dir. Sunu Gonera
I wasn't even a baby yet, so help me out here: Why was everyone so much hotter in the '70s? Was it the hairdos and the little shorts? The one guy in every crew with the Coke-bottle Buddy Holly glasses? The extremely smooth Curtis Mayfield superjams? Or just the dozy summers and the fire hydrants and the sickly, sarcastic malaise? Pride is a movie set in the '70s about hot '70s dudes who play basketball in hot '70s outfits, and then learn how to hot '70s swim. Terrence Howard plays their hot '70s coach. And everything about it is HOT! (Except for the racism. Racism is not so hot.)
Howard (quite possibly my favorite actor) is Jim Ellis, a former college swimmer recently shuffled from the unemployment line to janitorial duties at a decaying Philadelphia rec center. Hidden beneath mountains of garbage and sadness and feces (okay, maybe not feces), he finds the center's ancient swimming pool, and sets out to teach the local boys some tricks. Swimming—a profoundly awkward and unnatural act for a human—is a beautiful sight when done well. And the rec center boys aren't bad.
But at their first meet, the all-white swim audiences get to muttering. "Grumble, grumble, grumble," they say, "I didn't know they swam," "You mean you guys aren't the Harlem Globetrotters?" and (my personal favorite), "It must be some kind of a protest march!" And I think you know what's next (spoiler alert!): resilience, redemption, and the triumph of the human spirit.
Hey, America! When are you guys going to get tired of the triumph of the human fucking spirit? I could give a shit about the human spirit. I could give a shit about an evil drug dealer, and symbolic slow claps, and big hearts, and rote, after-school-special morality. On the other hand, I will watch (and love) Terrence Howard in anything: even when he's paddling through a patently uninspired script, even when he's vanquishing evil drug dealers with theretofore unmentioned kung-fu skills, and even when he's crying the two corniest and most meaningful tears ever cried in the history of cinema. Is he wearing some adorable '70s shorts? Okay then. We're done here. LINDY WEST
dir. Antoine Fuqua
Look closely at the barrage of scary orange fireballs that is Shooter, and you'll observe a number of confused little subplots: here a Fugitive-style chase number, there a sordid rape-revenge fantasy. The only interesting thing about the film, which was based on a novel by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, is the way it muddles through the political realignment of American conspiracy theories in the wake of 9/11.
In the '90s, conspiracy theorist meant conservative, period: The federal government was big, and therefore up to no good. True to its implicit time stamp, Shooter starts off ruby red. (Well, except for that sinister oil pipeline snaking through the Ethiopian desert.) Former sniper Bob Lee Swagger (nothing like a Southern cliché stacked on a strut), played by Mark Wahlberg, is a government-phobe who lives alone in a snowy Wyoming cabin with his beer-fetching dog. There's also a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report and a bookmark on a webpage about government "lies."
Eventually Swagger is led into a trap his paranoia should have alerted him to, and the first—no, second—of many, many fireballs engulfs the screen. But as references to WMDs and Abu Ghraib pile up, the politics of Shooter get weird. "Do we allow America to be ruled by thugs?" a character asks rhetorically. "Some years we do" is the pointed response. "There's no Sunnis and Shiites," a full-of-shit senator (of no definite party) snarls. "There's no Republicans or Democrats—there's only haves and have-nots." Or the two Americas, as the partisan John Edwards (not to mention Michael Harrington) would have it. Survivalist paranoia, meet socialism. You two sure make strange movies. ANNIE WAGNER
Matthew Barney: No Restraint
dir. Alison Chernick
Sometimes it's better not to let the artist talk. Because despite the perverse pleasure provided by theorizing about the allegorical potential of testicular descent and Vaseline, what I've always liked about Matthew Barney's movies is the ultimate directionlessness of their flamboyance. They don't need to mean something in particular; they contain multitudes, including some very tedious stuff. And having enjoyed being bombarded with elaborately constructed imagery that seems to have its own, irreducible, exclusionary order, I do not want to hear the artist say things like, "It's a love story" and "In this section, the guests transform into whales"—both because these observations are painfully obvious and because their eviscerating banality blasts the marrow out of a scene in which a man and a woman standing in water apparently fillet each other's legs off.
