a man.

That life-upending lover—Spanish, swarthy, etc.—comes in the strapping shape of Javier Bardem, whom Johansson, lilting with moist desire as she overhears gossip of his violent (read: steamy) romantic history, first espies from across an art opening. When he frankly propositions the two finding-myself tourists for a weekend of art appreciation and lovemaking, Vicky gives a firm no pero Cristina says oh, sí! (He eventually seduces each, to different ends.) Gentle and confident, avoiding a cartoonish Casanova, Bardem serves as the Anti-Allen, a man liberated from his neuroses and refreshingly honest, not only with others but with himself. Set in a carefree and ready-for-love Spain, in contrast to Allen’s ol’ nervy New York (or his murder-crazy London), Vicky Cristina explores life’s loveliest and simplest virtues—wine, food, music, sex, etc.—complicating them only with the universal struggle to align epicurean delights with love, that ever-elusive and indefinable ideal. Thus, the characters spend the film analyzing themselves and each other—remember? This is a Woody Allen movie—in between moments of lusty attraction. “If you don’t start undressing me soon,” Johansson tells Bardem at one point, “this is going to turn into a panel discussion.”

Through Vicky, Allen explores the virtues and discontents of predictability, as well as how fear locks people into unhappy routines. (Squirm as she watches her fiancé and their friends discuss awesome new technology and interior decorating theory.) More strikingly, Allen uses Cristina to look at the potential functionality of a love triangle (with the late introduction of a frazzled, furious and hilarious Penelope Cruz), ultimately deciding that sometimes two people work together, but sometimes they don’t. That is: torrid Iberian threesomes for some, faithful coupling for others. In an era of democracy imposition at the point of a gun, Allen argues that, particularly overseas, the American way isn’t always the best. Unsurprisingly, for a man so vilified in popular culture, Allen argues: to each his own. Vive y deja vivir. Let me have my Soon Yi and live with it, too. Grade: B+

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The Women

Written & Directed by: Diane English
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: D

Talk about overcompensating. A year after Warner Bros. denied rumors that it would no longer produce films about femmes, the studio releases this Y chromosome-less, for-us-by-us remake — inherited from shuttered Picturehouse — featuring half of SAG’s female membership. At best, though, the film makes amends backhandedly.

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03 September 2008

A Secret

Written & Directed by: Claude Miller
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: B-

At one point in A Secret, the infamous footage of the liberated concentration camps sends a Franco-Jewish schoolboy into a paroxysm of anger. You can sympathize — those emetic films of emaciated prisoners and mass graves are among the grisliest images ever captured; they inevitably provoke visceral responses, and they don’t even have sound. Or color! But that’s the point — the Holocaust doesn’t need, nor can it stand, cinematic embellishment. It’s overwhelming enough. Director Claude Miller, however, seems to disagree; unfortunately, he doesn’t trust his film’s Holocaust tragedy to speak for itself, ultimately sacrificing A Secret’s sporadic subtlety for aggressive tear jerking.

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Save Me

Directed by: Robert Cary
Written by: Robert Desiderio

Grade: C-

In Save Me, Mark (Chad Allen), drug-addict and homosexual (both, natch), is presented with a choice: dry out at a Christian homosexuality-rehabilitation center or do the detox program at “County General”. He opts for the former. (Is County General the hospital from Jacob’s Ladder or something?) Nearly a decade ago, But I’m a Cheerleader tackled the absurdity of conversion therapy for laughs but, two terms of George Bush later, Save Me plays it straight. Apparently, such fringe outfits are no longer laughing matters, but it’s still hard enough to take Save Me seriously without director Cary adopting a lifeless television-aesthetic to boot, from shot-countershot ad nauseum to having the actors stand around and do nothing but wait to talk to other characters.

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