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This Week's New Releases

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The Ten

dir. David Wain

If David Wain's name isn't immediately familiar to you, his face most likely is. After establishing his place in the comedy scene via MTV's sketch-comedy show The State, Wain gained fame as the diminutive, bespectacled member of the comedy trio Stella and as a ubiquitous talking-head wisecracker on various VH1 pop-culture shows. In 2001, Wain directed, cowrote, and coproduced Wet Hot American Summer, a Meatballs-flavored parody of horny-teens-at-camp comedies, which premiered at Sundance and maintains a loyal cult following on DVD. Six years after Summer, Wain's back with his second venture as a film director: The Ten, cowritten with Ken Marino and hyped in its press pack as "a series of interconnected comic sketches designed to reinterpret—and reinvent—the Ten Commandments."

Like Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten boasts a cast packed with names, including Paul Rudd, Adam Brody, Winona Ryder, Justin Theroux, Oliver Platt, Jessica Alba, Liev Schreiber, and Janeane Garofalo. Like me, these names were undoubtedly enticed by the vast comedic potential of the Ten Commandments, that ancient hit parade of thou shalt nots bursting with lust, murder, and illicit coveting of oxen. With such rich source material and a modicum of comedic insight, The Ten seemed destined for... something.

Unfortunately, The Ten's not much of anything. Hopes for wittiness are promptly dashed, first by the achingly klutzy narration (provided by the typically unimpeachable Paul Rudd), then by the sketches themselves, which are shockingly dumb, flat, and boring. The Ten Commandments are packed with enough bloody life to fuel a hundred deep comedies; not one but two of Wain's Commandment stories hinge on debasing homosexual prison sex (zing!). The whole thing slogs by like The Worst of Mad TV, with an oddly star-packed cast. If God were alive today, He'd certainly agree: Thou shalt not see The Ten. DAVID SCHMADER

Becoming Jane

dir. Julian Jarrold

There isn't one irritating thing about Becoming Jane, there are about fifty. Even if you don't care that Anne Hathaway is way too pretty to play Jane Austen—who in the most flattering of her alleged portraits is shown with squinty little eyes—there is the fact that the erstwhile star of The Princess Diaries is grating. You may find it disturbing that Jane wears empire-waisted styles not yet popularized; it is also possible that you will disapprove when Jane Austen's chumpish father performs oral sex on her unimpressed mother. (No, I'm not kidding.) And if you've seen a single other Austen adaptation in the last 10 years, particularly 2005's Pride & Prejudice, you'll be appalled at director Julian Jarrold's shameless pilfering—shots, situations... The very plot of Pride & Prejudice is lifted wholesale and wedged between the known facts of Jane Austen's life. Of course, that dimwitted strategy is stolen too, from 1998's Shakespeare in Love. Thanks, Tom Stoppard.

Why do we need to believe that authors lived their own stories? Are we so envious of their towering talents that we have to deny their ability to fabricate plot? (It's especially ridiculous that we've done this to Jane Austen and William Shakespeare—of all writers in the English language, they are perhaps least known for simply devising plotlines.) Whatever the motivation, the result is dull. And if you can imagine Jane Austen falling in love with a man who seduces her with a description of mating chickadees—well, let me put it this way: You must be thinking of the other Brontë. ANNIE WAGNER

Hot Rod

dir. Akiva Schaffer

One pet peeve of mine (in addition to the phrase "pet peeve") is when people—mostly eighth-grade girls and anyone who is stupid—use the word "random" to mean "weird." Sometimes it refers to a person ("He is totally random") or becomes an adverb ("I randomly ate some frozen yogurt"). Sorry, what? Your words mean nothing. Stop talking to me, please.

At the screening of Hot Rod, a loud idiot sat behind me. He declared the movie to be "so random" at least five times. He loved it.

A cheerful collection of pratfalls, goofy '80s kitsch, and stiff non sequiturs, Hot Rod is what would happen if Saturday Night Live tried to make Napoleon Dynamite. Whatever your opinion of Napoleon, at least it's cohesive. The silly parts advance the plot. The aesthetic is consistent. Hot Rod, by contrast, is like a weak sketch-comedy show: disjointed, forced, shallow, screaming with wasted talent, and only kind of funny.

Rod (Andy Samberg), aspiring stuntman, yearns to win the respect of his stepdad, Frank (Ian McShane), through hand-to-hand combat ("Ultimate punch!"). When he finds out that Frank is on death's door, Rod is enraged at the prospect of never proving himself.