Barney's 2006 movie Drawing Restraint 9 was not as great as some of his Cremaster films. So what we have here, with Matthew Barney: No Restraint, is a surface-level making-of movie that sets about explaining a middling movie that relies on enigma for what little power it does have.
The sections of the movie that focus on Barney's background and nonmovie pursuits—the sections that make it feel like the making of Matthew Barney—are more interesting. And that's not because he's good at talking about his art, but because he's bad at it. The work seems to occur to him outside of language. The footage that captures him making drawings by restraining himself physically (hanging the paper on the ceiling and trampolining or climbing up to it, for example) and the shots of him scoring a touchdown in a college football game say more about his animalistic hang-ups and preoccupations than anything he tells us about making a movie on a Japanese whaling ship. JEN GRAVES
dir. Danièle Thompson
For those who think French films are too dreary, too hushed, or too full of weird and inappropriate sex, here's the remedy for you. A sugary piece of fluff about romance and art in Paris, the idiotically retitled Avenue Montaigne (the French title, Fauteuils d'orchestre, or Orchestra Seats, is more apt) is hard to admire, and harder to dislike. If you think about it, you'll realize how flimsy—and even lazy—it is; if not, you'll likely give in to its airy charms.
The story revolves around Jessica, a vaguely butch ingenue played by the winning Cécile de France, who gets a job at a brasserie in an upscale Parisian theater district. The other characters are artsy neighborhood types whom she waits on: a frustrated pianist (Albert Dupontel); a spastically narcissistic actress (the very funny Valérie Lemercier, who looks like some sort of giant, sullen bird); a crusty art collector (old-timer Claude Brasseur). All these people, including the abnormally sunny Jessica, are trying to figure out their relationship to art; that's cowriter/director Danièle Thompson's theme, and she barely skims the surface. Her restless artists, assistants, spouses, and groupies may be endearing, but she and her screenwriter son, Christopher Thompson (who also plays Jessica's appealingly dour love interest), have a schematic, sitcom-ish way of linking them together and resolving their dilemmas. The result is a very pleasant comedy that often feels blurry where it should be sharp and incisive.
If Avenue Montaigne finally goes down easy, it's because Thompson never shoves all the naivete and good cheer down your throat. The movie gurgles along gently, sweetly, warmly. As bourgeois urban fantasy goes—its portrayal of life in Paris makes Sex and the City's vision of New York seem starkly realistic—you could do worse. JON FROSCH
Reign over Me
dir. Mike Binder
As far as I can recall, Reign over Me (a mildly comedic Adam Sandler mope-stravaganza) is Hollywood's first fictionalized, aftermath-of-9/11 human-interest movie. Which seems weird—I can't believe they weren't barking up that particular money tree on the rosy dawn of 9/12. But here it is, in 2007, and unfortunately (for me—I had like a million jokes lined up for this one), it's not half bad.
Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a dentist and a family man whose life turns all wacky when he reconnects with his long-lost dental-school roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler). Alan's a bit weary from routine (his wife forces him into unbearable woman hobbies, like photography and puzzles!), so he welcomes Charlie's proclivities for video games, motor scooters, all-night Mel Brooks marathons, and willful oblivion.
Charlie, you see, had a wife, three daughters, and a poodle, until September 11, 2001, when they boarded a profoundly unlucky plane (or, as his mother-in-law puts it, when "those monsters flew over here from across the world and rearranged my dance card"). Since then, Charlie's been, understandably, a gaping vacuum of despair—paranoia and rage and PTSD-induced amnesia accumulating in one puffy beehive hairdo.
What saves Reign over Me from being a sentimental mess is that it isn't actually about 9/11. It's about mental illness, which is almost always interesting. Should people be strapped down and forced to talk about their dead family in the name of healing? Or should they just be left to play Shadow of the Colossus and eat Chinese food?
Should the government dictate how we grieve?
