This stop-motion drama looks so brilliant that it’s tempting to overlook its middling plot. Writer-director Tatia Rosenthal opens her multi-character study of loneliness outside a neighborhood coffee shop, where a dour, neurotic man is hit up for a dollar by a gun-wielding widower, who then shoots himself in the head. The man’s neighbors are no happier: A boy distraught that his dad wants to break his beloved piggy bank, a friendless retiree who’s invited a selfish angel into his apartment, a slacker too stoned to win back his fiancée, and a repo man so smitten with his gorgeous girlfriend that he refuses to notice that she’s undermining his life. When an unemployed twentysomething still living with his dad spends $9.99 on a self-help book guaranteed to salvage everyone from misery, we know better than to expect Rosenthal and co-writer Etgar Keret to make their characters’ rescue easy; they’re interested in the way people indulge their sadness and aggravate everyone else’s. Though there are gorgeous moments of animated surrealism and smart moments of emotional truth, ultimately the film’s labor-intensive puppetry is more memorable than its insights into human behavior.
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In 2002 Art Linson, the producer behind mega-hits as diverse as Scrooged and Fight Club, published an expose of his years in Hollywood. The twist was that Linson didn’t reveal scandal but, rather, banality. Even when popping pills, the characters come across about as glamorous as a car salesman with a flask in his drawer; the homes and paychecks may be bigger in Movieland, but the problems are just as petty. Unlike the makers of most behind-the-camera comedies, director Barry Levinson doesn’t add a gloss of satire to Linson’s script. Instead, he and star Robert De Niro underplay their fictional producer Ben’s Worst Week Ever. It seems that test audiences loathe Ben’s new Sean Penn thriller, and its wastrel director Jeremy (Michael Wincott, the latest actor to channel Keith Richards) refuses to cut the climactic dog murder. Worse, Ben’s next project is about to get scrapped because star Bruce Willis (playing himself, on ’roid rage) refuses to shave his beard – a giant President Garfield monstrosity that, like Poe’s tell-tale heart, feels alive and malevolent. Putting on the squeeze are studio boss Lou (Catherine Keener), the buzz machine, and the financial demands of his two ex-wives and three kids, particularly his most recent ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), who expects $30,000 a month. (Kanye would cluck knowingly at the sight gag of Ben’s condo versus his former loves’ mansions.) Levinson’s insular film feels most alive in these mundane details. Ironically, only those who live them will be curious enough to see their lives flung whole onscreen like rotten tomatoes.
As Ralph Nader learned, it’s tough to make car-safety stimulating. Consider engineering professor and basement inventor Bob Kearns, who, after being blinded in his left eye in a honeymoon champagne cork fiasco, was inspired to invent the intermittent windshield wiper. Played here by Greg Kinnear – today’s go-to actor for men in cheap suits – Kearns was a dreamer who became a kicked dog. When he smiles during the early scenes of Marc Abraham’s biopic, we’re already dreading what we know will come next: His idea is stolen by Ford and Chrysler, his patents are trashed, and his quest to get the big guys to acknowledge his brilliance costs him his family, job, 26 years, and 10 million in legal fees (even though he represented himself). Philip Railsback’s script, based on a New Yorker article by John Seabrook, follows the formula – we can guess every plot point, but are left guessing about Kearns himself, who, as the years drag on, progresses from motivational to monomaniacal. When wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) leaves, taking their brood of six, the truth of Kearns’s life registers as little more than a narrative obligation. Still, corporate conspiracists (myself included) have a high tolerance for films that take potshots at The Man, even if like this, it’s less a sock to the jaw than a fumbled graze.
