Articles by

<Nick McCarthy>

06/02/10 4:00am

Directed by Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan is a master in eclecticism, but not subtlety, and he proves it once again with Ondine: a revisionist fairy tale that opens on a fisherman, Syracuse (Colin Farrell), who catches a coy woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his net. The enigmatic and perpetually half-clothed woman&emdash;categorized by Syracuse’s excruciatingly precocious wheelchair-bound daughter as a mythic “Selkie”—initially refuses to speak with anyone other than Syracuse. She relies completely on him, and she makes his life, and eventually the lives of the people around him, a little bit more confounding and fascinating. Well, that’s what she’s apparently supposed to do, at least with her “mysterious” and “magical” wiles.

More precious than charming, Ondine‘s purported loveliness is uglified by flat character arcs, groan-worthy realizations, and a distinct lack of a raison d’etre. This fractured fable is watchable only due to cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle’s expectedly fluid visuals and Colin Farrell’s low-key, humane performance.

For all its flaws, however, aesthetes who bow to Jordan-as-auteur will delight in this exercise in atonality, deception and style, particularly the compassionate way he captures a rainy Irish seaside village. Jordan is a director who knows better than to buy into the misogynistic myth of sea undines, but not cunning enough to salvage his own risible screenplay. A preposterous denouement meant to dazzle and disorient simply confirms how very far out to sea the 
central conceit has drifted.

Opens June 4

05/26/10 3:30am

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeneut

“I don’t do politics,” says one of the Machiavellian armaments businessmen in Micmacs. It’s apparent that co-writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen) doesn’t “do politics” either. While Jeunet’s penchant for cartoonish visual quirks is an ostensible match for satire, his limp class commentary and short film sensibility limit any narrative energy. And, unfortunately, Micmacs feels like one short film on repeat.

After an unfortunate bullet-to-the-head situation, Bazil (Danny Boon) finds himself out of a job, homeless, and on the verge of dying at any moment (which adds a sense of mortality Jeunet never apprehends). While performing for change outside the Musée D’Orsay, Bazil is swiftly adopted by a vagabond and brought to a community of outsiders who live under a trash heap. Bazil enlists the help of these merry pranksters to gain revenge on the arms manufacturer that created the bullet wedged in his head. The mission is not to expose, but to annoy—and that appears to be Jeunet’s objective as well.

Micmacs is inventive only on a shallow level, the way a trinket is creative. The visuals and small creations exude a playful, Calder-esque quality, but they’re never investigated; they may elicit a quick giggle within Jeunet’s world of forced poetry, floating camerawork and rapid editing, but they suffocate any humane moments. Along with the typical hyperactive aesthetic, there are homages to Chaplin, Leone, and Hawks—but Micmacs mostly resembles Home Alone.

Jeunet must identify with the daffy heroes of this tale: armed with inconsequential allusions, he is a junkyard dealer of film references. Therefore, when Micmacs never coheres to anything more than a hodgepodge of calculated, familiar whimsy, it’s easy to shrug and conclude, as the quasi-hapless ensemble often do when their scavenged machines fail them, “What do you expect? It’s secondhand gear.”

04/28/10 4:00am

Please Give
Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Life is full of giving and taking—and in Please Give, the characters take their privilege and give their guilt. Amid the rotating ensemble of damaged souls is Kate (writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s BFF Catherine Kenner), a wealthy, ethically ambiguous antiques dealer who is postured as the film’s centerpiece of modern malaise. Plagued by the contemporary cosmopolitan condition of “West Village person’s burden,” Kate—who is quick to hand $20 to a homeless person—can’t help but buy her 90-year-old neighbor’s apartment in hopes of extending her own, and yet also feel horrible for the desire to see the old lady kick the bucket promptly. Enter the neighbor’s granddaughters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Rebecca is modest and Mary is brash but both, as is everyone in the film, are brutally honest and anxiety-ridden.

Please Give marks the second New York City-set film from screenwriter/director Nicole Holofcener, after her pleasantly neurotic first feature Walking and Talking. Although Holofcener has directed a few episodes of Sex and the City, her Please Give screenplay directly challenges the materialistic fantasy Carrie and Co. blithely indulge in. Holofcener cleverly eschews an insular Manhattan with a subtle view on voyeurism, whether it’s a character looking out her window at a rooftop party, or following an ex’s current beau. The screenplay does, however, represent the best and the worst of Holofcener’s cinematic sensibility.

