This Week's New Releases
Margot at the Wedding
dir. Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach makes movies about the type of people you normally see standing in an art-house line. In both Kicking and Screaming and the great The Squid and the Whale, the writer-director homed his sights on a very particular breed of Americanus annoyingus, namely, the sort of overeducated, hypercritical people of privilege who turn themselves into a bigger dartboard with every smug bon mot.
Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach's latest—and possibly greatest—continues burrowing under the skin of the self-absorbed to what feels like a brilliantly astringent endpoint. At least I kind of hope that it's an endpoint: Despite a few genuine belly laughs, a multitude of quotable lines, and a revelatory lead performance by Nicole Kidman, the overall mood is so ultimately despairing that it feels only one or two steps away from Larry David's patented everybody-sucks territory.
Shot in jump-cut, nouvelle vague-y fashion, Baumbach's script follows Kidman's titular character, a therapist's nightmare of a short-story writer who drags her puberty-racked son to the wedding of her estranged, hippie-dippy sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Once there, she proceeds to freak out the oafish husband-to-be (Jack Black), further driving a wedge between family members, and basically causing the barely contained tics of everyone around her to come bursting forth. Baumbach certainly doesn't skimp on neurosis, but Kidman's fascinating monster holds center stage, as a woman who can't utter a single sentence without a stabbing backbeat of aggression. Given the presence of such an awful, pitiable figure at its core, the fact that it all manages to end on a rather lovely note feels like a really, really good magic trick.
Admittedly, this might not be the movie to catch when you've got a case of the holiday blues (though I'm still laughing over the presence of a horndog neighbor named Dick Koosman), but Baumbach's finely crafted, deceptively glum tone poem deserves a bigger audience than it's likely to get. To watch it is to see a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game, even if this particular game probably shouldn't be topped. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Kevin Lima
I have mixed feelings about princesses. On the one hand, I love them. Obviously. On the other hand, GET A JOB! Enchanted, Disney's new animation/live-action hybrid, is all about those fluffy royal cupcakes: how princesses are dumb, how princesses are bizarre, how princesses are the FUCKING BOMB. A smart, sparkly, self-aware lampoon of every silly Disney cliché, Enchanted manages to make fun of princesses without being a total dick about it. I laughed (hard) at the funny parts. I got choked up (NOT KIDDING) at the serious parts. Clearly I have emotional problems, but that doesn't mean that Enchanted doesn't totally rule. It does.
In the maaaaagical land of Andalasia, princess-to-be Giselle (Amy Adams) lives in a magical cottage with 10,000 magical chipmunks. When she's not chatting up the forest vermin, she's singing laborious prince-related ditties: "I've been dreaming of a true love's kiss, and the prince I hope will come with this!" Her prince finally arrives (James Marsden, professional comedian?) and he's all, "We shall be married in the morning!" and the wicked queen is all, "Hell naw!" (or the queenly equivalent) and Giselle is banished to "a place where there are no happily ever afters," aka New York City. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
In rapid succession, Giselle encounters gay people, black people, revolving doors, and the unexpected complexities of live-action relationships. Adams (the prettiest person in the world) delivers every line with a wide-eyed sincerity that disarms any objection to the fish-out-of-water formula ("Could you direct me to some place to rest my head for the night... maybe a nearby meadow or a hollow tree?"). She's taken in by très jaded divorce lawyer and single dad Rob (Patrick Dempsey—hey America, you guys know he's been in movies since, like, 1985, right? Why the weirdly abrupt Dempsey obsession?), and starts working her magic on those frozen New York hearts. Awwww!
I have to warn you that the last act of this movie is ridiculous. But it's worth it for exchanges such as: "Where did you get that dress?" "I gathered the silk from my silkworm friends and then I spun it into thread on my spinning wheel!" Shut up, princess! I love you, girl! LINDY WEST
I'm Not There
dir. Todd Haynes
The central thesis of Todd Haynes's extraordinary new film is that there is no such thing as "Bob Dylan." He's both the incoherent mumbler and the Eliot-inspired poet, the motorcycle-crashing pillhead and the Jews for Jesus affiliate, the socially conscious folkie and the sneering rocker—the dichotomies go on and on. This elusiveness is compounded by Dylan's role as his era's spokesperson (a job he spent his whole life trying to avoid), and the myriad projections he's fielded from either side of the generation gap.