Samberg's faux-stache and shaggy bravado are charming, and his cronies have their moments. The promising presence of Will Arnett, as a total jerk, is squandered—oh, heartbreak!—with only about 15 seconds of screen time (his best line: "I'm gonna get a Vitamin Water. Should I make that dos?").

But the silly kills the funny. Every time things get rolling, some guy starts doing a ridiculous dance for no reason. Or Rod and his brother incessantly repeat the words "cool beans." Or Ebenezer Scrooge appears, inexplicably. "What the fuck is Ebenezer Scrooge?" yelled the loud idiot behind me, "That is SO RANDOM!" Ugh. Shut up. (But I can't disagree.) LINDY WEST

Arctic Tale

dir. Sarah Robertson

At first, Arctic Tale looks like a down-market March of the Penguins retread, with indifferent cinematography and a cheesy pop soundtrack. While the emperor penguins in MoP looked somewhat respectable in their anthropomorphic tuxedos, the fluffy polar bear cubs in Arctic Tale are nothing but adorable. And where the penguin movie featured the solemn diction of Morgan Freeman, best known for Driving Miss Daisy, the producers of Arctic Tale went with Queen Latifah, who indulges in quite a bit of sass.

But once Arctic Tale gets around to introducing its next set of protagonists—a walrus baby guarded by her mother and another adult female Latifah dubs an "auntie"—you start to see the point of yet another inspiring movie set on the shrinking polar ice. There is no way a social conservative could borrow the reproductive cycle of a polar bear or walrus for a pious lesson about everlasting monogamy—which happened with March of the Penguins. With some over-the-top assistance from Sister Sledge's gay-friendly feminist anthem "We Are Family," Arctic Tale actually celebrates alternative parenting structures. In fact, the most heroic moment in Arctic Tale is also its most "unnatural": The walrus "auntie" risks her life to save someone else's calf. From an evolutionary standpoint—which, again, March of the Penguins was loath to embrace—that act ranks as a heartwarming instance of altruism.

More importantly, Arctic Tale is frank about the danger posed by global warming to the lives of arctic creatures. While the complacent March of the Penguins encouraged us to see the difficulties encountered by the penguins on their trek across the snow as ancient, timeless trials, Arctic Tale doesn't go in for wishful thinking. These animals "will face challenges never before encountered by their species," Latifah says. Climate change "disrupts the ancient rhythm of the seasons... turning its rightful masters into refugees." When Arctic Tale invokes tradition, it's only to make you fear for the next, unfailingly cute generation. ANNIE WAGNER

Flanders

dir. Bruno Dumont

Against the gunmetal-gray landscape of rural France, childhood friends André (Samuel Boidin, a thick-torsoed man with Neanderthal physiognomy) and Barbe (another nonactor, the pretty Adélaïde Leroux) keep each other company. Their relationship is explained in a few furtive scenes: They fuck in a stand of trees, they hang out while André finishes tilling his fields. At a pub with another couple, André denies they're dating. Barbe immediately gets up from their table, flirts with another guy at the bar, and leaves with him. Her expression doesn't change. André's does.

Films like Dumont's L'Humanité and The Life of Jesus (and the work of fellow Bresson acolytes the Dardenne Brothers) have accustomed us to thinking of this gruff style of filmmaking, this remedial account of human emotion, as strict naturalism. The nonsensical next section of Flanders, in which André and his countrymen ship off to an unnamed war in North Africa, will convince you otherwise. This is a war movie reduced to shorthand: The ridiculously tiny regiment fans out across the desert, where they engage in urban skirmishes, discover children acting as snipers, and brutally rape a woman, who is almost immediately avenged. The soldiers are picked off one by one.

In the war zone, we realize the movie is detached from reality: It's just a condensed emotional landscape, where people satisfy physical needs as a means of deadening emotional ones. When the movie returns to its small-town minimalism, it has lost its pretense of naturalism and, therefore, its credibility. (The major crisis that has transpired since André left for war is so convenient it's almost funny.) But then something odd happens: The strangled emotions of Dumont's pseudonaturalism start to work their stubby magic. You may not believe in their world, but André and Barbe are there in front of you, the need for love and safety radiating off their bodies like an invisible sheen. ANNIE WAGNER

Bratz

dir. Sean McNamara

What is it that makes Bratz, as a cultural phenomenon, great? For one, they conquered the long and seemingly invincible Barbie dynasty. This victory in the doll war is no small matter. It marked a major shift in the American ideal—or more precisely, it brought to an end the American ideal as one type of beauty, color, class, size, education, worldview, lips, eyes, hair. Bratz brought into the toy world that Barbie once dominated the possibilities and beauty of diversity. And we must never forget that the person who brought these urban, brown and mixed dolls into the billion-dollar toy market was an immigrant, an Iranian Jew, Isaac Larian.

