Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games (Friday, March 30, 2012) (33)

Reviewing Gary Ross' The Hunger Games is a rather unenviable task. It's an incompetent mess of movie, where clarity of story is suffocated by lavish scenery and forced melodramatic pathos. Add to this the book by Suzanne Collins, on which the film is based, is a massive hit (mostly with girls and their moms) and those readers seem to love the movie (one of the biggest box office opening weekends in history). Nothing I can say here will mean anything to the people who deeply connect to the book and the movie, and it's just gonna come off as me "not getting it" or "being too serious". Whatever. The Hunger Games is a terrible movie and one of the best examples of how a bad script and a hack director can ruin an otherwise decent story.

The banal story in a nutshell finds the world in some sort of dystopian future (I think -- though it could be some alternate universe time -- it's not really clear) where after a civil war, the country is divided into districts with a central capitol city, called Capitol City (because iron-fisted dictators know no poetry). For reasons that are unclear (outside of the intro title cards) each year the districts have to give up two teenagers to fight to the death in a reality TV show competition called "The Hunger Games". After some period of time, and with no rules explicitly spelled out, there will be a single winner left standing who will get rich for their success.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is an older sister and hard working hero from District 12, which is in coal country (somewhere in the Appalachians, it seems) and is squalid and poor. She volunteers for the competition, when her sister's name is drawn out of a hat in the lottery. She's whisked away to Capitol City where she's trained by some former champions and taught a bit about how the games work. Apparently rich viewers can sponsor competitors and give them gifts in the middle of the game; there is gambling involved at some level as well, though how the players would benefit from beating the odds is totally unclear.

Midway through the film, the actual games themselves begin, pitting Katniss against 23 mostly anonymous competitors. She has to survive and outwit her rivals -- and remain a symbol of moral purity along the way.

Perhaps it's unfair of me to criticize Ross' direction, when many of the problems lie in the script (co-adapted by Collins, Ross and Billy Ray -- who has written some great stuff up to this point), which leaves out so many details, the only way to understand the movie is to cram with Wikipedia (or a female friend who has read to books) beforehand. There is so much suggested and not shown that the film really becomes a mere skeleton of what much be a richer tale. What we see on screen is an elliptical shorthand based on what one can only imagine as a rich trilogy of books. Ross doesn't really develop any characters -- not even Katniss -- but relies on one's love or hatred of them from the novels.

What is hinted at, but never really shown, is that Katniss is a perfect older sis and mother-figure constantly sacrificing herself for the greater good of her family. All we see is her performing a single selfless act (taking the place of her illfated sis) and scowling for the next 136 minutes. Lawrence's Katniss is almost totally unlovable and disconnected from any sense of naturalism. Why should I root for the nasty girl who seems to have a bad attitude and a bitter personality?

There's also a strange suggestion of a phantom love triangle that is presented, though not really shown either (I'm guessing it will play a bigger role in the remaining two movies), between Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is the other kid from District 12 to be selected for the Games, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), some boy who Katniss has a thing with back home... though that relationship is particularly abstract. Imagine Ingrid Berman (in Casablanca) trying to figure out if she wants to be with Bogey or Paul Henreid -- but then take Bogey off the screen, so it's only some weird, distant Rick who we really never know or see much of. It all falls apart.

The art of directing is much more than simply getting actors to speak their lines in a particular way (and in the case of this movie, that way is a bad, lifeless, emotionless way), but really comes in every camera angle and every cut. Taken for granted too frequently are the million decisions that go into every shot. This is not a film directed by Suzanne Collins (though she probably gave some help as to her vision) -- this is a film brought from the flat page to the visual screen by Gary Ross.

What we get is a pastiche of three styles of design, mostly art-deco (which is really 1920s futurism), with some '60s futurism (reminiscent of Truffaut's Farenheit 451) and then some '90s futurism (reminiscent of Besson's The Fifth Element). It's a lot of hodge-podge that doesn't seem to have any thematic correlations. It would be interesting if Ross could connect, say, the provinces being stuck in the '60s, while the capitol was in the '90s, but the style seems to change from moment to moment within any given location.

But then, when he gets a handful of opportunities to make a strong visual punctuation, Ross blows his chances. In the lead-in to the start of the Games, we see the district teams being interviewed by the emcee (played by Stanley Tucci with a lot of colorful hair, who is clearly a futuristic Ryan Seacrest), and Katniss blandly says that she can make her dress look like it's on fire (I guess she's known in the book as "the girl on fire," or something). So we see a close up of JenLaw's face, then a close up of the hem of her gown, then some fire on the hem, then she spins in a circle - but we can't really see much of anything because we're locked in a close up.

Ross is all too interested in close ups and, during the Games, handheld shots, making the movie almost impossible to understand. Everything bounces and shakes, faces are in the frame and then out, in focus and then out. It all feels very much like a bad home movie, more than a gigantic Hollywood blockbuster. Boxing in movies works in close up because there are only two men, they're standing and the topography of the ring is simple; wrestling on the ground in the woods is impossible to figure out in close up.

Back to the narrative, this is essentially a fun story, if mostly recycled. This is basically an update of Stephen King's (well, Richard Bachman's) "The Running Man" -- but girl-centric. But just because the girl is the lead, does not make it a feminist slanted story either (and no, I don't see Collins or Ross as suggesting a genre-twisting high camp feminist dialectic here). Katniss falls into the same dumb male-centric traps and tropes of heroines for generations. She's actively forced into a mother role (both in the glimpse of life before the Games and during the games), which she passively accepts, she's a femme fatale (at least she only agrees to not kill Peeta after castrating him metaphyically), she's unpredictable and sometimes irrational (in the context of her universe).

In this political area, the one thing that I was surprised by is the stark rightwing appeal of the story, the near-Randian, Objectivist qualities of it. You have a singular figure (she's so singular you really only get to know one or two other competitors to a much lesser degree, while the others are just bodies without subjectivity), who is put into a game where she can't rely on help from others, but has to do everything herself, rewriting her own metrics of self-interest as she goes along. Sounds like Howard Roark to me. This is the High Noon version of a survival story (a man alone), rather than the Rio Bravo version (man as part of a community). This is a conservative's wet dream, down to the embarrassment Katniss heaps on the central totalitarian government.