The second cartoon this summer to open with ape Ham I strapping into a space suit, Fly Me to the Moon has two advantages over rival Space Chimps: it’s marginally smarter and in 3-freaking-D. These are watery compliments for a pleasant, unassuming film. Aside from a few oh-yeah! dazzlers, dimensionalizing the story of three young houseflies – the hero, the geek, and the fatty – who slip aboard Apollo 11 doesn’t maximize its visual potential. There’s a nice swoosh-glide into their insect habitat past stubborn mushrooms and glass blades that seem to lash your cheeks. Later, chubby Scooter ping-pongs through weightless drops of Tang, and the three enjoy a gravity-free ballet that makes you ask, couldn’t they fly on earth? When Armstrong (one assumes: the humans are as indistinguishable as marshmallows) bounds across the lunar landscape, we’re treated to a fly’s-eye view from his helmet, staring down as the ground recedes under his feet and then pulls him back down with a puff of space dust. The plot – the usual be-a-hero stuff – is unessential; the science stops with “Wow! Look! The moon!” Back in their Houston swamps, we spend a little too much time with their families: three nervous moms nursing round pink maggots, and a daredevil Gramps still reminiscing about his old love Nadja, a Russian insect built like Charo, and his flight across the Atlantic with Amelia Earhart. Forming the killjoy truth committee are biologists in the audience compelled to note that the 41-year gap between Earhart and Armstrong would make Gramps as relatively ancient as King Tut, as well as Buzz Aldrin, who interrupts the credits to insist that at no time was the Apollo 11 infected with “contaminants.”
Unessential and boneheaded, this six-years-too-late second X-Files movie from series creator Chris Carter isn’t even as good-bad as a marathon episode. Lacking aliens, Bigfoots, and brains, it’s merely a Very Special Episode of CSI. Someone’s slashing up West Virginia, and Scully (Gillian Anderson) has been pressed to enlist the estranged Mulder (David Duchovny), who been avoiding the FBI ever since that nasty time they sentenced him to death for murder. We’re under the impression they haven’t seen each other in ages – she’s awkward, he’s bearded – but after one instance of goo-goo eyes and zero instances of pleasant conversation, a scene finds them post-coital spooning with an upside-down book spelling “SEX” on the cover, in case we were in doubt. Carter assumes we’ll care, despite the absence of their once combustible chemistry. We don’t, and we don’t fall for Amanda Peet as a romantic red herring either.
Meanwhile, there are violent Russians and a possibly psychic, definitely pedophiliac, priest (Billy Connolly) with a suspiciously good homing instinct for severed limbs. Scully also struggles to heal a terminally ill child (Marco Niccoli). (The film’s best scene is when she announces she’ll perform a stem cell transplant that afternoon and immediately rushes to Google it.) Director Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have penned one of the year’s most asinine flicks, with Scully and Mulder floundering about, trying to solve a mystery that could have been unraveled with a day’s decent detective work. It’s so astoundingly ludicrous, I’m tempted to spoil it here. But I won’t, as that would ruin the one glimmer of fun for audiences prepping to lambaste it themselves.
No matter how candy floss enjoyable Nanette Burstein’s documentary about four Midwestern high school seniors may be, our appetite for watching young people do silly, overly sincere, and sometimes brave things has been slaked by the glut of junk-food TV shows on the subject. Megan is the athletic mean girl whose friends suffer as outlets of her pressure to get in to Notre Dame; Jake seems comfortable dismissing himself as a “marching band supergeek,” but trembles with optimism when a girl might like him. Basketball jock Colin doesn’t say much; his dad, an Elvis impersonator, is louder in insisting he win a sports scholarship. And then there’s Hannah, who most hip city viewers will identify with. Quirkily pretty and independent, she fights for permission to move to San Francisco after graduation and be a filmmaker – qualities that seem to have caused Burstein to tie the film’s arc to her as she plummets into a depression, claws out of it in time to fall for a handsome jock, and then uses the fallout from the resulting clique warfare to help define herself.
With “reality” becoming increasingly fictionalized, we’re at once suspicious of the film’s truth and forgiving of its false moments – it’s just one more pleasant nothing. Though it’s the first cousin of a wholly disposable genre, the film aims for timelessness by avoiding topical issues. Being a little more specific, however, would at least have given it the distinction of a time capsule. Though the film crams together every tear and kiss, you can learn as much about the teens’ psyches by analyzing their MySpace pages.