In exploring the contradictions in life, she reveals the paradoxes in her own filmmaking. More a keen observer than filmmaker, Holofcener is brilliant at establishing characters yet poor at developing them; her strong understanding of personality is often undermined by her need to overtly telegraph themes. Kate, Rebecca and Mary don’t become pure ciphers but occasionally they sure feel like a collection of thematic affectations rather than flesh and boiling blood. Does Holofcener was to be an authentic writer or a provocateur? Thankfully, there’s only one lame conceit-of-a-character: Kate’s oafish, conscience-free husband (Oliver Platt) who—for those not enthralled by Holofcener’s confrontational dialogue concerning White People with Problems—will seem oddly refreshing. The plausible, if oxymoronic, characters essentially sum up Holofcener’s snapshot filmmaking approach: at once delicately sensitive and at times frustratingly callous.

Opens April 30

03/26/10 4:00am

Waking Sleeping Beauty
Directed by Don Hahn

While most employees complain about their company over happy hour drinks, it is apt the creative team at Disney would make a pleasant documentary, the behind-the-scenes Waking Sleeping Beauty, as an avenue for career catharsis. Focusing on the fiscally and artistically transformative years from 1984-1994, director Don Hahn (a producer for Disney at the time) and producer Peter Schneider (an animation exec) navigate the animation department’s rapidly changing halls. At the onset, the animation wing has been marginalized and is in danger of being shut down after a series of disappointments and flat-out critical and financial flops (most notably—or, rather, forgotten—The Black Cauldron); yet, similar to most Disney animated features, Waking Sleeping Beauty‘s happy ending is apparent from the beginning.

With a strict “no talking heads, no old guys reminiscing” rule, Hahn and Schneider only use footage shot before 1994, leading to a feeling of flipping through a tumultuous family’s photo album (replete with fascinating facial hair). The animation team is introduced as an endearing, imaginative bunch of energetic goofballs, reveling in their privilege to create for a living when they’re not pulling pranks and throwing margarita parties. The executives, however, are all profit and insincere posture. The animators are, quite blatantly, the unlikely but inevitable heroes so familiar to the Disney brand. They may be depicted as victors but, most refreshingly, Waking Sleeping Beauty does not always follow the simplistic paradigm of heroes and villains. Even though the bigwigs—mostly Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and, to a lesser degree, Roy Disney—pigeonhole themselves with their oversized egos, their voiceover confessionals reveal layers, even if their sole purpose is to manipulate.

Given how inherently problematic the set-up is—Hahn and Schneider both worked at Disney during the years shown—the self-promotion is kept to a minimum, except when exalting their early 90s films (namely Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King). The institution of Disney is not treated as sacrosanct-it is criticized when necessary, and praised when appropriate. The balance does, occasionally, feel a bit off: packed with employees of Disney past and present, it’s laid on quite thick. The voiceovers are informative, but sporadically overbearing. Ultimately, the themes boil down to that tale as old as time: art vs. commerce. The successfully delicate construction of Waking Sleeping Beauty is unsurprising, as the filmmakers have spent a good amount of their careers manufacturing magic. The trick is making the sentiment genuine-and, thankfully, Waking Sleeping Beauty is. It’s not simply about pitting beauty against the beast, and surfacing the human condition within a cash-cow corporation, but the joy of community and creation.

Opens March 26

03/10/10 4:00am

She’s Out of My League
Directed by Jim Field Smith

The most common criticism She’s Out of My League will endure is that it’s a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. And, in a way, that’s accurate. For a modestly budgeted, R-rated “date movie”—as the studio heads would label it—it is very typical. It’s typically insolent, misogynistic, and homophobic.

On a routine day working airport security, Kirk (Jay Baruchel) recovers an iPhone and returns it to its owner, Molly (Alice Eve)—an event planner who frequently shuttles from Pittsburgh to New York City. A few days later, he—much to the bewilderment of himself and his friends—ends up on a date with her. Molly is a “sophisticated”— she’s wealthy and knows how to say “Thank you” in French—Nicole Kidman-Reese Witherspoon hybrid with a halo as blinding as her bleached teeth. Thus begins the number game. Kirk’s friends give him a score between 5 and 6, while Molly is a 10. Let’s play the number game, shall we. Five is the number of cheap musical montages. Six is the number of pubic hair jokes. Twelve is the number of contemptible characters.

The apparent misanthropy would almost be admirable if these flat characterizations weren’t expected to come off as crudely charming. The most loathsome of the supercilious supporting cast is T.J. Miller, who plays Kirk’s Best Friend/Sidekick and delivers every line as if he’s throwing up Napoleon Dynamite.

