01/23/13 4:00am

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Wednesday, January 23, at IFC Center, part of its Modern School of Film series

This late-career gem from Buñuel proves his surrealist edge didn’t dull with age. The film marks the final chapter in an informal trilogy (with The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), adopting a fast-and-loose narrative structure that recalls the director’s earliest films. It plays like a collection of short stories that begin in medias res and trail off without any conclusion, akin to reading a “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” novel from cover to cover. Storylines, characters and entire settings are discarded by the quick pace, making it seem like an entirely new film begins as soon as a scene fades out. There is an unbridled sense of freedom in all this that requires an affinity (or patience) for Buñuel’s subversive spirit as he tackles favorite targets like class, Catholicism, desire, and social conventions with his own distinctive brand of irreverence.

The satirical tone in these vignettes has gotten sharper in recent years. A wealthy couple files a missing child report even though the kid in question is right beside them; an anonymous man kills dozens of people with a sniper rifle only to be adored as a celebrity after his trial. These scenes run the danger of being dismissed as merely absurdist, but their connections to today’s headlines are conspicuous. Buñuel’s best films have the power to reveal the raw energy at the core of our innermost desires, particularly those we feel uncomfortable accepting. Free from the constraints of a conventional narrative, The Phantom of Liberty is a jarring, raucous bit of filmmaking exuberance from a one-of-a-kind artist.

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08/15/12 4:00am

Robot & Frank
Directed by Jake Schreier

Any mediocre film can be saved if you add a robot or a ghost. Why? Because you can never trust a ghost or a robot; there’s always some reason to be apprehensive about them—some underlying potential for evil. The suspense this elicits is curiously exploited in Robot & Frank, a film that focuses on our connection to technology as extensions of our community and ourselves. It downplays the technology fetish of its science-fiction premise to zone-in on the human element of building a relationship with an inanimate object.

In the not-so-distant future, robots have become a consumer product designed to simplify peoples’ lives. These aren’t Blade Runner replicants we’re talking about; they’re closer to the awkwardly lo-fi birthday robot that Rocky gives Uncle Paulie in that absurd scene in Rocky IV. A new prototype is designed to take care of the elderly, providing companionship while spouting self-help slogans like a tiny Tony Robbins made of steel.

Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in a quiet town outside NYC, struggling to keep a daily routine in retirement as his memory starts showing signs of his age. Exasperated by the responsibilities of checking up on his father, Frank’s son (James Marsden) decides that a robot companion is a better alternative for his father than a nursing home. Before we know it, we have a grumpy old man and a bright, shiny new robot sharing a roof. The robot takes care of all the domestic tasks that Frank has ignored for years, simultaneously implementing a healthy diet and a schedule full of activities. This is the stuff that cult sitcoms are made of.

Trust becomes a central factor, as Frank builds a relationship with the robot, a gizmo with the cool self-assuredness of Hal and the obedient loyalty of the T-1000. As their bond strengthens, the film takes an ingenious turn: it becomes a heist movie, and a good one at that. Frank, a former cat-burglar, plots capers with his robot throughout their sleepy little town. The aging Frank is reinvigorated by the thrill and purpose that his illicit profession brings, even if his memory fails him. He finds a friend in his robot, whom he molds into the perfect accomplice. It’s sort of like Vertigo, if Vertigo were about being old and stealing diamonds with a robot.

There is no evil self-awareness, no robot insurrection, no existential robo-grief—this is a story about the human need for companionship, which is why Robot & Frank is a perfect family movie without trying to be. We’re spared the sappy, pre-packaged sentimentality. Absent as well are the obvious jokes and smug winks at popular culture. Instead, we have a story that takes place in a future relatable to us by the honesty of the characters’ emotions. The film’s sci-fi future is a lot like our present, a world where we spend more time with our gadgets than with our friends and family. The premise might sound ridiculous, but the end-result is well-crafted and heartfelt. Just imagine—a world where Siri is the one asking the questions.

