Friday, April 13, 2012

Review of "Bully"

In today's Philly Post, "Philadelphia" magazine's fine blog, I explore how "Bully's" message--which many consider important and galvanizing--is really smoke and mirrors. You can read the piece right here.

Just so we're clear: my disdain for the film does not mean that I endorse bullying.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of "American Reunion"

Dreadful. I'm now starting to view my love of the first two "American Pie" movies in the regretful, misguided way that a 35-year-old examines their freshman year in college, when they sported dreadlocks and described themselves as pansexual.

You can read the review, which appeared in "The Weekender," here.

P.S.: Hey, Christopher Guest, can you make any other mockumentary so Eugene Levy doesn't have to appear in "American Apocalypse" or another "American Pie" direct to video abomination that makes "Porky's" look like "Chariots of Fire"? Many thanks.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Happy Hunge Games!

Aside from the missing "R" in "Hunger Games" what strikes me is how the "M" in "American Reunion" is dangling for life, while the "U" in that title is uneven. The display looks exactly how a six-year-old would write those two words.

That's appropriate since that's the target audience for the latest entry in a once-promising franchise: Drunk, horny, six-year-olds.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Big Review: Damsels in Distress

I enjoy Whit Stillman's work, but man, even I had trouble with this.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Buried among the half-jokes and half-measures in Damsels in Distress, there is a good movie. I know Whit Stillman, returning to the director's chair after a 14-year hiatus, could have fashioned a sharp satire on sexual politics, college life, or young adult idealism. How I wish he had. Instead, he stiff-arms us with coyness and pummels us with eloquent, shallow observations: think Jerry Seinfeld if The New Yorker was his lone source material. You feel insulted, patronized. Mostly, you feel gypped—the movie feels woefully incomplete.

The action, such as it is, unfolds at the fictional, fancy-pants Seven Oaks College, where even the fraternity knobs wear shirts and ties. It looks like a swell place for aspiring politicians and future tax felons to graduate, but three well-dressed, attractive friends (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore) think otherwise. The student body is depressed; the sluggish male population smells terrible. The ladies do their part, advising troubled classmates at the suicide prevention center to tap dance and to find a "good-smelling environment." They assist Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a doe-eyed, willowy transfer student who probably gets enough help already.

Violet (Gerwig), who dresses like she's attending lunch with the Kennedys and talks like a 1930s etiquette book, is the clear ringleader. Violet is a dynamo until her lunkhead boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf, a daft delight), dumps her for a girl (Caitlin Fitzgerald) she saved from romantic despair. Violet leaves campus in the throes of a self-described "tailspin," but returns re-energized, but shaky. After all, who else is going to start an international dance craze or distribute bars of soap to the unwashed brutes?

When Violet returns, Stillman leaves earth. Damsels in Distress has oodles of potential. Clueless campus do-gooder faces a world defined by political correctness and caution? Sounds like a sharper, worldlier Legally Blonde. Stillman, who also wrote and produced, lets Gerwig act as if she's following Judy Garland's pill regimen. The movie crumbles into a series of asides that kind of, not really orbits around two unappealing things: Violet and the obnoxious sheltered lives of college students. Look how arrogant the editor (Zach Woods) of the school newspaper is. Isn't it ironic how agonized students jump from the second floor of a college building, which is too low to kill but just high enough to maim? Parents become so determined to brand their kids as "precocious" that the progeny—literally—never learn colors. Few of these observations are funny. And none connect to each other or to the movie as a whole, whatever (or wherever) that is.

Seeing Gerwig, terrific in Greenberg and in that pointless Arthur remake, get neglected is almost tortuous. At least she's not alone. Every character gets lost in Stillman's intellectual splatter art. If they're not the butt of a joke, a pointless, interminable subplot sweeps them away. The unlucky Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) is subjected to both. Lily pines for an attached, arty graduate student named Xavier (Hugo Becker). When Lily and Xavier finally get together, it's only for Stillman to espouse how religion (in this case, Caharism) can be twisted into what the follower wants it to be. Before hooking up with Xavier, she circles around "playboy-operator" Fred (Adam Brody), who's in "strategic development." But hold on, he's really Charlie, a permanent student, to whom Violet, that determined fixer-upper, takes a shine. Of course, Fred/Charlie serves a grater purpose. He offers an opinion on how homosexuality was more refined when it was forbidden. "Now," he says, "it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts."

Stillman's first two films (1990's Metropolitan and 1994's Barcelona) found him profiling the affluent intellectual sect in a simple, dryly humorous way. It was like reading an article about tap-dancing coal miners or some other unfamiliar but fascinating coterie. The Last Days of Disco (1998) was epic by comparison—Dancing on the NYC subway! Actors we actually recognize!— but it felt unwieldy and smug. About that movie, Michael J. Nelson wrote that Stillman was "satirizing a group of people recognizable to the eight people being satirized." With Damsels in Distress, Stillman is hopelessly absorbed in his own world, where every line is an inside joke, every character a font of sly wisdom. He's clearly enjoying himself. I doubt anyone else is. [PG-13]

The Film Round-Up, April 2012: Darling Companion, Free Men, Bully, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

A slate of mediocre films, headlined by "Bully," which is a shameless piece of emotional propaganda. I will be writing more about this soon--I promise. "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" was easily the highlight.