Again, not looking critically at the film as a document, but as mindless entertainment, this is a fun experience. The good guy (girl) wins and the bad guys lose. Yay! But as a film that has a specific point of view or exists as an artistic expression or presentation, it's ham-handed and laughable. Going into the film as a total rube, I can say I got almost nothing from it, aside from 'good triumphs over evil.' I don't think the burden of exploration and illumination should lay with me, but that it rests with the director and screenwriters. Here those people did a sub-mediocre job of basic storytelling and cinematic presentation.

Stars: .5 of 4

Monday, March 26, 2012

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Monday, March 26, 2012) (32)

It seems like most teen-angst-high-school-sucks movies come in two tones: one is a rather silly comedic one where adults look back on their time as teens and amplify silly traits of kids and adults; the other way is a bit darker and presents the story from the kids' point of view, resulting in kids talking, feeling and thinking like grown-ups. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen's Turn Me On, Dammit! is different from both of these styles as it seems to present the story from a teen girl's point of view, but in a frank, non-condescending way. Lead characater, Alma (Helene Bergsholm), is not biterly sarcastic like a Juno or a Mean Girl (because no girls talk or think like 30-year-old screenwriters), but is filled with self-doubt, fear and lots and lots of libido.

Set in a a tiny village in rural Norway, the story deals with a small event in Alma's life that turns into a major high school drama, as frequently happens with 15-year-olds. Alma is always incredibly horny and when she's not masturbating in her bedroom at night (loudly) she calls phone sex hot lines and masturbates on the kitchen floor (while the dog watches). One day at a party her crush, Artur (Matias Myren) pulls out his dick out of his pants in front of her and rubs it on her skirt. Not knowing how to react, she goes to the bathroom and masturbates again (of course!).

When she gets out she tells her two best friends, Sara and Ingrid (Malin Bjorhovde and Beate Stofring). Ingrid, a classic mean girl, is jealous of Alma because she's also in love with Artur (it's a really small village, so he's one of only a handful of boys) so she tells everyone that Alma said this and is lying. Immediately Alma becomes a social pariah and is desperate to regain her friends and her mid-level status... but kids are shits and irrationally mean.

There's a wonderful joy to the film that one rarely sees in movies (almost never in American fare). Alma is clearly awesome and her advanced sexuality feels natural (and deeply erotic). The film opens with a clever montage showing static shots of the village's highlights with voice-over by Alma listing what we see: mail boxes, a bus stop, a mountain, stupid sheep. This bitterness doesn't take over the story, like it does in Juno, but just gives a realistic frame for the story. Alma herself is upbeat and hopeful. Yes she's sarcastic and has an active fantasy life (sometimes shown in action, sometimes wonderfully presented in black and white stills), but she's totally normal and not smarter or more beautiful than anyone else there.

In this debut narrative feature, Jacobsen beautifully shows the world from Alma's point of view. Her emotions are frequently underlined by soundtrack cues -- it wouldn't be a melancholy though oddly optimistic Norwegian moment without a Kings of Convenience song or two. At other times we see Alma's fantasy life jump into her story momentarily confusing us (and her) as to what is real and what is a dream. It's totally fun, interesting and compassionate to Alma, who is a totally awesome but normal teenage girl with a very active imagination.

There's something so refreshing about seeing naturalism on screen that's happy and unembellished. This is a movie that does exactly that. Life goes from normal to chaos to normal, much like any one of a hundred days in a teen's life, or in anyone's life, really. Despite the fact that this setback hurts Alma deeply for a period of time, even she can see that it's a small thing in the long run.

Stars: 3 of 4

Turn Me On, Dammit! opens in New York City on March 30 and in Los Angeles on April13.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Free Men (Thursday, March 22, 2012) (31)

Free Men, co-written by Ismael Ferroukhi and Alain-Michel Blanc and directed by Ferroukhi, deals with a hidden-in-recent-history moment of World War II-era Paris when North African Muslims helped and fought along with the Resistance. Most interestingly, the story is presented in a very human and naturalistic style -- similar to preWWII-era French cinema (think something like Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange or Carné's Port of Shadows).

As the film opens, Paris has already fallen to the Nazis and we see the familiar tapestry of policemen, with SS and Vichy officers elbowing to get power. In a mosque in Paris, the imam, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michel Lonsdale), has a mini empire where he leads his faithful, but also protects several Jews, many of whom also come from Algeria and Morocco. Into this garden comes Younes (the fabulous Tahar Rahim), a petty criminal and black marketeer who is looking to get away from the heat of police after a few sloppy jobs. He falls in love with the people in this corner of Paris, particularly a singer of Arabic ballads (who happens to be Jewish) and a woman, Leila (Lubna Azabal), who happens to be a communist agitator.

This is not a fancy movie with elaborate formal qualities or complicated plot twists. It is a nice and straightforward film about a moment in time, where the history of Nazis and Vichy bureaucrats, Germans and French, Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Whites, French and North Africans came into direct contact. It has the loving, humanist tenor of a Renoir work, deeply believing in the goodness of people to fix bad situations through working together. This is a clever decision. It's not a flashy action flick, which it could have been, but is a more gentle, elegant story.

Rahim, who formally lead A Prophet, Audiard's masterpiece from 2010, is fantastic here again. He's confident without being arrogant, young but not immature. He's such a joy to see on screen, brightening up any shot with his movie-star magnetism. Lonsdale is, of course, great -- just as he's been for the past 40-some years. Azabel, who has a few more pictures coming up soon, is intelligent and beautiful -- an interesting Arab answer to Betty Bacall or Ingrid Bergman (though she's more like Bacall in To Have and Have Not here than Bergman in Casablanca).

I'm surprised we're not taught more about the role of North Africans in the Resistance movement in history class. This film is illuminating, but also warm and well made.

Stars: 3 of 4

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gerhard Richter - Painting (Sunday, March 18, 2012) (30)

It's possible that Gerhard Richter's color-field abstract painting are the best example of the physical work that goes into the creation of art, the formalism of a canvas. In her new documentary, Gerhard Richter - Painting, Corinna Belz, shoots the German post-modernist in his studios and in museums and galleries where he fights with the paint and the canvases to create his work.