Opens August 17

08/08/12 4:00am

2 Days in New York
Directed by Julie Delpy

It’s been five years since Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris, which still holds a place on the short list of worthwhile date movies in recent memory—the kind that studios seem unable to make. It was charmingly neurotic, like a foreign, Woody Allen-inspired riff on Meet the Parents. Ironically, most of that fun is lost in translation in 2 Days in New York.

Delpy returns to write, direct and star as Marion, a couple of years removed from her relationship with Jack (Adam Goldberg, conspicuously and unfortunately absent in the new film) and sharing custody of their son in New York. She’s now living with a new boyfriend, Mingus, a public radio host underplayed by an unusually subdued Chris Rock. Mingus plays foil to Marion’s eccentric father, sister, and ex-boyfriend, all of whom reciprocate the previous film’s Paris visit, this time in Marion’s Manhattan apartment. The guests seem like caricatures, as from a Lonely Planet Guide to Cultural Stereotypes: they misread every social cue, their behavior suggesting a hybrid of Asperger’s and total cultural ignorance. Their zany antics become combustible when mixed with Marion’s neuroses—a cocktail that had amusing results in the first film, but whose effect rapidly wears thin here. Marion’s relationship with Mingus is put to the test with her family’s intrusive visit, but there’s never any serious threat transmitted to the audience beyond our middling concern for Chris Rock’s ability to sleep comfortably on the couch.

Delpy is as radiant today as she was when American audiences were introduced to her in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magnetic White and Richard Linklater’s whimsical Before Sunrise. Her filmmaking, however, lacks the same composure. (At least we are spared any Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moments, given the interracial relationship.) The biggest disappointment in the film is Rock, who seems confined by the screenplay, only hinting at the potential of a funnier film during a couple of soliloquies that he delivers to a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. Delpy’s writing tries too hard, with overeager dialogue and awkwardly unfunny set pieces, even if her lighthearted approach makes it difficult to actively dislike the film. But just like its house guests, 2 Days in New York quickly outstays its welcome.

Opens August 10

04/25/12 4:00am

Directed by Boaz Yakin

Opens April 27

“How come,” a friend recently griped about Netflix’s recommendation algorithms, “they don’t have a category with movies about assassins who act as surrogate parents?” Talk about micro-genre, but it’s a formula that works: sometimes you just want to see a movie about a killer and a misfit kid. Writer-director Boaz Yakin taps into this sentiment with the latest Jason Statham vehicle, Safe, an inconsistent film that doesn’t disappoint because it never really clamors to be anything more than entertaining.

Statham plays some guy named Luke Wright, an honest ex-cop turned washed-up MMA fighter, but that doesn’t matter because Statham never plays characters—Statham only ever plays Statham. Costumes are surplus to Jason Statham’s ass-kicking as he has emerged as the last action hero in the age of the superhero film. Yakin is aware of his star’s potential and casts him in a narrative that harkens back to the gritty NYC corruption-themed movies of the 1970s, when rival mob bosses, government officials and the police were all one in the same.

The script pushes Statham to Charles Bronson territory after Luke loses his pregnant wife and will to live in a first act thick with Velveeta-grade exposition. The Russian mob and Statham’s corrupt former NYPD colleagues both want him dead, but prefer leaving him destitute, homeless, alone, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. And that’s where the kid comes in. Mei (Catherine Chan) is a scared 12-year-old mathematical genius from Beijing. She is brought to the United States by the Chinese mafia and is asked to memorize an intricate code of numbers that reveal access to a safe containing millions of dollars. Mei escapes has the Russian and Chinese mobs, along with the NYPD, hot on her trail. Fortunately, movie logic dictates that it won’t take her long to run into the pro-bono protection of the Jason Statham, one-man-army. Ass kicking ensues.