Most offensive here, though, is the ideologically repugnant idea of what constitutes charm, whether it’s calling a man who shows sensitivity a “vagina,” or the whining of aloof, privileged morons, which ultimately culminates in a simplistic monologue about confidence dictating attractiveness. Ironically, the film disproves its own message; despite asserting the assurance to have “I ejaculated in my pants” serve as the crux of a crucial scene, its boldness cannot compensate for its ugliness.

Opens March 12

01/13/10 4:00am

The Last Station

Directed by Michael Hoffman

With erratic energy and lots of shouting, The Last Station celebrates histrionics over history. Eschewing the elegance of subject Leo Tolstoy’s prose, director Michael Hoffman aims for a looser, embellished style for his quasi-biopic of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his legacy, politics and, most of all, tempestuous wife Sofya (Helen Mirren). The Last Station is initially defined by its breezy filmmaking, but, ultimately, the only untamed aspect of the film is its wildly uneven tone.

As experienced through the eyes and ears of James McAvoy’s newly appointed private secretary/virgin, Valentin Bulgakov—clearly the audience’s trusty surrogate—Tolstoy and Sofya’s long-lasting relationship is quintessentially tumultuous. Largely due to their antithetical political principles, their matrimony is marked with much more war than peace. As Tolstoy ages and his political doctrine—which, as simplistically depicted in the film, is a pinch of Puritanism mixed with a teaspoon of anarchism—becomes more popular, Tolstoy and Sofya consistently bicker about his will and the future of the Yasnaya Polyana estate.

The Last Station has a very anachronistic quality—the dialogue, though sharp, seems to be from a more modern era, and it’s hard to recognize the location as Russia beyond the beards and “v”-heavy names. The undoubtedly magnanimous Tolstoy is deified, quite literally, a bit too much: draped in white cloth and showered with Christ-like allusions, he’s only missing a beaming halo. Sofya is a charming, cruel individual portrayed as a stubborn, sympathetic devil of sorts. McAvoy’s performance is suitably fine, while Plummer and Mirren are called upon often to yell loudly, which they do with enough volume to get award attention.

As Tolstoy’s health rapidly begins to deteriorate, the film loses its life as well. Pressing hard on the barely hidden subtext of the first half, which concerns love vs. political philosophy, Hoffman abandons his spirited direction in favor of prestige-picture autopilot. The film’s own last station forces the whole production to a grinding halt, as what could have flourished as an investigation of meaningful amour fou is disarmed by multiple stock monologues on how love conquers all. The mood is haughtily governed by the score, which is as poorly balanced as the film itself—devolving from an endearingly spry and merry instrumental melody to an overbearingly low-keyed orchestra of somber violins and pianos. The once refreshingly bright The Last Station fades to black far too many times before it’s time for the credits to roll.

Opens January 15

10/14/09 4:00am

The Maid
Directed by Sebastián Silva

Confounding in the most appropriate sense, Sebastián Silva’s The Maid slowly develops into a surprisingly provocative portrait of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), an uneasy individual in crisis after 20 years of live-in service to a wealthy Chilean family. The family is caring, showering her with chocolate cake and presents on her just-over-40th birthday. This outpouring of appreciation and gift-wrapped sweaters occurs, of course, as she inches away to finally enjoy her meal quietly in the kitchen after she finishes serving them dinner in the dining room. She’s part of the family, but she’s perpetually clad in a maid’s uniform. Thus reflects the power structure and hierarchy that still pervades an ostensibly progressive society. The bourgeois mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedón), is talks openly about masturbation and its normalcy with her son, yet insists that her maids be dressed in frilly cloaks of captivity. None of these details are forced, but casually come and go-you observe as you please.

Silva’s tapestry succeeds mostly due to his ability to give each prominent character—roughly six of them, including two teenagers and another maid—attention without constantly justifying their conduct. The focus is prominently placed on Raquel—and Saavedra’s determined performance is particularly captivating—but the supporting characters never feel like ciphers, even when new maids are introduced and Raquel consistently humiliates them.

The Maid has a meandering tone, much in line with the droning, inconsistent moods of Raquel. It’s not long before Raquel’s exhaustion, paranoia and vitriol become unrelenting; there’s obvious tension between her and every character, but there’s no improbable display of malice that would be seen in a histrionic domestic thriller.

Silva openly admits the inspiration of his own live-in housekeeper: he dedicates the film to her, but this long-lost letter to his childhood maid is sealed with a question more than a kiss. Silva investigates, along with the screen family and the audience, the root of Raquel’s destabilizing loneliness, yet uncovers only possibilities. Roughly halfway through the film, Raquel puts on a Halloween-style gorilla mask and looks in the mirror. The camera lingers, most likely pondering who created this monster: society? The family’s wealth? Borderline personality disorder? Sheer loneliness? A traumatic backstory? It’s all fascinating speculation.