The live-action movie is a celebration of what generates the cultural power of Bratz: imperfection. The movie begins with the four girls (one Asian, one black, one white, one Latino) entering their sophomore year in high school. They are friends to the end, and the other students (cheerleaders, jocks, geeks, goths) recognize the strength and beauty of their friendship. The other students also recognize the Bratz as the new order, the coming future that will confront the approaching past: a rich, blond, white girl named Meredith.

The movie basically pits the four girls and their differences against Meredith's dictatorship of perfection. Meredith lives in a palace and is a pampered princess. But all of her Aryan beauty and white wealth eventually crumble, and the movie ends with students and parents embracing their differences and confessing their imperfections, poverty, addictions, and broken marriages. No one can be, and should not try to be, pure. Impurity, mixture, diversity, miscegenation—these are no longer setbacks but simply a fact of 21st-century American life. My daughter and her friend—both are racially mixed—absolutely loved the movie. CHARLES MUDEDE

Vitus

dir. Fredi M. Murer

Six-year-old Vitus (played by Fabrizio Borsani and later Teo Gheorghiu) is a boy genius: He calculates compounded interest in his head, is a piano prodigy, and can even persuade his babysitter to uncork a nice bottle of wine to share. (If you think that's unsettling, just wait until tween Vitus starts stalking his ex-babysitter.) His parents are thrilled with his prowess, and they push him to become a professional pianist. Vitus likes playing, but he doesn't appreciate being shown off like a cheap party trick, so he flees to his kindly grandfather (Bruno Ganz) in the Swiss countryside, where he can do kid stuff and have adult conversations. So far, so palatable.

Sadly, Vitus is still shunned by his less gifted peers at school. So when he has a little accident involving a rooftop and a pair of homemade wings (apparently aeronautical engineering is not his strong suit), he hits upon his best idea yet: faking head trauma that kicks his IQ back down to normal. Having finally achieved his dream of being treated like an average kid, the closeted minigenius promptly reverts to criminal behavior, stealing small aircraft for joyrides and orchestrating stock fraud on a massive scale.

You'd think a movie about a pint-size sociopath would be dark, but director Fredi M. Murer insists on framing Vitus's later escapades with the same cloying cuteness that characterized his babyhood. In this candy-coated world, stealing a plane is roughly equivalent to studying up on the amazing hearing abilities of bats. Vitus isn't a full-fledged character, with beliefs and motivations and desires. He hardly resembles a person at all, except for his affection for his grandfather. The more implausible and amoral his schemes get, the less you care how they'll end. ANNIE WAGNER

El Cantante

dir. Leon Ichaso

El Cantante tells the story of Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthony), a Puerto Rico–born salsa singer, and his wife, Puchi (Jennifer Lopez). The film was coproduced by Lopez, and it's clearly something of a vanity project for the couple. Their characters are striking analogs to their real-life celebrity personae—Lavoe is a public performer but a withdrawn person; Puchi is an effervescent but demanding diva. There's even a scene paying tribute to J.Lo's bizarrely famous ass.

Anthony occasionally dissolves into his character, especially behind his vintage shades, but Lopez never really does, even with a conspicuous "Puchi" necklace reminding us who she's supposed to be. El Cantante relies on the audience already having some affection for either its stars or its subjects, and never bothers to develop Lavoe and Puchi into real, sympathetic characters.

Lavoe's rise to fame is charted in shorthand with musical montages of live performances, concert posters, album covers, and newspaper headlines. Heavy-handed slow motion kicks in any time a scene is meant to have serious emotional weight. An early shot contrasting Puchi's wealth with NYC's homeless? Slow mo. The couple's first encounter at a Latin music club? Slow mo. Lavoe's first exposure to heroin? You better believe that's in slow mo. And his descent into drug abuse is rote, something like The Basketball Diaries for salsa enthusiasts.

The Spanish musical numbers feature equally cheap-looking subtitles that won't stay where they belong at the bottom of the screen. The dialogue is often mechanical, and the narration—based on a 2001 interview with the real-life Puchi, and delivered by a miraculously unaged Lopez—does little to add to the story or the depth of its characters. El Cantante is fairly stylish, well costumed, and boasts a fine soundtrack, but beyond that it's about as artless and clichéd as musician biopics come. ERIC GRANDY

 

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