Veteran action editor Frederic Thoraval keeps to a fast, fluid pace, transitioning seamlessly between plotlines and locations, always keeping the viewer informed and giving the many threads in the story resounding clarity. Yakin’s direction is equally commendable, and compensates for the clunkier portions of his screenplay. He keeps the action close and the camera stable, opting for longer takes that emphasize the elaborately choreographed action sequences, and never especially stylizing the action. We can blame the stale dialogue and ludicrous storyline on genre conventions, that’s fine: Safe might not be the type of film that is remembered twenty years (or months) from now, but that’s what’s so satisfying about watching it. It’s another entertaining chapter in the impressively anachronistic career that Jason Statham has been able to carve out for himself. Yakin gives Safe a retro New York City feel because the movie couldn’t have been made today with anyone other than Statham.

03/28/12 4:00am

Turn Me On, Dammit!
Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen

It’s hard to manage an audience’s expectations when you open a film with a 15-year-old girl getting caught masturbating by her mother. In the case of Turn Me On, Dammit!, a charming Norwegian import, the scene doesn’t shock as much as it sets an unrestrained tone to a disarmingly earnest film about teenage sexuality. The sequence recalls the opening of American Pie, the 1999 hit that ignited a generational revival of the coming-of-age sex comedy in the age of the Farrelly brothers. But whereas American Pie and its studio-produced kin went for raunchy laughs, Turn Me On, Dammit! goes one step further in dealing with a teenage sex drive: it takes it seriously.

Alma (Helene Bergsholm) lives in a sleepy, rural Norwegian town with her single mother (Henriette Steenstrup). She is overwhelmed by her nascent sex drive, a feeling she’s fully aware of but unable to understand or discretely control. For Alma, sex exists mainly in the realm of fantasy: the film is peppered with inventive fantasy sequences that have slight tinges of Belle de Jour, with Buñuel’s surrealist edge replaced by playful, youthful exuberance.

Alma is caught off-guard during a party when her crush, Artur (Matias Myren), inexplicably pokes her thigh with his penis. It’s a silly, ridiculous action that never comes across as even remotely sexual. A perplexed Alma decides to tells her friends about the awkward encounter, only to become a social outcast when Artur denies it. Word spreads of what happened. Now her reputation is shattered and the entire town knows her as “Dick Alma.”

The film makes a wise choice by focusing on the mother-daughter relationship rather than some sort of ritual prom-sex consummation. Despite its strictly sexual surface, the film’s core is purely emotional as we follow Alma’s attempts to overcome her own insecurities. Best of all is the film’s unapologetic approach to sex: “Because I’m horny!” Alma yells back at her mother after being confronted with expensive charges from a phone-sex line. Bergsholm’s endearing performance as Alma is complemented by a strong supporting, including Sara (Malin Bjorhovde), a friend who longs to leave Norway for Texas in order to repeal capital punishment; Alma also forms an irreverent long-distance friendship with a phone-sex operator, whom she seeks out for fatherly advice.

There are few subjects as incendiary in cinema as a teenage girl’s sexual awakening. Attempts to depict it can veer to melodrama as easily as sexploitation, but with the notable exception of 2010’s delightfully subversive Easy A, there are few films that can tackle the subject without over-relying on nervous laughs or gratuitous sex. The brazen honesty of Turn Me On, Dammit! sets it apart as a refreshingly confident film, giving the teenage sex comedy a much warranted human dimension.

Opens March 30

02/23/12 4:00am

Directed by David Wain

All of David Wain’s movies work best when they don’t have to take themselves too seriously. Wet Hot American Summer, the sketch comedy veteran’s inspired feature film debut, benefited from this freedom and went on to gain a cult success that the filmmaker hasn’t been able to replicate since. Unfortunately, Wanderlust, his latest effort, only achieves glimpses of that brilliance before coming up short.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as George and Linda, a Manhattan couple who escape the big city after losing their jobs and West Village apartment. On their way to Atlanta, they happen upon a bed and breakfast in rural Georgia. The couple soon discovers they are lodging in a commune owned by an aging hippie (Alan Alda) and led by Seth (Justin Theroux), a vegan/pacifist version of John Hawkes’s character in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The couple decide to give commune living a shot, but it’s not long before it splits them apart. Realizing his mistakes, George decides to go back to the commune to win back Linda, in the process making amends with the eclectic residents.