As a process documentary, this is absolutely amazing. We see how Richter takes a blank white canvas and adds big swaths of color, seemingly at random, then takes Plexiglas trowels of different lengths to smudge the paint. He then covers over one layer with another, then scrapes again to reveal the hidden and random color fields beneath. Finally he applies paint directly to the edges of these massive knives and goes over the surfaces another time, removing and adding color at the same time.

It is never clear to us when he is done with a work or at what state he is in. At one point an assistant jokes that it's better to not comment on anything because he'll take a positive remark as a sign that the picture is bad and will start over from the begging, thus wasting everyone's time.

We get small glimpses of his mindset and his approach to his pictures, but he remains particularly sphinx-like about what he does and how he knows when pictures are done (I guess he has to keep some secrets).

There is a wonderful small moment as he looks at old family snapshots and comments that he has no memory of the scenes or the people in them (his parents) and can't actually account for the surrounding areas, beyond the borders of the image. It's such a wonderful overintelectualized and particularly East German view of the world. A fetishization of the banal and bleak. Still, it offers an interesting prism through which to see his work. He makes pictures that we can see, concentrating on composition and relationships of shapes and color. Any other content for him is noise and irrelevant.

The best moments in the film come when the canvases he works on fill up the entire screen and we see him moving across it scraping with his Plexi-ledge. Frustratingly, Belz includes moments of his representational pictures that seem to confuse the story and become noise for us. Still, this is an excellent example of some of the best moments in the recent trend in artistic process docs (there have been dozens, including recent ones on Louise Bourgeois and Richard Serra).

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Natural Selection (Saturday, March 17, 2012) (29)

There is a single brilliant shot in Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection and it comes in the first minute of the film. We see the grass collection bag for industrial lawn mower slowly open and a man emerge gradually, fall on the ground and then raise up to his feet. There is some suggestion that this is some sort of birth, or a rebirth, but that's the end of the symbolic or thematic interest in the movie. Sadly, this one shot is the last interesting element of the film, and it devolves into stupid and recycled, unbelievable garbage after.

Writing a punchy short movie is a much harder skill than one might think, and Pickering does a terrible job with his script. It's packed with tons of excess shit that leads nowhere and comes off mostly as cloyingly cutesy or strangely judgmental (that is, LA people judging the middle part of the country).

Linda (Rachel Harris) is a middle-aged woman married to a bible thumping middle aged man. She is unable to have a baby, so they decide that, following the story of Onan in the Book of Genesis, they won't have sex -- because sex not for the purpose of reproduction is sinful. Regardless of this, Linda wakes up and tried to have sex with her husband... even though the answer has been 'no' for twenty-some years no. Dumb.

But then he has a sudden heart attack in the office of his sperm bank (the definition of "spilling his seed") and Linda has to deal with the reality of their marriage being based on lies of celibacy and his seemingly imminent death after his emergency.

To help her get in contact with her feelings, she searches out one of the children he fathered through the bank. She tracks him down in a terrible drug-addled state and convinces him to go back to visit his father in the hospital by his deathbed. He's all too willing to go along as he's trying to get out of town before he's arrested for escaping jail (see: the man escaping jail by hiding inside a lawnmower bag in the first scene).

This story is the definition of "convoluted". The plot weaves around and back on itself more times that we can count and every decision each character makes has no basis in natural life, but is forced by a clumsy writer (deus-ex-lawnmower-bag).

Harris is pretty good in the role, but I can't help but feel that she's cynically laughing at her character rather than playing her with any sort of respect. (She might say she's respectful of the character, but she seems to overdo it frequently enough that it comes off as a bit mean.) When the story goes from exaggerated to ridiculous (in the last 20 minutes), she all but vanishes, as the silliness of the narrative distracts from any sympathetic moments she might act.

This movie represents to me all that is wrong with the non-studio Hollywood. It's absolutely respectable that this movie was made for almost no money and was written and directed by a newcomer with only one semi-star attached to it. But it's ridiculous that it was even made in the first place. It's an absurd story that has a rather condescending tone (I think Pickering is from the South where the story is set) that shows foolish religious people to be foolish because of their religion. Hollywood liberals indeed. This is a dull and stupid movie that should be mocked rather than appreciated.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Friday, March 16, 2012) (28)

I have a very strange relationship with the films of the Jay and Mark Duplass. I find their movies really interesting and impressively made, especially considering their low budgets, but I find myself always a bit disappointed with the final products.

Their films are almost entirely made from their own original scripts and I think that is where the problems are. They write very weird scripts with strange forced moments and uncomfortable changes from slow to face pacing. They also have no idea how to end their movies, frequently going with an idea that doesn't totally work.

Their latest film, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is another example of a movie that is interesting because it almost works, but ultimately falls apart when the pieces don't connected well.

The eponymous Jeff (Jason Segal) lives at home with his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) in Baton Rouge. One day he gets a wrong-number phone call that convinces him to believe that there is a meaning to his otherwise ordinary, empty day. When Sharon (who is dealing with a secret admirer at work) sends him on an errand he gets sidetracked following up on the trail of the wrong-number.

He then bumps into his brother Pat (Ed Helms) who is dealing with a midlife crisis and the dissolution of his marriage to his wife Linda (Judy Greer). The two brothers go on an odyssey through south-eastern Louisiana looking for meaning in their boring, shity lives.

The biggest problem with the film is that it has way too much plot packed into a tiny shell. There is barely any room to breathe and almost no space to develop any emotions, as audience members, aside from what is clearly presented to us. It is clear who is good and who is bad, what forces are working with and against the characters -- but there is no ability to have any deeper connections to characters or their actions. What's that old chestnut about "comedy is tragedy plus time"? Well, here's it's really "comedy is tragedy plus no distance." Considering the central story is about Jeff and his weird Bloom-like day, strangely proving a fatalism in the midst of gonzo neorealism, we don't really need the side stories about Pat and Linda or Sharon.

