Sunday, January 20, 2013

2 Days in New York (2012) ***½

It’s no surprise to see Chris Rock appearing in a comedy, but it was a pleasant surprise to see him demonstrate an ability to turn down the comic frenzy and turn up the heart for an adult comedy.  “2 Days in New York” showcases some of the best acting I have seen from Rock.  It was also my introduction to Julie Delpy as not just an actor but also a director, and she availed herself pretty well.
Rock and Delpy play Mingus and Marion, a couple living in New York.  Both have kids from previous marriages, and they have a good relationship, with a nice little blended family.  This system gets stress-tested when Marion’s father (Albert Delpy, Julie’s actual father) and sister Rose visit, along with Rose’s boyfriend Manu, who happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Marion.  Between Marion’s dad refusing to shower, Manu buying pot in front of the kids, and Rose walking around the apartment naked, the visit is a bit too much for Mingus.  Meanwhile, Marion is trying to host a gallery exhibition of her photographs.
“2 Days in New York” is truly a comedy for adults.  The French characters are hilarious in the way characters in a Woody Allen movie are, and Mingus and Marion’s relationship is very adult and honest.  The film is actually a sequel to “2 Days in Paris,” which I haven’t seen.
Lots of movies explore the “True love conquers all” theme.  “2 Days in New York” skillfully explores the question of whether true love can survive the greatest challenge of all, the extended family.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bernie (2011) ****

The latest creation from Richard Linklater, the writer/director behind “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” and “Before Sunrise,” is a bit less accessible than those films, but quite entertaining once you get used to it.
“Bernie” is based on the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, a Texas funeral director and pillar of the community who befriended a wealthy widow named Marjorie Nugent, became her companion and assistant, then murdered her.  When Tiede was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997, he was portrayed as a gigolo and embezzler who enjoyed expensive travel with Ms. Nugent and embezzled millions from her, presumably murdering her when he was caught.
“Bernie,” however, tells the story from Tiede’s point of view, presenting him as a sympathetic, Christian man who was fond of old people and befriended the mean-tempered Marjorie because she had no friends and was estranged from her family.  Early in their relationship, Bernie (Jack Black) brings Marjorie (played with zest by Shirley MacLaine) out of her shell, making her seem a decade younger.  As time goes on, however, Marjorie more and more turns her mean, demanding temper on Bernie, who feels trapped in the relationship.  One day, seemingly out of nowhere, Bernie reaches the breaking point and kills her.
It’s hard to know what really goes on between two people, and the bare facts of the Bernie Tiede story surely lend themselves to two different narratives, one in which Tiede is a cold-blooded con-artist and killer, and another in which he is a sympathetic soul whose life got taken over by a sociopath.  Linklater has stuck with the second narrative, and he does seem to have plenty of corroborating evidence.  “Bernie” is sprinkled with testimonials from Carthage, TX townspeople supporting the sympathetic portrayal of Bernie and the portrayal of Marjorie as a mean bitch.  Then, too, this article from the Telegraph, written by Marjorie Nugent’s nephew, Joe Rhodes, paints her as perhaps even worse than she looks in the film.

One possible angle to the story that does not get explored in the film is the question of why Marjorie and Bernie’s relationship turns so sour and abusive.  One possibility that occurs to me, based on Shirley MacLaine’s performance, is that Marjorie may have had early dementia.  Much of her behavior, such as the clinginess and increasingly irrational demands, would be typical of dementia, especially in someone who tends to be demanding and unforgiving by nature.  It’s sad to think so, not because it would have changed the ultimate outcome for Marjorie, but because it could have helped Bernie deal with her, had he understood what was going on.
Whatever the truth behind the case, and one suspects that it lies somewhere in between those two narratives, “Bernie” is a charming, if off-kilter black comedy.  MacLaine is perfection, and Jack Black manages to stay just this side of parody, lending his version of Bernie Tiede plenty of heart to balance out the grating Texas accent and mincing mannerisms.  Matthew McConaughey is delightfully unrecognizable as district attorney Danny Buck.  The Carthage townspeople, however, are the real stars of the film.  Ever since his first major project, “Slacker,” Richard Linklater has held a reputation for being able to find real-life “characters,” and that is fully on display in “Bernie.”  All the best lines come from the townsfolk.  Truth is stranger than fiction, and often funnier.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Town Called Panic (2009, French) ****