These observations are anything but original—but what is revelatory is the way Haynes exploits them in I'm Not There, a film whose scope stretches far beyond the much-discussed use of multiple actors to play fictional versions of the Dylan character. Six different films in at least as many styles weave through I'm Not There, each with its own "Dylan but not Dylan" protagonist, played by actors that include Cate Blanchett and the pubescent African-American Marcus Carl Franklin. The different characters each represent a unique strand of Dylan's creative path, career, or persona, and all toy with notions of personal and public identity.
Bob Dylan fans are thrown treats throughout the film, with tweaked re-creations of famous Dylan moments that persist both in the popular imagination and documentaries like Don't Look Back. Haynes takes a playful approach to the famous Newport incident: At the squelch of Dylan's Telecaster, Pete Seeger just so happens to have a hatchet hanging nearby (what's a folk fest without hatchets lying around everywhere?). The obnoxious, drunken hotel-room argument about a broken glass, captured in D. A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary, is reimagined here as a hostile standoff with a crazed bellboy (giving Blanchett the opportunity to deliver my favorite movie line of all time: "Either be groovy or leave, man!").
Viewers who want to learn about the "Blowing in the Wind" songwriter will be frustrated by I'm Not There, to put it mildly. Similarly, audiences who like their films linear should steer clear. I'm Not There is suggestive, not instructive; poetic, not prosaic. It is also, I strongly feel after only one viewing, one of the smartest, most innovative, and most beautiful films of this era. CHAS BOWIE
dir. Kirsten Sheridan
America loves little boys. Remember when everyone creamed their pants over that Billy Elliot movie? "He wants to be a dancer! Whee!"
With that rule, August Rush (by Disco Pigs director Kirsten Sheridan) should do really well in theaters. But no one is going to see it. Robin Williams is in it. And nobody feels strongly enough about the gorgeous and not-at-all-offensive Keri Russell or her costars Terrence Howard and Jonathan Rhys Meyers to go see a movie based on their involvement alone.
That's sad. Because despite the fact that the plot is goofy and rife with romantic improbabilities, and despite the fact that the script is loaded with cheesy moments like, "I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales," August Rush is actually a charming little film about a musical prodigy who ends up performing with the New York Philharmonic in order to find the mom and dad who don't even know he exists.
See, Mom's a touring cellist and she went slumming one night with the frontman of a rock 'n' roll band. Magic happened, then mistakes happened, and then some people told some lies. So the adorable August Rush bounces from orphanage to Robin Williams to the New York Philharmonic, and he makes music only because he firmly believes his parents will hear it and know he's out there.
It sounds bad, right? I know. And I'm just making it sound worse. But the parts in the film where it shows August Rush composing and hearing music in everything he sees—well, those are actually pretty cool. Because music itself is pretty cool. It's such a shame that this movie about music is 100 percent uncool. MEGAN SELING
dir. Preston A. Whitmore II
Happy birthday, Jesus! Do you like "dramadies"? You know, those movies that aren't funny enough to be comedies but don't have enough plot to be dramas? Of course you do. You love everything, you old hippie. But, look, anyone else would think this was a terrible birthday present—a trite, predictable Christmas joint with the dull, drawn-out pacing of a prolonged family dinner.
Basically, this Christmas is about to be the best Christmas ever for the Whitfield family. Or is it? The whole family is together for the first time in four years, and, even though there are problems, somehow you know with absolute certainty that everyone will manage to overcome them and share in the true spirit of family Christmas blah blah blah.
Will the Whitfield matriarch rediscover the joy of music even though her jazzman husband broke her heart? Will the dutiful-daughter-who-puts-everyone-else-first dump her greedy, adulterous husband and whip him with his own belt? Will the career-minded, vibrator-packing single daughter finally find a man and settle down? Will the wayward black-sheep saxophonist son make peace with Ma Dear and her new man? Will the AWOL soldier tell everyone about his honky wife? Will Baby (played by real-life R&B singer Chris Brown) perform a way less charismatic version of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" than Duckie's from Pretty in Pink? Will the secondary characters stay politely in the background? Will the whole cast dance and mug for the camera after the last freeze frame but before the credits roll? And most importantly, will this movie keep you from talking to your own awful family for two hours?