I still have a sweet spot in my heart for the Duplasses, but desperately wish they could work on a film with another writer's script. I feel their intimacy with their process gets in their way and they can't see the shortcomings of their stories. This is probably a generally average example of their work (a far cry from The Puffy Chair or Baghead -- their two mumblecore features), but not entirely bad.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Tuesday, March 14, 2012) (27)

David Gelb's film Jiro Dreams of Sushi has one of the move evocative names in recent memory. The documentary opens with the eponymous sushi chef talking about his dreams and then we see some of his creations, in a dreamlike slow motion, in wide angle. This film is a dreamscape of rice and fish.

It's a documentary about an 85-year-old three-star Michelin sushi chef in Tokyo who practices his craft in a way that has largely disappeared in our contemporary world, particularly the celebrity chef culture, where fame pushes some to change menus, make concessions on quality or rarely work as one manages one's empire of restaurants, books and TV shows. Jiro is not that chef.

The film looks at lots of different aspects of his restaurant and his view of the world, inasmuch as it relates to his 10-seat sushi restaurant. His main deputy is is eldest son Yoshikazu, who has worked by his side for a few decades now. He is clearly another great sushi chef, but the bar his father has set is so high, he might never be properly respected for his talent. We see how the son goes to the fish market to buy the best product, how they have special relationships with all the vendors, how they have a special kind of rice they serve that has to be prepared a special way. We see how they have a long line of apprentices who work for 10 years under Jiro's (and, to a lesser degree, Yoshikazu's) tutelage, learning the perfect way to slice fish, or massage octopus (40-50 minutes rather than 30 minutes, you naifs!).

Gelb embraced the minimalist beauty of the sushi gestalt by using several Philip Glass works for the score. The only problem with this is that it then begs a lopsided comparison with Morris' The Thin Blue Line and Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, both of which used original Glass music. Gelb really can't hold a candle to those masters. And here is where the film stops being a revelation and starts being a regurgitation of styles that the director picked up in film class.

Yes, sushi-making is beautiful and Japan has this amazing culture that appreciates craft and slowness and beauty in the midst of urban chaos, but do we really need every shot to be some camera trick or gimmick? Every set-up is at a funny diagonal, there's a ton of slow motion, a lot of wide angles, a lot of double-exposed images bleeding from one thing to another. It's all a bit too complex for such a simple work.

I get that Jiro probably has more in common with a dancer than with a typical chef, but I wish things were just a bit simpler and less stylized.

One interesting moment, when Yoshikazu goes to the fish market and to an auction for tuna (which, by now, has been shown on American TV dozens of times already) we see that the auctioneers in this market have an amazing sing-songy, playful cadence to their calling, less rednecked than American-style livestock auctions and more ethnic music. Sadly, Gelb buries these songs in a pit of recycled symphonic music, so we can't even appreciate what we're seeing and hearing. It would be like he's cooking fatty tuna. Totally unnecessary and borderline reckless.

The film generally loses it's way by trying to turn what should be a tight little short (35 minutes would suffice) into a feature. At one point we follow Jiro to his home town where he visits with some elementary school classmates. This is totally off-topic, especially because Jiro has been, heretofore, very reticent about his family history. This is just a bit too much.

Gelb makes a nice movie, but I would recommend he take some advice from great sushi masters like Jiro and concentrate more on the taste and quality of his dish and less on the volume and quantity of it. Using mostly borrowed, complex style doesn't help the film, and a lot less here would have been much more.

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Friends with Kids (Saturday, March 10, 2012) (26)

The fundamental flaw with Jennifer Westfeldt's Friends with Kids is that it serves no audience, or, rather, it serves an audience who doesn't totally get the jokes its making. In her directoral debut (after writing the 2001 indie comedy Kissing Jessica Stein), Westfeldt presents a film that is really meant for an audience of single, middle-30s, cosmopolitan white people who don't have kids and hate people who do -- those people are known as New Yorkers (everywhere else people get married by 28).

The problem is that the film gets New York so incredibly wrong and is so banal in its judgments that it would only appeal to people who don't live here... or who pay rent here and think 59th Street is waaaaay too far south for them. Westfeldt (who also wrote the script) adds to this a lot of foul-mouthed dialogue to show that this is a young-hearted movie that might upset your parents, about which you can talk with your girlfriends (Carrie, Miranda, Samantha) at brunch... because all young people talk about how they like "tight pussies" (how scandalous!).

Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are best friends who are both serial daters. They love playing around with the hot people they meet and like the freedom of being able to live in the same Riverside Drive rental building (on different floors). They're close with two couples, Ben (Jon Hamm, Westfeldt's own life partner) and Missy (Kristen Wiig, who is barely in the movie) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph, who's working way too much these days) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd, thankfully playing an American). Both couples have babies (or will be having them soon) and are totally boring and square and live in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (which is a $77 cab ride away from somewhere in Manhattan... which is impossible and stupid).

Julie and Jason decide to have a baby together as friends and raise the kid together, but not get married and continue to date other people... because, well, it's never really clear. They have a baby and all is great. Jason meets a Broadway chorus girl (played by Megan Fox, one of our greatest actresses) and Julie meets a contractor and divorced dad (played by Edward Burns, who will always just be a contractor in our eyes). Things get a bit dicey, however, when Julie starts to fall for Jason (didn't see that coming!) and he doesn't see her in the same way.

It's all so boring and stupid, so banal and recycled. There's never any chance that they'll do something unexpected. They break up, they get back together... big whoop! I've seen it all before (in When Harry Met Sally, if not in It Happened One Night or any number of screwball comedies from the pre-war era). Westfeldt trades originality and surprise for style... but that style is predicated on the false idea that just saying "fuck" makes something edgy and "realistic". It doesn't -- it makes it garbage that I could have read about on dozens of mommy blogs and Glamour Magazine ("Hello, Vagina, Are You Alive Down There?").

This is a weird pastiche of romantic comedy, screwball comedy and gross-out comedy, but is not really all that romantic, screwball or gross. It's so incredibly safe that it's totally uninteresting. ("Oh! There's that scene when they're all at a ski lodge and Scott and Fox are fucking really loudly -- that's just like when I went skiing with all my friends and there was that couple who fucked so loudly! It's funny because it's true!" Vomit.)