Their families think they’re unconventional, but longtime French couple Lucie and Marion are as normal as it gets: Lucie (Natalia Dontcheva) wants kids, Marion (Vanessa Larré) wants motorcycles. Eventually, Lucie gets her way and what starts as a comedy of double-edged support – Marion only chooses ugly dads for the insemination process – becomes a straight-up drama, complete with saccharine music. Dontcheva and Larré have an earthy chemistry; they don’t kiss much, but they lean on each other constantly. Ludovic Pion-Dumas and Catherine Touzet’s script plunders every 21st century, three-parent Unexpected-Drama-to-Expect-When-You’re-Expecting trope. There are plenty of hugs, but this pulse-reading of Parisian gay rights and acceptance stops shy of treacle. Managing to be obvious without being boring, and sensitive without being false or cloying, it’s the rare vitamin that goes down smooth as sugar.
The relaxing vapors of the sauna bind three over-stressed women in writer-director Kyle Schickner’s femmepowerment flick. Divorced mom Laurie (Ally Sheedy) flirts with her son’s hunky coach while battling an ex (Ron Bottitta) more evil than Snidely Whiplash; senior Doris (Ruby Dee) is so walled off from her son’s death that she can’t go to church, let alone receive the affections of a widower (Dick Anthony Williams); and pretty co-ed Elizabeth (Kate Siegel) has just spent her first night with foxy bi classmate Niala (Reshma Shetty, luscious for all genders), only to duck out for morning Mass with her right wing parents. None of the three bathers knows (or truly cares) about the other’s lives; the steam is an evanescent excuse to make a movie out of three under-developed stories. But while the acting and cinematography aren’t strong enough to redeem Schickner’s predictable melodrama, each of the leads has a crackup smile that keeps us more rooting for than heckling their latest personal disaster.
When one of the less offensive moments in a comedy features Verne Troyer getting gang-banged by 1,000 transvestite chimpanzees, you know you’re in for, well, something. German cinemantagonist Uwe Boll—a director more proud of his detractors than his fans—knows most of America regards him with disgust or apathy. The first person shooter video game that inspired his latest movie gives him the chance to return the favor; surprisingly, the obese trailer park wife (Jodie Stewart), the use of a cat as a silencer, and decadent religious cult headed by Dave Foley and a cast of bimbos aren’t his invention. (Though the flourish of casting himself as a pedophillac Nazi filmmaker is all him.) Into this murky land of murderous cops, dolls shaped like testicles, and Osama Bin Laden (Larry Thomas) plotting jihad from a secret lair in a mini-mart wades Dude (Zach Foley), a loser in search of his inner Rambo. Twice as violent and half as funny as anything resembling a good movie, it’s still a hell of a ride as it coasts on the universal appeal of booing George Bush (Brent Mendenhall) and relishing the naughty catharsis of school children getting mowed down by machine gun fire.
The chicks may be topless, but this horror schlock wears its pretensions on its sleeve. In Sartre, Nebraska, the military has concocted a zombie serum to recycle dead soldiers into the fearless fighting undead. After an uprising, one government-issue corpse shuffles toward a strip club named Rhino, owned by wicked capitalist Ian Essko (Robert Englund). Yes, writer-director Jay Lee is making an allusion to Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play about conformity. (It’s possible he might have even read it.) Ionesco gave us an everyman who refuses to follow his town in turning Rhinocerotidae. Here, strippers weigh the merits of reanimation after headliner Kat (Jenna Jameson) sees her tips skyrocket after she becomes an undead dancing diva. Jameson may have grody, molting skin sprayed with so much blood that, when she throws off her top, you can see the outline of her bikini, but post-life and post-inhibition, she’s totally wild on the pole. (Jenna’s acting wunderstroke is changing up the way she shakes her assets.) “Fuck it, what’s the worst that could happen?” shrugs Essko as his dancers line up for their fatal bites – he’s raking in enough cash that he can afford to lose a dozen customers each shift when his girls get hungry. There’s gore and death and a billiard ball scene more hardcore than the wickedest Bangkok dive, but what’s most painful is Lee’s Bush- and Arnie-bashing political humor, which could have been ripped from a 2003 episode of SNL. Neither incredibly smart nor incredibly sexy, the film succeeds as a drunken, sloppy, ballsy, shameless romp, complete with two strippers catfighting over existentialism.