Silva wisely lets the inherent themes of class and power quietly exist, focusing his attention more on the singularity of the bourgeois ensemble and their maid’s bewildering behavior. The Maid can be a bit ponderous, but it’s a nuanced, tragicomic character study of Nanny Dearest that closely observes the long-term destructiveness of a woman living an alienated double-life as worker and family member. Raquel’s behavior is often bizarre, yet ultimately plausible. The film, as conceived, may dangerously veer towards unbelievable, but it always rings true.

Opens October 16

09/23/09 4:00am

Blind Date
Directed by Stanley Tucci

Screened nearly 20 months ago in Sundance, Blind Date is a bit rougher around the edges than most of the palatable faux-indies that prey off pseudo-creative sycophants in Park City every year, which is likely why its date with distribution was delayed. That’s not to say actor/writer/director Stanley Tucci’s Blind Date, an uneven remake of Theo Van Gogh’s same-named Dutch film, is entirely successful in its experimental depiction of a broken couple dealing with the death of their 5-year-old daughter.

The now-barely married pair now get their relationship kicks by responding to each other’s personals ads, and often take on different personas. Therefore, the film is essentially comprised of a variety of blind dates, loosely tied together with cigarette and snifter interludes. Flip-flopping between casually charming chatter and gobsmackingly obvious affectations, the film maintains stability due to two sturdy legs named Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci (the actor). It’s a rather stagy actor’s showcase, and they certainly showcase their effortless wit and thespian know-how.

The sexually frustrated father of the deceased, Don (Tucci), is a secondhand magician and owner of an old, creaky dust trap of a bar/nightclub. The sole setting for the film, which oozes early 20th-century European flair, is filled with half-empty pints, dimmed candles, and the ash of the million cigarettes smoked under its roof. Don and Janna (Clarkson) deal with their daughter’s death the way a conjurer and a dancer would. There’s acute psychology in its central conceit, tracing the impulse of creative types to create fiction out of life when fear and anxieties become too difficult to confront realistically. With such a rich theme, it’s disheartening to watch the couple continue to fool themselves about their shattered selves—not simply because they’re such tragic characters, but because the increasingly dour duo become less and less interesting.
The film gets stuck in its own cycle of relationship chess. As the illusion melts and the cheeky, and hardly veiled, allusions to the truth become starkly apparent, tedium overcomes tension. The tension isn’t built-it’s recycled. Almost every vignette is predictably punctuated with either profanities or tears, and the finale that serves to exaggerate such self-destruction is preposterous.

Despite the fluidity with which Tucci and Clarkson exchange dialogue, most of the script is too on the nose. Don-ever the emotionally elusive figure-likes to play hide and seek. Janna points out that the flowers Don gives hr are fake, and he quips, “Yeah, but they’ll last forever”—even further spelling out the delusion of these characters. The voiceover narration, provided by their dead daughter, explicitly fills in any psychological gaps, too.

To Tucci (the director)’s credit, he does have control over his atmosphere, which is palpable since the dusty bar setting is so strong-with its cabaret stage insisting that “all the whole world is a stage.” At one point, Don mentions, “There’s something off.” Janna replies: “well, if something can be considered off, then it must have once been on.” Essentially, the film’s relationship with the audience functions in this way, as well, and the downfall of such a promising premise is nearly as disappointing.

Opens September 25

08/19/09 4:00am

My One and Only
Directed by Richard Loncraine

My One and Only is not a film concerned with a singular “one and only,” but is rather a peppy production of dichotomies – and not one that balances very well. The teetering tones clash between screwball comedy vs. on-the-road family melodrama, coming-of-age tale vs. came-of-age tale, artifice vs. sincerity, and Renée Zellweger the actress vs. Renée Zellweger the annoyance.

Although My One and Only contains moments of self-awareness — including an opening combo of cheery retro-pop graphics mixed with a mushroom cloud — erstwhile TV-film director Richard Loncraine’s weak vision could benefit from more clever juxtaposition and less wink-wink technique. Stuck in a limbo which registers as neither genuine nor ironic, My One and Only approaches its twinkling 1950s setting with a fair amount of adoration and not nearly enough illumination.