To be unfairly picky, I have to also say that Westfeldt's characterization of New York City living (Manhattan and South Brooklyn) is so completely off it's embarrassing. One unfunny set-up requires Julie to buzz a date into her building... but she lives in a doorman building that wouldn't have a buzzer... because it has doormen. In another scene, Fox talks about how she does eight performances a week in her Broadway show, "and has to be ready to go out of town for other work at a moment's notice." But why? You're on Broadway! Might you have to go out of town to perform in a road company in St. Louis? I'm not sure when the last time Westfeldt lived in New York was, but all the detail feels very stupid, fake and forced.

This desperate movie has the gauzy characteristics of an old-timey comedy, but made in this very contemporary, cynical voice that relies mostly on dirty words to convey naturalism. That style doesn't really change the fact that it's a dull movie with a bunch of painful jokes that are only funny if don't really know why you're laughing. This has a terrible script and is directed equally hamhandedly. There is no subtlety to this film. That wouldn't sell well on the check-out aisle and you might miss the joke or not know exactly when to laugh. How dumb.

Stars: .5 of 4

Friday, March 9, 2012

Footnote (Friday, March 9, 2012) (25)

Joseph Cedar's Footnote was Israel's entry into the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race this year - and it is a very good film, well worth watching. It has a very dark and cerebral tone that generally has the comic feeling of Jonze's Being John Malkovich -- a bit of a latter-day screw-ball with lots of bleakness.

Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) and Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) Shkolnik, are two leading Talmudic professors in Jerusalem. Father, Eliezer, a broken man filled with almost no love left inside, has spent his entire life researching variations in versions of the Talmud, only to blocked by his main academic rival. His greatest accomplishment is being referenced in a footnote by his mentor. Uriel, his son, a joyful husband and father himself, has become a leading expert on Talmudic traditions, softer subject matter that the father resents. He seems to be a pushover in life and in his family, but a very good man.

One day Eliezer is surprised to get a phone call that he won the most prestigious national prize for scientific research, after he tried for dozens of years, but always came up blank. He seems like a changed man all of a sudden, finding some joy in his accomplishment. The next day, however, Uriel is called to the prize committee's office where they tell him that he was supposed to win rather than his father and that his father got the phone call by mistake (they're both Professor Shkolnik, after all). He now has to figure out a way of convincing the committee to give his father the prize despite internal academic political issues.

The film explores the intersections of truth and fiction, hard scientific research and fluffy social scientific observation. Both men would argue their work is hard research, but Cedar certainly suggests that there's some chest puffing involved in all academic work. There is also a very glib idea that all academic work really doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the real world -- that internal politics of any organization have as much to do with what gets out and its impact as the significance of the work has.

Cedar uses a very sarcastic style throughout, both in his script and in the formal presentation. When Uriel visits the committee in their offices to discuss the problem, there are seven people (he makes eight) in a tiny closet of a room. Whenever anyone wants to get in or leave, they have to rearrange the chairs in a funny bit of physical comedy. Cedar cleverly mixes wonderfully rich long takes (the first shot lasts for about 8 minutes) with elegant dutch angles and interesting lenses. At times there's a jokey score, at other times there is pure silence, as different characters struggle with internal hopes and fears.

There are also, sadly a handful of untied up elements that seem to lead nowhere, but also don't really act as MacGuffins (the big prize itself is a true MacGuffin). There's a bizarre suggestion that Eliezer has a former girlfriend who comes back (actually it's really not clear who this woman is... I'm just guessing that she's an ex) and Uriel struggles with his ne'er-do-well son who is happy to sit and watch TV rather than studying. These things really should have been cleaned up and cut out -- the film would have been a lot tighter without them.

This is a very funny and smart movie and a lot of fun to watch, with great acting throughout (because everyone really plays it straight and not over-the-top, which it really is). I'm happy it doesn't dwell on the rather tired trope of father-son relationships and deals more with the means of academia and the reality of "Truth" and acknowledgment as these are much more interesting ideas with more room for fresh comedy.

Stars: 3 of 4

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bellflower (2011) (Wednesday, March 8, 2012) (160)

I'm always a bit suspicious of movies that are hailed by the press for being made on a shoestring budgets because that's way too inside-baseball for me and says nothing about how good the film is -- and most of them are terrible. Such was the case when I first heard about and saw trailers for Evan Glodell's Bellflower. It was made for almost no money over the course of a long time while writer/director/producer/editor Glodell and his co-stars Jessie Wiseman and Tyler Dawson helped to scrape money together to get it made. Big freaking deal, I thought.

Then I saw the trailer, which looked like a silly Mad Max, post-apocalyptic story of cars and motorcycles with lots of fire, explosions and blood. Hmm -- doesn't look promising. Then I read a few synopses of the film: Two friends spend all their free time building flame-throwers and weapons of mass destruction in hopes that a global apocalypse will occur and clear the runway for their imaginary gang "Mother Medusa". Every single article or interview said the same thing (so did Netflix). So when I finally watched the movie, I was shocked to find that this summary has almost nothing to do with the actual film (which makes me think that most people who write about movies don't actually watch them but just borrow from press releases ... written by publicists who also don't watch movies).

The only elements that are correct is that it's a movie about two friends, they build a flame thrower and twice mention an imaginary gang called "Mother Medusa". But that's sorta like saying Casablanca is about a drunk American who hates Nazis more than his ex-girlfriend's husband. It really misses the whole point of the film.

Bellflower is named for the street in LA where Woodrow (Glodell) lives. He's a pretty normal hipster with unclear direction, hanging out at bars and building machine stuff with his best friend Aiden (Dawson). They moved to LA for no particular reason, but are a bit obsessed with Mad Max and other motor-themed apocalypse movies. They are trying to build a flame thrower, though it's not clear why, and they love tinkering with cars and motorcycles.

One night they meet Milly (Wiseman) at a bar along with her best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes... who might not be able to act but is totally gorgeous). Woodrow and Milly fall madly in love and go on a first date... to Texas. Something about Milly makes Woodrow a tough guy and he starts making crazy decisions and getting in brawls. After a few weeks together they stats to fall apart, and he catches her in bed with another dude, leading him to start sleeping with Courtney. All this time, Woodrow has fantasies about fast cars, blowing shit up and violently getting revenge on Milly.