Wain works frequently with longtime collaborators from his old comedy groups —alums of MTV’s show The State make frequent scene-stealing appearances—and has found a leading man in Paul Rudd, who has starred in all his films. Yet despite all the familiar faces in Wanderlust, it’s the inclusion of Aniston which makes the film stand out. The Friends star’s comedy background couldn’t be further removed from Wain’s brand of absurdist humor. It is almost surreal having this generation’s queen of the primetime sitcom share the screen with Ken Marino, a man best known for immortalizing the phrase, “I want to dip my balls in it!” Aniston has worked outside her comfort zone before, delivering dependably mediocre performances in good offbeat comedies (Office Space), bad offbeat comedies (Horrible Bosses) and train wrecks that will seem like offbeat comedies twenty years from now (Rumor Has It). Her range is mostly limited to making funny faces while white comedians (Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey—she’s worked with all of them) tell jokes and try to win back her affection.

The actress should be credited, however, for holding her own in this film being overshadowed in nearly every scene. That she can is due in large part to Wanderlust‘s earnest attempt to be, against all odds, as conventional a comedy as it can. The character development seems imposed, and the same goes for the comedy. At worst, the film leaves the forced, bitter aftertaste of an Ace Ventura sequel with a cast trying to gesticulate their way to a punchline that is hardly there and rarely funny. The film shows the most promise when it reunites the director with his former Stella colleagues as local television news anchors. Those brief scenes are a cruel tease, confining the talent of the comedy trio to an ephemeral taste of what could have been a better movie.

Wanderlust is a sharp departure for Wain and his cast. His previous film, Role Models, had already showed signs of a transition to a broader, more conventional style of studio comedy. The change in tone comes as a shock to fans who had relied on he and his collaborators’ satirical pedigree. One of the reasons why The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer felt so fresh and worked so well was because they knew exactly how to exploit conventions for an audience that equally embraced the esoteric and sophomoric aspects of the comedy. As it turns out, Wain’s films are much less entertaining when he is employing the same conventions he is so adept at satirizing.

Opens February 24

02/15/12 4:00am

Jess + Moss
Directed by Clay Jeter

Family-financed films like Jess + Moss, Clay Jeter’s mercurial feature debut, rarely premiere in Sundance and Berlin without merit. Following a strong festival run, the film is making its way to a spattering of commercial screens willing to take a chance on a film with a limited potential to find an audience. Not that the film owes its limited appeal to a lack of quality—rather, it’s the Jeter’s commitment to a carefully crafted visual style that sets Jess + Moss” apart.

Jeter keeps the camera close to his subjects, Jess (Sarah Hagan), a lanky and awkward high school student, and her cousin, the much younger and emotionally wayward Moss (Austin Vickers). They are inseparable during a summer that extends its long, hot days into eternity. Their lives seem to revolve around each other, both of them having lost parental figures earlier in their childhood, as they walk around like orphans in an expansive rural setting bathed by sunshine. The narrative begins and ends there, as is more preoccupied with framing his characters in this setting than portraying any sort of story. It is perhaps the film’s strongest point: Jeter avoids the potential pitfalls of stale dialogue, or of having to rely on editing to craft a performance from two young actors who seem better at ease acting like themselves than delivering lines.

The director employs a careful attention to visual detail throughout the film, using extreme close-ups and wider shots of dilapidated interiors that, at their worst, reek of an overtly conscious use of mise-en-scene. The shots are too clear and the film’s pacing too consistent to label the film abstract. Instead, it is more reminiscent of Terrence Malick in the 70s. Passages in the film look like they’ve been taken out of the rural expanse from Badlands, and Jeter’s de-saturated exploration of interior space reminds one of similarly abandoned homes in Andre’ Tarkovsky’s Stalker. These are lofty comparisons for a filmmaker with only a handful of short films to his name, but nevertheless appropriate in a film that shows brief flashes of great potential.