Sandler does hollow pain way better than he does comedy, and Cheadle is perfect, as always. There are some funny moments, as well as some offensive ones. (In a weird echo of Ann Coulter's latest chestnut, Alan tells Charlie, "Don't just call people faggot—that's rude," and Charlie responds, "To a gay guy it is. To you it's just a silly word, like pickle or pound cake.") The deeply symbolic "remodeling" montage is a groaner, and I'm not thrilled with the limp passivity of the film's every last female. But Cheadle and Sandler sell it. At the very least, Reign over Me feels honest. LINDY WEST
The Last Mimzy
dir. Robert Shaye
I don't really like children, but I have a special, secret nerd love for their books. Specifically, I like ridiculous juvenile fiction where weird and/or magical stuff happens (specifically, I like anything I wouldn't be caught dead reading on the bus). It's just so soothing and uncomplicated. The Last Mimzy started out as such a story—a 1943 fantasy by Lewis Padgett—and you can feel the literary care beneath the film's flab. But Hollywood munched it up and pooped it out, replacing its wonder and magic with flash and cheese.
Emma and Noah are a couple of Seattle kids—Noah is average ("School sucks! Life sucks! I suck!"); his little sister is boringly gifted ("I like astronomy, and I play the violin"). While vacationing on Whidbey Island, the kids find a mysterious box from space, filled with mysterious toys that teach them mysterious powers. Noah learns how to talk to spiders from a magic shell, while Emma atomizes her face and bonds with a psychic stuffed bunny. ("She's Mimzy. She's my teacher. She teaches me everything.") The future is involved, and so is the FBI.
The Last Mimzy has a clomping environmentalist bent ("When people mess with nature, LOOK OUT! Because pollutants can change us!"), but its actual story is largely incoherent. It's unclear what some of the Mimzy powers are for (Noah dreams of flying shapes with the words "Rhombus! Cube! Tesseract! Tetrahedron!"), or exactly how the mandalas and magic children of Nepal fit in.
Hey, whose idea was it to put children in movies? Children are not good at acting. Their fake smiles and faker tears are uncomfortable to watch. But the whole messy thing is almost redeemed by the presence of Rainn Wilson (The Office's Dwight Schrute) as Noah's New Agey science teacher. Everything he touches turns to awesome. Everything he doesn't touch is just another dumb kids' movie. LINDY WEST
What Love Is
dir. Mars Callahan
This craven sex comedy is supposedly about Tom (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his friends, his apartment, and his sensitive response to being insensitively dumped by the love of his life. Really, it's about which drinks are preferred by which male stereotypes. Self-described "lonely, drunken, misogynist asshole" Sal (the eyebrowless wonder Matthew Lillard) drinks Makers. Tom prefers beer. Loyal husband Ken (oh, excellent job typecasting yourself, Callahan) sips vodka martinis. Lavender-sweatered Wayne (Andrew Daly), who's about to get gay-married, clutches a narrow can of Red Bull. And the squeaky-clean hippie George (Sean Astin) slurps cereal milk. Each delivers a flat, rapid monologue about how women make them feel bad. Then a band of sexy ladies—Anne Heche, Gina Gershon, et al.—arrives and makes a beeline for Tom's enormous bathroom. It becomes obvious that the prettiest one (Judy Tylor) is stupid, and therefore equally obvious that she will say something soulful and enlightening at the close of the film. What Love Is made me want to scratch my eyes out. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Kevin Munroe
All right, geekboy, I know what you're thinking. You're sitting there in your dank and depressing den of iniquity with your fuckin' Star Wars, X-Men, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures filling every inch of available surface, and you're typing to your just-as-pathetic and lonely cyber buddies about how the new Ninja Turtle flick is totally gonna suck 'cause Shredder ain't in it. Well let me tell you, nerdlinger, it doesn't suck at all. Aside from the shittier than shitty soundtrack (Cobra Starship, Pepper, and Cute Is What We Aim For? Seriously? Even geeks and 8-year-olds don't dig that crap!), this generation's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is just fine. April O'Neil is still there, and she's as hot as ever, so you've still got that computer-generated fantasy to drool over, and among the crop of new bad guys (Shredder's dead, remember?), there's also this smokin' little ninja chick who's sure to give you a geek boner. The Turtles still eat pizza, they still skateboard, and they're still totally badass. So relax and stop crashing your hard drive sending thousands of hate-fueled IMs to all your 30-year-old "friends" who still live with their parents. The movie's just fine. You're the jackass with issues. MEGAN SELING