This is a bit of a post-mumblecore movie (considering the budget and the amount of young people fucking and talking about relationships), with a bit of a fantasy twist. It's a pretty clever pastiche -- the exact kind of movie Woodrow and Aiden would make if they were shooting movies instead of building a flamethrower. Glodell's clever script turns from romantic drama to post-apocalyptic story, but only in Woodrow's mind. This is not an end-of-days story, as the synopses would have you believe, this is a story of love and loss and a dark fantasy that comes out of the contemporary world.

Yes, it was made for almost no money, but it looks great and has a very nice and relatable lost-Generation-Y narrative. It should be seen -- but not for the explosions and flame throwers or Camaros painted matte black (cool), but because it's a pretty good movie and well made.

Stars: 3 of 4

Blackthorn (2011) (Wednesday, March 8, 2012) (159)

Mateo Gil's film Blackthorn is an interesting re-imagining of the end of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid story. In it, Butch and Sundance don't die in the shootout in Bolivia depicted at the end of the George Roy Hill film, but survive and go off in other directions. We first meet James Blackthorn (Sam Shepard), an American horse rancher in the Bolivian wilderness. He is the man formerly known as Butch, now twenty-some years removed from his glory days. He has recently gotten word that Etta's son (by him or by Sundance... raindrops falling on my head and all...) is grown and living in San Francisco and decides to sell everything and move back to America to see him.

What transpires next is a classic Western story with a slightly more Bolivian twist. Blackthorn gets involved with a Spanish engineer who is working for a mining company that has gone under, but is still able to pay the gringo for saving his life. All things are not as they seem, as Blackthorn's own persona suggests, and we see in flashbacks the ultimate fates of Etta and Sundance, how Butch got to where he is today as well as clues to this engineer's story.

Screenwriter Miguel Barros does a clever job with the story here weaving together incidents from Butch's past to show why he does certain things in the present. Still, there is a bit too many flashbacks, leaving this film almost as much of a coda to the first film than a story in and of itself (the way The Color of Money has a story independent of The Hustler, for instance).

There are not enough words to describe how beautiful the cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia is and how it makes the natural world seem magical and supernatural. Yes, it's always easier to make gorgeous settings look amazing on film, but Anchia's use of lush colors and contrasting areas of light and dark, horizons and mountains, is still absolutely breathtaking. For long periods of the film Blackthorn and the engineer trek across a dessert salt flat, which transforms into an otherworldly snowy plane with an ominous blue-gray sky overhead. This all looks fabulous.

This is a good film, but I certainly wanted to like it more as there seems to be something missing spiritually or emotionally from it. Blackthorn seems like a bit too much of a straw man who is only background and past with almost nothing going on in the present. This generally works, because the back-story is so compelling and familiar, but it's not the most effective form of storytelling.

Sam Shepard is one of the most underrated actors ever, I feel (perhaps because of his achievements as a playwright), and he's wonderful here... I just feel like he does all he can with the rather weak role and still leaves us wanting more.

If nothing else, this film should be watched and enjoyed for the amazing photography; it's a shame the story can't be as good.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Blank City (2011) (Wednesday, March 8, 2012) (158)

There are few subjects I like more for documentaries than New York in earlier eras. In Blank City, French director Celine Danhier, looks at the downtown art scene, particularly the culture of filmmakers, in the East Village in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- one of the worst eras in the recent history of New York City.

Following on the heels of the experimental art filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Jonas Meekas, Jack Smith, Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow, a large group of drug- and alcohol-addled kids started shooting small movies with Super-8 cameras they borrowed, rented or stole. This is the same era and the same group of people who brought you bands like the Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones -- a very CBGB-based set who lived somewhere from Avenue C to Bowery and from Houston to 14th Street. The city was broke and dangerous and their films were weird and terrible and amazing.

Dozens of artists, actors and filmmakers from the era are interviewed with clips from many of their movies. Probably the most famous of those people are Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi and Deborah Harry. We see how the movement went from the so-called "No Wave" films, which were rather chaotic and improvised, frequently sexual and about the desolation that surrounded the filmmakers, to the "Cinema of Transgression" of Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch (don't worry - I don't know most of these people either), that was more hyper-political and in-your-face. We see how the movement died when the neighborhood started getting nicer again in the late '80s and some of the (better) directors (like Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman) moved on to bigger projects.

This is a really fun and interesting documentary about the very recent past that seems to have been buried as if it took place a century ago. There's a constant sense throughout that despite the fact that New York City was terrible in that era, it was also wonderful. As much as hipsters bitch about how nice and yuppified the city is now, even East Williamsburg is nicer than Alphabet City was then. We probably won't ever see another time when groups of artists could rent lofts to live in for $50 a month... and, sadly, we won't ever again see such an enormous and weird output of art

Stars: 3 of 4

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Last Days Here (Tuesday, March 6, 2012) (24)

The documentary Last Days Here opens with an old man sitting on a shity couch lighting a crack pipe. "Did you see where that rock of crack fell?" he asks as he searches beneath the cushions for a bit more drugs. This is Bobby Liebling, the once and future lead man for the heavy metal band Pentagram -- the best hard rock band you've never heard of.

The film follows Liebling and his friend, manager and number-one fan Sean 'Pellet' Pelletier, who discovered the band several years ago and has been trying to get Bobby to make a new record or go on tour ever since. Bobby is a life-long drug addict (heroin, meth, crack ... you name it) and has some significant clinical paranoia (or something) that makes him think his skin is infected... which leads him to pick at it until he draws blood. He's also one of the great American heavy metal artists, bridging the space between Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols, as one person in the film put it.

Not only do we see the history of Pentagram - a band from suburban Washington, D.C. who could have made it had Bobby been easier to deal with in the early '70s - but we also see how Bobby's life is today. In his mid-50s, he lives in the basement (or "sub-basement") of his parents' suburban row house and he basically does nothing with his time aside from sleep and do drugs. His parents seem aloof to his situation and his Jewish mother hopes he'll find a nice woman to help him out. Good luck with that.

But his life does appear to turn around for a moment, as he gets hospitalized and clean and then connects with a fan (a really hot young fan!) for whom he moves to Philadelphia to be near. But, as with most addicts and young girls who fall in love with sick old men, things fall apart and Bobby seems to be on the brink of death yet again.

