Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Film Round-Up June 2012: The Avengers, What to Expect.., Hysteria, and Where Do We Go Now?

A very eclectic Film Round-Up. For the first two weeks in May I was in New York for a full-time freelance job, which pretty much limited my availability to screenings. When things got back to normal--around May 10 or so--I had to scramble to find four films for ICON; I had seen Hysteria way back in March in preparation for Maggie Gyllenhaal interview.

So, I tried some PR contacts for screeners, but came up empty. That meant I had to frame the Round-Up as half "summer movie" preview and half "art house" stuff. I tell you, there's nothing sadder than watching garbage like What to Expect When You're Expecting on a bright Friday afternoon. 

Of course, this month I will have seen everything by this Wednesday, about two weeks before my deadline. C'est la vie.

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. 


The summer movie season is now in full swing, so let's review two of May's biggest releases before we get into more familiar territory.

What to Expect When You're Expecting (Dir: Kirk Jones). Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Chace Crawford, Chris Rock, Dennis Quaid, Brooklyn Decker, Matthew Morrison, Rodrigo Santoro, Ben Falcone. Exists thanks to brand recognition. Instead of an action figure or a board game, that omnipresent pregnancy guide becomes a platform for unpleasant, argumentative couples reenacting every half-funny anecdote about being knocked up. Santoro and Lopez's international adoption is beset by their employment and emotional challenges. Celebrity trainer Diaz and her TV dance partner/paramour (Morrison) find their egos interfering. Two young street chefs (Kendrick, Crawford) have their chemistry disrupted by a surprise announcement. And a rough nine months have baby expert Banks and her dentist husband (Falcone) envious of his competitive father (Quaid) and much younger, glamorously pregnant wife (Decker). The male characters are either emasculated or brow beaten; the female characters are either smarty-pants or hormone-imbalanced caricatures. All that, and vomit jokes! That's not the worst part. By eagerly referencing current trends—YouTube, Twitter, food trucks, tablets—What to Expect... shows that it only cares about connecting with the audience in the shallowest way possible. Forget about creating identifiable characters, funny lines, or any kind of lasting entertainment, how about a Facebook joke? This soulless romantic comedy will be irrelevant soon but terrible forever. * [PG-13]

The Avengers (Dir: Joss Whedon). Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cobie Smulders, Clark Gregg. There's a good reason why so many people have already seen this. When the evil Loki (Hiddleston) makes his way to Earth and takes off with the powerful, glowing Tesseract, global war is imminent. The international shadow agency S.H.I.E.L.D. responds by assembling a superhero task force that includes Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Johansson), The Hulk (Ruffalo), and Captain America (Evans). Whedon doesn't use the story as another post-September 11th commentary or rely solely on flashy special effects, which have reached the so-what? phase. He infuses sly humor into the plot—The Hulk, who's usually just a rage machine, becomes comic relief—and creates meaty conflicts between the characters. Iron Man's technological, me-first attitude and Captain America's classical approach to heroism leads to a clash; Loki's desire for world domination partially stems from his desire to outdo brother Thor (Hemsworth). Those little accents contribute to the best pure action blockbuster since 2009's Star Trek, an agenda-less, fun-filled summer romp that never deflates your brain. **** [PG-13]   

And now back to the fare to which you've grown accustomed:

Hysteria (Dir: Tanya Wexler). Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones. Practicing medicine is far from a scientific process in 1880s London, a condition that frustrates jobless young doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy). His fortune improves when he's hired to assist Dr. Dalrymple (Pryce) whose hands-on treatment of hysteria—more a catch-call for an array of ailments than a disorder—has women coming all over for a stimulating remedy. Mortimer's great success is threatened by his boss's feisty, independent-minded daughter (Gyllenhaal) and from severely cramped hands. The latter opens the door for a most pleasurable invention: the electric vibrator. Based on a true story, Wexler's cheeky effort benefits from spirited performances (Everett, as Mortimer's benefactor, is a hoot) and the decision to proceed as a romantic comedy, not as an overheated sex farce: Sex and Ye Old City. Slight, but smart and bouncy. Would have been better if Dancy and Gyllenhaal's rapport wasn't so tepid. (For more on the film, please read my profile of Gyllenhaal on page TK.) *** [R]

Where Do We Go Now? (Dir: Nadine Labaki) Starring: Nadine Labaki, Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Julien Farhat, Yvonne Maalouf, Layla Hakim. In a small desert village forgotten by time and visited far too frequently by death, Christians and Muslims co-exist—barely. Just the mention of an inter-faith conflict on the communal television could get tempers flaring. When the village church's cross is broken by accident, a feud brews, forcing the women to take creative measures in steering their men away from potentially fatal decisions. Labaki's award-winning effort employs musical numbers, sitcom-like goofiness (baked goods laced with hashish; Russian showgirls as distractions), and chest-pounding pathos. Its off-kilter approach and heartfelt, clear-eyed pleas for tolerance keep us involved, though it's with mixed results. Too often, the stylistic diversions feel like an attention-grabbing ploy, not part of Labaki's directorial vision. But you have to be a robot not to appreciate a film with this much heart. Believe it or not, Labaki's appealing ensemble consists mostly of amateurs. In Arabic and Russian, with English subtitles. *** [PG-13]  

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