It is rare to see a movie that generates such unmitigated delight, and even rarer to find one that you can watch with your kid.  This French, animated movie is a great introduction for a kid into watching foreign films with subtitles, and it is fun for the whole family.
“A Town Called Panic” (Panique au Village) started as a Belgian tv series, with 5-minute animated shorts.  What we watched was their full-length feature, featuring the same characters, including Horse, Cowboy, Indian, and a host of other characters who are all little plastic toys filmed in stop-motion animation.  These characters create the most bizarre and entertaining story, which as it unfolds seems like it is straight out of the imagination of either a child or an opium smoker.
I think the best thing about “A Town Called Panic” is the sense of unbounded imagination it exudes.  The story feels as if a child is making it up as it goes along, but there are hilarious reminders that children are always observing the adult world.  In one scene, the characters have a big party for Horse’s birthday, with some of the characters playing poker in the kitchen, and some getting belligerently drunk in the living room.  The next day, they are hung over.  Trust me, a hung over plastic cowboy is something you need to see!

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes, 2007) ***

If there is one thing we’ve learned from movies, it’s that time travel causes problems.  You would think these mad scientists would learn, but they never do.
In the Spanish film “Timecrimes,” the hapless victim of the paradox of time travel is Hector.  While renovating his new home in the country, he sees some strange equipment in the woods.  He gets out his binoculars for a closer look, and then he sees something even more interesting: a woman in the woods taking off her clothes.  Clearly, the only logical thing to do in this situation is to hike out into the woods for a closer look.  There, Hector is attacked by a man with bloody bandages wrapped around his head.  Bandage-man pursues Hector onto some kind of compound that, it turns out, includes a time machine.  Hector seeks refuge in the machine, getting sent back in time and into an inescapable loop of paradox.
I enjoy the mind-twisting aspects of time-travel movies as much as the next guy.  Most just take the basic “Back to the Future” approach, where a character will disappear if he does something to change history and prevent himself from being born.  I prefer the films that have a bit more fun with the possibilities, and the low budget “Primer” is probably the best of the genre.  By having the characters make multiple trips back in time, including trips within trips, multiple versions of the same person can interact, pretty much making the viewer’s head explode from trying to keep up.  “Timecrimes” owes a big debt to “Primer.”  Unlike “Primer,” however, which I seem to recall held up pretty well to logical analysis, “Timecrimes” does contain a pretty glaring paradox that can’t be explained unless you are willing to sacrifice the traditional cause/effect relationship.
That’s not to say that “Timecrimes” isn’t a completely serviceable movie in its own right.  The film is written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo aptly enough that I plan to seek out his other film, “Extraterrestre.”  The acting is good, the plot is well-paced, and actress Barbara Goenaga looks great naked.  The presence of the bandaged man lends a real sense of menace.  Overall, this is a taut thriller, and worth watching.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Rio Sex Comedy (2010) **

I’m not sure what they were going for with “Rio Sex Comedy,” but what they got was a hot mess.  Like most hot messes, however, it does have some entertainment value.
We are introduced to several people, each of whom has his own storyline, and these narratives occasionally merge.  Bill Pullman plays William, the under-qualified American ambassador to Brazil.  Overwhelmed by the job, and not even speaking Portuguese, he flees his handlers, disappearing into a favela (slum).  There he meets a gorgeous local girl and Fish (Fisher Stevens), an American who runs tours of the favela and the countryside.  Fish helps William hide out and nurtures the ambassador’s newfound passion for improving the conditions of favela-dwellers.  Then there’s Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling.)  (The director apparently felt it would be too difficult for the actors to take on character names different from their own.)  Charlotte is a renowned plastic surgeon recruited to Brazil, the plastic surgery capital of the world.  Her specialty seems to be psychiatry, however, as she always talks her patients out of having surgery.  One of those patients is Irene (Irene Jacob), a French expatriate who is having a steamy affair with her brother-in-law.
These folks sort of bounce around Rio de Janeiro with their privates hanging out.  The film makes occasional, nonsensical efforts at social commentary, but mostly it’s about nudity and silliness.
One interesting thing about “Rio Sex Comedy” is that it is in Portuguese, French, and English, which means that no matter where it is shown, there will be subtitles.  This kind of “world cinema” is something I expect we will see more of, and it’s kind of cool.

2 stars out of 5