There is always an element to a movie like this where you worry as a viewer that you are taking part in the exploitation of such a man. It's hard to avoid that fact that he is deeply sick and damaged and the "objective film crew" seems to do nothing to help him (though in this case, directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton do seem to help, inasmuch as Bobby does get help from Pellet and others). It's not easy to sit and watch a man slowly burn his wick almost to the end (several times).

Bobby is tremendously charismatic, even in his drugged haze -- a bit reminiscent of Lemmy from Motorhead (and his documentary from last year). He has a magnetic personality, and seems to be a master of performance, which is clearly part of the problem for him. One could blame his parents or his friends (Pellet, specifically) for letting him get so bad, but ultimately it's clearly a hard situation for them too (his parents seem to wash their hands of him, and of the movie at some point).

This is the most recent in a rash of heavy metal documentaries, including Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Until the Light Takes Us and Lemmy, and this is a solid one. It's fun to learn about the detailed history of something that nobody knows and Bobby's contemporary drug story is interesting and sometimes tragic, without being too cutesy or precious. I'm pretty sure I'll never buy a Pentagram record in my life, but I'm glad I know more about them now.

Stars: 3 of 4

An Encounter with Simone Weil (Tuesday, March 6, 2012) (23)

Simone Weil was a less-than-totally-well-known French philosopher active mostly during the period between the two world wars. A consummate humanist, she struggled with the nature and scale of human suffering and wrote volumes and volumes of journals about it. She began as a Marxist, concerned with the rights of workers in French factories and moved on to other post-Communist concerns about people suffering under totalitarian organizations of any scale.

Raised as a secular Jew in an intellectual family, she became interested in the spiritual and mystical side of Christianity, as a way of understanding pain, suffering and exaltation. Ultimately Weil died in London in 1943, while working for the Free French Government, largely as a result of a near-starvation regime meant to symbolize a connection between herself and the people of France (Occupied and Vichy), who were not eating well.

In her film, An Encounter with Simone Weil, director Julia Haslett presents a fascinating biodoc about Weil, but from a very personal, almost avante-garde point of view. Haslett explains early on that her father suffered with mental illness through his life and committed suicide when she was 17; her brother, an academic also concerned with the history of suffering of blacks in America, deals with his own depression and thoughts of suicide.

The film is not a standard biodoc, however, but rather is more of a personal diary or collection of thoughts by Haslett, mostly about Weil, but also about suffering of people in her family and others. She is as much the subject of her doc as is Weil.

As the film moves along, we see the very typical still scans of photographs of Weil as well as copies of her hand-written journals and essays; Haslett interviews some of her family members who are still alive in France as well as contemporary philosophers, academics and researchers who are using her writings for their work.

The most daring element, though, is that Haslett has an actress playing Weil, has her study her writings and then interviews her. This is the very literal encounter with Simone Weil. As she is doing it, Haslett speaks about how she doesn't know exactly what she is going to get out of it. It's a very bold and interesting device -- to see if through the craft of acting, one might be able to unlock doors into a deeper meaning of the text. As a thought experiment this is a rather brilliant tool; I'm not sure it finds any specific success, although I appreciate the effort.

There is a real beauty to the way the film acts a bit like Haslett's journal, as she's researching Weil, who kept journals herself. I like the way Haslett tells Weil's full biography and gives a picture of her soul, and subtly shows her own emotional biography, as it relates to her father and brother. It's cut together really elegantly.

This is a very interesting, well made film that does more than just tell the story of a relatively unknown thinker. It is clear that this is a very personal film, which might lead to how good it is, but it also clear that Haslett is a daring filmmaker, interested in film form and structure as much as in narrative history. I always appreciate any film that breaks rules and pushes boundaries -- and this one does it very well.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Exporting Raymond (2011) (Sunday, March 4, 2012) (157)

I should begin this by saying that in its entire 9-season run, I never watched an entire episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" because the moments I did see of it were much too broad and banal for my tastes. I know well that everyone in America loved the show and I recognize that I was wrong to not like it. This is something I'm willing to live with.

Exporting Raymond, written and directed by former ELR producer Phil Rosenthal, is a sweet documentary about the cultural differences that arise when Sony TV sells ELR to a Russian TV station for production there. Rosenthal goes to Moscow to work for several months with the producers and cast to reconceive the show and make it more appealing to Russian audiences.

Every silly cultural stereotype that you would expect comes up: The Russian actors are a bit too wooden and naturalist; there's a fancy Russian costume designer who wants to dress the cast in luxury brand stuff because that's what she wears; ex-Soviet systems seem to be in place despite two decades of "democracy". It's all a bit wrote and uninspiring.

My favorite part is a scene where Rosenthal goes to a Moscow modern art gallery where he is told that Russians are more concerned with aesthetics than they are with content. To illustrate this, the gallery director shows him an artwork relating to Brittany Spears and he makes a lost-in-translation comment about how great Brit Brit is. Of course, Rosenthal thinks Britney is the the worst thing ever. But I would say her act is to music what Ray Romano is to comedy -- about as low as you can go. Perhaps this is where the film loses me.

There was nothing particularly clever or original about Romano's show -- and that was precisely the point. It was stuff with mass appeal about the difficulty of living with parents, a wife and kids. "Seinfeld" with kids and less Jewish.

This is actually why this film should work for me: without any emotional connection to the base material, I should have no issues about the quality of the adaptation and just concentrate on the experience. But Rosenthal is such a nag and a boring guy that almost all the jokes fall flat or seem easy.

This is a nice film, but nothing special. Just about exactly how I would describe Everybody Loves Raymond.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, March 3, 2012

17 Girls (Saturday, March 3, 2012) (22)

The first think to know about Delphine and Muriel Coulin's film 17 Girls is that it's technically really great. Muriel worked for a time as an assistant camera tech on Kieslowski's French films and she knows how to shoot stuff and make it look really nice. The second thing to know about the film is that the lead actress, Louise Grinberg (OMG -- possibly a Jew?!!?), is one of the most gorgeous women ever on on the planet. The third thing to know about the film is that those first two things don't really matter, because it's such a silly story that it comes off as over-the-top and ridiculous, making it hard to relate to and a bit forgettable.