There is little to walk away with when the film’s extra-lean 80-minute running time comes to a close. The scope of the film is too constrained by the filmmakers’ adherence to a “shoot first, write later” philosophy; Jess + Moss looks like a great film but never feels like one. But at best, it plays like an overture to what promises to be an exciting new talent.

Opens February 17 at the reRun Gastropub Theater

12/15/11 4:00am

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Directed by Guy Ritchie

The first installment of Warner Bros.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise featured black magic and a farting dog. Director Guy Ritchie sticks to the same formula in the somewhat more expensive-looking sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which offers little more than ludicrously speedy flashbacks and flashforwards through Sherlock Holmes’ step-by-step tutorials on beating people up.

Although the film’s posters might suggest otherwise, the real star of this franchise is its director. Following a string of disappointments, Ritchie’s career appears to be rejuvenated after he was able to turn a dormant property into a blockbuster that made several times the cumulative gross of all his previous films. Warner Bros.’s faith has paid off handsomely, and with the full resources of a major studio production at hand, Ritchie has made his brand of filmmaking into the core of the franchise. Few directors have been able to associate themselves so closely with similar projects—perhaps only Michael Bay’s Transformers films match the scope of what Ritchie accomplishes with this series: attract audiences to see a new twist on a familiar product through the promise of a branded, bombastic spectacle.

Despite the chummy chemistry between charismatic leads Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson, the only real reason to see Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel is to enjoy the grandeur of his carefully constructed visual style. The inventive camerawork might be surfeit, but it’s still dazzling in a film that works best when it juxtaposes a gray and dreary industrial backdrop with bareknuckle fights, loud gunshots and big explosions. The film’s centerpiece, a foot-chase in a forest where the heroes dodge an arsenal of heavy artillery, is worth the admission price alone.

The depiction of Holmes as a (highly) functioning alcoholic remains an absurd attempt to develop the character into a flawed-yet-lovable misanthrope. Nevertheless, in this age of Spider, Bat and Iron men, one has to appreciate the challenge of making a movie about a hero whose only power is being exceptionally perceptive. And although this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes more closely resembles Jason Bourne than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character, credit must go to Downey, perhaps the most charming actor in today’s cinema, whom carries the film through its slowest moments.

Ritchie’s films often suffer whenever they stray from frenetic action sequences, and this one is no exception. As in the last entry, Game of Shadows is hampered by a bloated, confusing plot that pushes the film’s running time past two hours. On the eve of Watson’s wedding, Sherlock becomes convinced that the nefarious Professor Moriarity (Jared Harris) is somehow at the center of a global conspiracy. Moriarty was introduced in the first film under an enigmatic cloak, as a sort of highly secretive underworld ringleader. That depiction is quickly and bizarrely dropped here, with the supposed “Napoleon of Crime” proving to be quite accessible during regular office hours at the university or at book signings across Europe. Holmes and Watson enlist the help of new supporting characters in their quest to stop Moriarty, including a mysterious gypsy played by Noomi Rapace and Sherlock’s eccentric brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry). Characters talk, things happen, but it never amounts to anything; the grand conspiracy’s reveal is something of a letdown since it comes in a scene where nothing blows up.

Opens December 16

09/28/11 4:00am

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
Directed by Eli Craig

The horror and comedy genres are difficult enough to master on their own. When combined, they depend on a perfect balance of tone and timing—an assignment that often proves too demanding, producing results overreliant on kitsch or, as in the case of Raimi’s Evil Dead series, slapstick gore. The formula was revitalized in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, where the splatter-fest took a backseat to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s budding bromance and banal bickering. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes the same winning recipe and reframes it within another conventional horror set-up: the hillbilly slasher.

Tucker (Alan Tudyck) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two lovable friends from rural West Virginia who set out on a fishing trip at their newly purchased “vacation home,” an unfortunate mess that looks like the abandoned remains of the Unabomber’s cabin. But the witless heroes’ world is turned upside down as a group of vacationing college students mistakes them for murderous rednecks.