Occurring roughly within a twelve-month frame of (questionable Hollywood icon and perpetually tanned) George Hamilton’s formative teenage years, this nostalgic throwback follows Upper West Side socialite-mama Anne (Renée Zellweger) as she leaves her philandering husband (Kevin Bacon, looking awfully weary) and takes off with her two sons — George Hamilton (Logan Lerman) and the exhaustively effeminate (we get it, filmmakers, he’s gay) Robbie (Mark Rendall) — in a Cadillac convertible. An old-fashioned (and quickly aging) gold-digger with a heart of fool’s gold in search of a new husband, Anne takes the precocious boys from Boston to Pittsburg to St. Louis to Los Angeles to THE AMERICAN DREAM (!?!). Among the multi-city adventures in thematic flip-flopping, the characters remain consistent, if one-note: detailed with obvious affectations yet grounded by adequate acting.

Zellweger’s calculated performance registers as moderately successful, if only because Anne Deveraux is, on paper, such an inauthentic character (complete with failed moments of poignant loneliness, natch, where she talks to strangers at the bar about, well, loneliness). Despite her aphorism-laden, larger-than-life facade, she is rather flimsily written — a thin sketch of a wronged woman who will gladly zip up her husband’s mistress’ dress before hitting the road. She’s no Blanche DuBois — not nearly as complex, compelling or believable. Anne is simply a lemon-faced Barbie doll model for feminism in the 50s.

In order to find this portrait of a bright boy with a glamour-whore mother unique — or significant in any way — one would have to believe George Hamilton is some sort of Hollywood treasure. Therefore, the audience for such a project is likely smaller than the queue at an early bird buffet — and they would be snacking on a deceptively colorful concoction of blandness. Certainly, My One and Only distinctly represents old-fashioned filmmaking — and that includes all the strengths and flaws of its cinematic era: forced wit, random melodrama, and simplistic representations of class, gender, and race. Too often, the acting is more focused on the speed of a one-liner than plausible human behavior. It’s the type of inconsequential fluff that would fear eliciting a stronger reaction than an elderly-sounding “well, that was nice.” After all, there is a reason why this style of cinema faded away. As one of its mealy-mouthed characters might state, My One and Only is “occasionally charming, but not terribly interesting.”

Opens August 21

06/24/09 4:00am

My Sister’s Keeper
Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Cancer is sad; it’s inherently very, very sad. When a filmmaker presents a slow-motion scene with a bald, pale leukemia patient smiling on the beach with her family while schmaltzy pop attempts to overpower the already loaded images, it’s likely to elicit tears; it’s also fair, however, to be skeptical of the choices made by the filmmakers. With My Sister’s Keeper, Nick Cassavetes — a director who has a much sharper sense of audience manipulation than actual human behavior — takes a more laissez-faire (stress “lazy”) approach to Jodi Picoult’s material than the heavy hand he brought to John Q and The Notebook; the execution is more perfunctory than it is aggressively manipulative.

Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva, who gives the most genuine performance in the cast) was diagnosed with a severe case of cancer at a very young age, which prompted her parents, Sara and Brian (a shrill Cameron Diaz and a very shirtless Jason Patric, respectively), decide to genetically engineer a new child who will serve as a perpetual donor. But Anna (played with overbearing precocity by Abigail Breslin), now 11, decides that she is tired of having pieces plucked from her (Kate now needs a kidney), and wants to have control over her own body; she hires a lawyer (an oddly quirky Alec Baldwin) to gain medical emancipation from her parents. She loves Kate, and her family, but wants to be able to play soccer and drink alcohol when she’s of age.

Sara refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of death, and fights back. In regards to Sara, what could have evolved as a more subdued, stubborn character whose myopia slowly destroys her family, is quickly overblown as a raving lunatic bitch. The moral dilemma at the core of the film, which is sandwiched between the interludes ostensibly sponsored by Kleenex, conveniently unravels with a confession that caps a weepy courtroom scene. My Sister’s Keeper is stuck in a TV-movie aesthetic, opting to tell its tale through obnoxious, blaring music rather than deep character development.

Although My Sister’s Keeper devotes a moderate amount of time to Anna’s difficult decision — with the exception of any incongruous scene with Alec Baldwin’s lame evil twin version of his 30 Rock bigwig, Jack Donaghy – it ultimately follows a trail of tears that places it in the “for Oprah fans only” realm. The screenplay lays out a tricky nonlinear structure, and Cassavetes cannot organize the messy clutter of musical montages and family fits. A majority of the scenes are shapeless, providing maximum attempts to exacerbate the situation and then halt the action, leaving a sustained moment for the audience members to reach in their bags for a tissue — or to check the time on their cell phone.

Opens June 26