The film follows a clique of five girls who, when their leader, Camille (Grinberg), gets knocked up and then another girl seems to get knocked up, all decided they should all get pregnant and live in some later-day hippie commune, or something (apparently with no daddies around). Considering this group is so cool, other girls in the school also follow their lead and get pregnant.... until there are 17 of them.

Because it's French there is a commentary on post-War Modernist culture and the end of the industrial dream in former industrial coastal France (the film takes place in Lorient in Brittany). There's a lot of discussions with teachers and parents about how political an action this is (apparently it is loosely based on a story like this that happened in Glauchester, Mass a few years ago). The girls also discuss these things, though they seem to be grasping at straws more than any significant ontological and philosophical discussion.

There is a really nice mix of static and moving shots throughout the film. The last shot is particularly nostalgic and evocative as it tracks down a beach from the inland side of the dunes shooting people on the sand slightly out of focus. The story, however, is a rather silly and ties up in a cheap way.

The script is really the weakest part of the film -- which is saying a lot considering most of the girls are played by non-actors from the region. I think there's a nugget of a good idea here, but it doesn't develop in an interesting way. Either the third act should have been re-written or the whole thing should have been an existentialist short with an elliptical ending. What we get looks nice, but doesn't really feel like much.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, March 2, 2012

This is Not a Film (Friday, March 2, 2012) (21)

In December 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, one of the leaders of the Iranian New Wave, was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on making films, writing screenplays or doing interviews. He was accused of colluding with others to make propaganda detrimental to the Iranian regime after being arrested at the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman who became famous for being killed on camera during the 2009 Green Revolution.

In 2011, locked in his apartment awaiting a decision from the appeals court, Panahi, along with friend and documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, shot a near-documentary, near-diary piece about a day in his life. The clever title, This is Not a Film, refers to his court-ordered ban on making films, but also raises a semantic dilemma about what exactly this is that we are watching. It's not really a film in a traditional sense that there is a particular plot of story that is being worked through; it is not a documentary about anything in particular, because Panahi's actions on this day are rather banal and not particularly intersting (he could leave his house, he's not in jail yet; he is making a movie of some form).

At first Panahi reads the script that would have been his next film, were he allowed to make it. Much like the neorealist content of his other works, this one deals with a woman in college. He puts tape on the floor of his massive and seemingly rich apartment to delineate her bedroom and rearranges the furniture to suggest the setting. As he begins to read from the text (he jokes that there was no ban on reading a script, so he's not violating the ruling), he stops to talk about the art of directing and the small details of working with non-actors, as he does in most of his films. He pulls out DVDs of his past films to show what he means. He begins to break down, as he realizes he cannot do this again for the foreseeable future.

This non-film proceeds and gets into a meta-discussion between Panahi and Mirtahmasb about the nature of documentaries and representation. It leaves us wondering how much of this is scripted and how much is natural. It seems totally natural, though Panahi's wife and daughter are curiously absent for the 12 or so hours the cameras are rolling (apparently if they were home they would have to wear a chador to obey the law, however women in Iran do not wear chadors in their homes; as a way around this obvious violation of law or naturalness, Panahi sends his family out of the house for the day).

This is a very nice, very clever film that not only raises post-modern issues of representation and perceived reality, but also functions as a sly attack on the monstrosity of the Iranian regime. Smuggled out of the country on a USB drive, it's amazing to me that this wouldn't be a violation of Panahi's sentence -- although it might follow the letter of the ruling, it seems to violate it at every turn and stick a thumb in the eye of the authority.

As interesting as the film is, it does lose some steam by the end, with the last 15 minutes a return to every-day life. I'm sure this is just a view into the mundaneness of life, though it feels like it's unrelated to the rest of the film and doesn't totally have any point (we see Panahi talking to the brother of the super of his building as he takes out the garbage). As much as I like the philosophical discussions that proceed this, I find this curiously boring, waiting for some greater connection to something of significance.

This is definitely a good film and possibly an important one, but it feels more like collection of scattered thoughts more than an effective essay of any sort. It is a handful of video journal entries, almost all of which are fascinating, but don't totally hold together well, as stream of consciousness frequently is wont to do. I like how this fits into the sharp naturalness of Panahi's previous work, and I think in the long run it will act as an important milestone, it just feels a bit less cohesive than it should.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Boy (Friday, March 2, 2012) (20)

Boy is a film about a boy named Boy (James Rolleston). He lives in a Maori village in 1984 and says his biggest interest and biggest hero is Michael Jackson. He's the oldest of four brothers and sisters, his father is in jail and his mother died in childbirth several years before.

Boy has a rich and wonderful imagination, somewhat reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite (ugh), which is to say fantastical and exuberant, though a bit crappy and taped-together. Rather than believing his father is in jail, he has several other secret-agent, super-warrior-type ideas of where he is.

One day his father, Alamein (writer-director Taika Waititi) comes back to the home and picks up his light and moronic criminal activity that got him put in jail in the first place. Of course Boy is thrilled by his return and immediately his dad becomes his biggest hero (he imagines him in several Michael Jackson music videos). But his dad can't be trusted to do anything, let alone manage four kids. As Boy's hopes grow for the life they're embarking on, Alamein falters and everything seems to fall apart.

Formally this is a really fun and wonderful film. The magical realism of Boy's imagination is absolutely adorable and exciting to witness - and Waititi does an amazing job of blending different elements together. There are great small cuts to small and silly side things related to what Boy says, frequently they're animated in a naive, childish style on lined school paper. There are hilarious sequences with Boy imagining his father as Michael Jackson in the Billie Jean or Beat It videos.

This is also a rather small movie that works well and doesn't make anything too cute, which is always a risk with a film about kids. Rolleston does a great job and Waititi doesn't dwell too much on him being in peril or other cheap tricks used by lazy directors around children.

Cuteness can sometimes be cloying for some, of course. It has the bizarreness and gonzoness of The Flight of the Conchords, but a bit more soul than that. It's not a straight comedy, as there are more important family stuff in it, but it's also not a tear-jerking story of a dad trying to clean up his act for his kids. It's a nice, happy medium and works well.

Stars: 2.5 of 4