A series of abrupt accidents a la Final Destination convinces the coeds that the unassuming duo is out for blood. At the center of the bloodshed is the beautiful Allison(Katrina Bowden), whom the group of college kids believe has been kidnapped by the nefarious hillbillies. Taking a cue from her role on 30 Rock, Bowden does a fantastic job looking irritatingly attractive—a cruel contrast to the movie’s unkempt protagonists.. In fact, the appeal of the film rests on the disparity between beer-swigging Tucker and Dale and a group of kids that look like they’ve been pulled out of an American Eagle catalogue.

This introduces an interesting parallel discussion: Would horror films be as fun if the people getting killed weren’t attractive douchebags? Would we shudder in nervous anticipation as a group of ugly teenagers is stalked in the midst of skinny-dipping make-out sessions? No. Slasher flicks work best when the characters getting sliced remind you more of the All-American quarterback who took your crush to prom. By turning the tables on our conception of the horror “victim,” Tucker and Dale gives us the sort of gratuitous, abject pleasure of high school bathroom gossip. Audiences who cheered for Lindsay Lohan as she humiliated the “Plastics” in Mean Girls will laugh uproariously as Tucker and Dale‘s frat boys and sorority girls dive into a wood chipper, set themselves on fire and shoot themselves in the face. Faced with a decision about how seriously it wants to take itself, the uncertain third act errs on the side of plot, but before the half-assed character development kicks in the film is good, old-natured, mean-spirited fun.

Opens September 30

03/16/11 4:00am

Nostalgia for the Light

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

In Nostalgia for the Light, the Chilean documentary auteur Patricio Guzmán travels to his country’s Atacama Desert to find the intersection between astronomy, archeology, geology, paleontology and history. Atacama is the driest desert on the planet, offering unparalleled access to the mysteries hidden both above and below. Today the locale is best known as the site of two radically different groups: the scientists who work to uncover the origins of the universe, and the widows and relatives of the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The former search for their answers in the sky, while the latter dig through the arid desert in an attempt to find the scattered remains of their loved ones. They are all there for the same reason: a near futile obsession with understanding a past that refuses to divulge its secrets.

Guzmán became one of the most important Latin American filmmakers after his epic three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1973-1979). The young Guzmán was able to finish his alarmingly and acutely passionate epic of Pinochet’s coup thanks to the help of Chris Marker. Guzmán‘s latest film forces another association to one of Marker’s Left Bank contemporaries, Alain Resnais. Like Resnais, Guzmán is drawn to the aftershocks when personal memory and world history collide—measured, in Nostalgia for the Light, in human suffering. From concentration camp survivors to the widows and relatives of those who didn’t make it out, Guzmán’s lens focuses on the scars of Chile’s recent past—a past he refuses to allow to fade into oblivion.

Guzmán doesn’t approach the dictatorship with the The Battle of Chile‘s youthful indignation . His direction is patient and contemplative, perhaps in response to incomprehensible trauma. Guzmán no longer tries to understand the “Why?” or “How?” of the dictatorship. Instead, through his portrayal of the survivors of Pinochet’s brutal legacy, we see that the real question in the director’s mind is “Who?” Guzmán’s film shows the faces and voices of those who live perpetually with the pain of the past. The moments of greatest impact do not stem from the interview subjects’ words, but from the moments of painful silence between.

Guzmán balances the vast, imposing Atacama Desert and the clear sky above it with an intimate, poetic voice-over narration as sophisticated as his compositions. The film is essentially a cinematic metaphor, linking and exploring its philosophical concerns in a lean ninety-minute running time. It’s not a documentary that reaches, or even pretends to reach, conclusions. Instead, it’s a film that explores and examines the remnants of the desert and the astral plane above it. Like the cosmos, Chile’s turbulent past might be something impossible to fully understand. It is, nevertheless, just as important to continue exploring.

Opens March 18 at IFC Center