The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes. Merry fucking Christmas. ERIC GRANDY
dir. Hal Ashby
The year before Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby made his debut with this eccentric racial satire (written by the black screenwriter Bill Gunn) about the considerable challenge of gentrifying Brooklyn. Set in 1970 Park Slope—now best known for lesbians with prams—The Landlord concerns Elgar Enders (the baby-faced, weak-chinned Beau Bridges), a rich white man with nothing better to do than invest in real estate. He buys a "tenement building" in a black neighborhood, tries to take a potted rhododendron up the stairs, and promptly gets chased off the block by an ad hoc crowd of jeering neighbors.
Eventually, Elgar shoves his way into the local social scene. (Tolerance isn't so elusive, he learns, if you're willing to make yourself the object of sport.) Soon he's dating a gorgeous light-skinned dancer (Marki Bey) and sleeping with one of his own tenants (Diana Sands). Meanwhile, white people are crazy: At Elgar's parents' grassy estate, a marijuana-addled sister falls down the stairs and dumps a pot of soup over the butler's bald head. Serious conversations are reserved for the relative privacy of golf carts and dinner guests just happen to work in the napalm industry.
Taken one scene at a time, the satire is blissful. And there's something compelling about watching sad, puffy Beau Bridges embody a historical force. Unfortunately, the plot is half-baked, and the ending (in which a girl contentedly adopts her boyfriend's son by another woman) is about as satisfying as a yellowing manual on maternal instinct. The Landlord wishes it were about the future of America, but its forecast is just too hazy. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Xavier Gens
According to long-established theory, any movie produced by aging Gallic wunderkind Luc Besson (The Transporter, District B13) must contain at least three of the following elements to be successful: (A) a stylishly bald protagonist; (B) a short-haired, raccoon-mascaraed love interest wearing Gaultier slit up to here; (C) bulging supporting actors who appear to have learned their lines phonetically just moments before shooting; (D) enough blue filters to wrap around a small moon; (E) guns, guns, guns.
Hitman, a proudly R-rated video-game adaptation coproduced by Besson, handily aces all of the elements above. Featuring a multitude of squib hits and a far better than necessary performance by Timothy Olyphant in a prime Deadwood smolder, it's rooted firmly on the positive side of good and dumb.
Based on a long-running game franchise (which nobody I've talked to ever seems to have actually played), the story follows the mysterious figure known only as Agent 47 (Olyphant), a born-in-the-lab, bar-coded super assassin with vague ties to the Vatican. After an attempted hit on an Eastern European political heavy goes wrong, 47 swears vengeance, with the aid of a punky waif witness sporting a tattooed dragon on her cheek.
Director Xavier Gens keeps the nonsense flowing briskly, with a number of pulpily effective action scenes (an early four-way swordfight has some of the holy-crap-did-you-just-see-that quality of prime Hong Kong cinema) and a healthy sense of the material's inherent ridiculousness. Whether you go for it or not may ultimately depend on your feelings about a movie that helpfully explains its locations with onscreen captions like "London–England" and "Moscow–Russia." Vive le Luc. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Frank Darabont
In contrast to Frank Darabont's previous Stephen King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, The Mist is a relatively lean affair. The story is pure schlock: After a violent storm, a small Maine hamlet is invaded by a mysterious and deadly mist. Seeking refuge in a grocery store, stock characters (average-guy hero, hillbilly, religious freak, wise old bat, etc.) squabble, battle otherworldly bugs and tentacles, and generally freak the fuck out.
For the majority of the film, Darabont can't help but fumble the big scares. Every dark cranny is overlit, every monster is overexposed. In lieu of building tension, he resorts to half-assed handheld camerawork; instead of keeping the menace mysterious, he quickly coughs up answers. This may be faithful to King's original story, but as a stand-in for our own imaginations, Darabont's is sorely lacking. Only during a sequence involving 300 feet of rope does he actually deliver on the creeps—and even then it feels rushed.
Darabont seems far more interested in the various in-fights among the survivors, especially a rift between the devout and the secular. Unfortunately, that rift is handled so ham-fistedly—the caricatures turning outright ugly at times—that it quickly turns tedious, rendering the bulk of the film not just void of frights, but plodding as well. Only in a truly shocking third act is The Mist nearly redeemed, but by that point the twist feels like little more than a mean, and fairly cheap, stunt. BRADLEY STEINBACHER