Also, two notes: "Bully" is now unrated; it was rated R when I filed this piece, and "Jeff" should have gotten four stars. Dissecting stars is a tricky business, sometimes.

As always, these reviews appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Darling Companion (Dir: Lawrence Kasdan). Starring: Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard. Keaton and Kline, those old, well-preserved pros, play a long-married couple whose strength gets tested when he loses her beloved dog in the High Rockies. This prompts a days-long search by their family and friends that allows for relationships to be born and renewed. Writer-director Kasdan (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) employs earnestness and folksy touches—Zurer as a psychic Gypsy, Shepard as a laconic sheriff who'd rather be fishing—and little else. Consequently, Darling Companion is pleasant and easygoing to the point of somnolence. (At the very least, show us the dog enduring the elements or have Kline and Keaton spar more.) Resembling the featureless middle of a larger narrative, the film never commits to offering an honest look at getting older. How that happens considering Kasdan's introspective resume and the talented cast qualifies as one of 2012's biggest movie mysteries. Even dog lovers may have a tough time sitting through this one: the lovable mutt is barely on screen. Jenkins, as usual, is terrific. [PG-13] **

Free Men (Dir: Ismaƫl Ferroukhi). Starring: Tahar Rahim, Mahmoud Shalaby, Michael Lonsdale, Lubna Azabal, Farid Larbi. Paris in 1942 is a tough place for an Algerian immigrant. The Nazis either eye you suspiciously or the French want to send you packing. Younes (Rahim, A Prophet) makes money selling black market items until he's arrested. The French authorities grant his freedom in exchange for spying on the Paris mosque. In this new assignment, he becomes friends with Jewish Algerian singer Salim Halali (Shalaby), which compels Younes to reconsider his motives. Soon, he comes clean to the mosque's crafty rector (Lonsdale) and inches closer toward becoming a freedom fighter. This "fictional story freely inspired by actual people and events" aspires to portray an everyday hero. A bland protagonist makes that impossible: Younes stumbles into his new mission, and we never buy his transformation into a fearless patriot. Historical significance cannot replace vitality. And Free Men, with its sluggish plot that doesn't twist as much as stroll amiably in a straight line, desperately needs an infusion. [NR] **

Bully (Dir: Lee Hirsch). Documentary covers the kids and parents affected by bullying over the 2009-10 school year. At the center of the film is Alex, a shy 12-year-old from Sioux City, IA, who is tormented by his peers daily. We also meet Oklahoman Kelby, a 16-year-old whose life has unraveled since she came out, and 14-year-old Ja'Meya, who was so fed up with being bullied that she pulled out a gun on the school bus. As for the adults, two sets of parents who lost children to bullying-related suicides struggle to raise awareness. Though dramatically compelling in spots, Bully feels like a PR campaign—there's even a URL listed at the end for "The Bully Project." No one endorses such ignorant acts, but, geez, let's get some perspective. Why do kids bully? Why, as evidenced by Alex's daft assistant principal, Kim Lockwood, are schools indifferent? The film's self-righteousness doesn't allow for a deeper understanding; it's too busy pounding its own drum. Hirsch uses good intentions as a shield. You can't hate Bully for fear of being dismissed as a locker-stuffing troglodyte. Bully doesn't inspire us; it badgers us into accepting its campaign. [R] ** Note: A petition is out to grant Bully a deserved PG-13 rating.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Dir: Mark and Jay Duplass). Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong. Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old slacker convinced that everything in the universe is connected, a theory he refines between bong hits and viewings of Signs. When his harried, widowed mother (Sarandon, her best role in years) sends him out to get glue, Jeff puts his life philosophy into practice. Eventually, Jeff encounters his older brother (Helms), who is at odds with his increasingly impatient wife (Greer). Then things get interesting. Smart, poignant character study benefits from the Duplass brothers' refusal to get cutesy or meta with the concept. A look at three lost souls who get a shot at redemption—if they can only recognize the signs—Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a rarity: an emotionally satisfying film that never panders. Helms is outstanding as the blowhard know-it-all who's too busy being right to see how wrong he is, and Segel settles into his role with beguiling ease. He shows us Jeff's sweet, accepting soul, never allowing the character to become a caricature. [R] ***1/2

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review of "The Hunger Games"

This review is late, but not really. "The Hunger Games" is still the number one movie in America, making more than "Wrath of the Titans" and "Mirror Mirror" combined. It ain't going anywhere, and "American Reunion" (next week's review) probably won't break the streak.

You can read my review, which appeared in "The Weekender," here. Before you do that, some observations:

1.) I went to the 11:30 a.m. show, and there was a noticeable buzz in the crowd. Very neat to see for such an early time.

2.) "The Weekender" gives me 550 words to write a review. To break down a cultural phenomenon like "The Hunger Games" with that word count was exhausting.

3.) After watching Jennifer Lawrence, I'm definitely watching "Winter's Bone." Long overdue rental.

4.) My old "Signal" pal, Leigh Belz, attended a screening in New York that was catered. Mine was, too--if you count the melty Fiber One bar I brought with me.