Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Summer Non-Blockbuster Capsule Reviews

Midnight in Paris
At this point, I think I'd enjoy Woody Allen movies (the decent Woody Allen movies, at least; not the horrible ones) much better if I try and tune out whatever he's trying to say. Because Midnight in Paris is a very enjoyable movie for great long stretches. Particularly when Owen Wilson's meandering strolls along winding Parisian streets take him back to the Paris of the '20s that he (i.e. Woody Allen) reveres so much.... see? Even there I can't seem to divorce The Message from the movie.

Wilson encounters literary icons and legendary artists -- Hemmingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald -- and the exchanges are both a series of winking references from a director to his knowing audience but also genuinely funny and loose and well-acted. From Kathy Bates (Stein) to Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill (the Fitzgeralds) to the charismatic Corey Stoll (Hemmingway), everybody's just kind of rolling around in this heady space and it's really charming. Stoll was really something special, I thought. He really nails the ludicrous masculinity of Hemmingway while keeping him genuinely magnetic. Even the romance between Wilson and Marion Cotillard (the object of my eternal agnosticism) is compelling for a while.

The scenes in present-day Paris -- where Wilson tries to avoid his absolute monster of a fiancee and her awful, Paris-hating, Republican-voting parents -- are where things fall apart. Poor Rachel McAdams needs a damned intervention when it comes to choosing movie roles; she's not the first woman to get lured by the prospect of Doing a Woody Allen Movie only to be saddled with a one-dimensional harpy of a woman, but she might be the most ill-served yet. Her Inez is pretty much every Woody Allen bugaboo rolled up into one: unfaithful, emasculating, faux-intellectual, and (a particular sin in this movie) utterly disdainful of both Paris and romanticism itself. Because apparently in the world of Woody Allen, rich people don't love France enough. And eschewing your cushy Malibu lifestyle for artistic poverty means you can afford to bum around Paris for the rest of your life. That he's so closed off from any kind of real-world perspective takes the air out of a full 50% of the movie, and it keeps it from being a true success. I'll take this movies occasional pleasures over wall-to-wall dreck like Whatever Works, but I can't support this "Woody's best in years!" narrative; not when Vicky Christina Barcelona was so much better so recently. C+

Ceremony
There's a big barrier to entry for this movie. Well, two of them. One is that you can't for a second imagine Uma Thurman and Michael Angarano in a romantic (and at some point sexual) relationship. The second is that these dime-a-dozen trust-fundy early-twentysomething smarter-than-the-world protagonists (Igby meets Jason Schwartzman) have become so impossible to root for in even the best movies. To the credit of writer/director Max Winkler, Ceremony recognizes these barriers and addresses them within the story, honestly and with a minimum of winking. It's not a perfect movie, but against all odds it emerges as heartfelt, and the supporting cast -- Lee Pace, Reece Thompson, and most especially Jake Johnson as Thurman's tortured, sloshed brother -- deliver some excellent performances. B

Tree of Life
I actually liked it better than I expected to, given my near-pathological aversion to Terrence Malick's slow pondering of The Big Questions. I didn't love it -- it's very much the movie I expected it to be after seeing the trailer. Seven or eight long, thoughtful sighs stretched out to two and a half hours and stretching from the Big Bang to the end of the world and beyond.

It feels like two movies, really. The first could (and maybe should) have been a breathtaking film about the origins of the universe, from stardust to the primordial ooze to those much ballyhooed dinosaurs, all of them floating across the screen to concerto music like a high-on-its-own intelligence Fantasia. But the dinosaurs are actually the first sign of what becomes, for me, the fatal flaw. You go to the trouble of putting this really well-done CGI into the movie so you can depict the dinosaurs, but they're put in service of what ends up being some kind of Cain-and-Abel allegory; a premonition of man's inhumanity to man. I guess we should give him credit for tackling such archetypal material, but I couldn't help but find it so much shallow profundity.

Once the movie shifts into its second part, a '50s-set family memoir about a domineering father ("Father") and beatific mother ("Mother"), these big themes and oft-used premises are thick in the air. Oedipal conflicts, why bad things happen to good people, no archetype goes un-glazed over. The transparent symbolism keeps only the most directly targeted audience members (uh...sons of stern fathers? residents of Waco during the DDT years?) from truly connecting to any kind of emotion.

And yet undeniably there are things the movie gets very right. Its depiction of young brothers growing up together and very close in age is quite evocative, for one thing. And since Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is, as expected, some of the most beautiful stuff you're ever going to see in your life, these moments are undeniably impressive. But the ending brings it all back to huskily-whispered talk about God and mothers and fathers, to gauzy beaches, and ultimately the end of the world. But again, it's all so Big as to leave your reaction to it far behind. B-
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1 comment:

Home Inspector Expert said...

I totally loved every minute of this film, except Kathy Bates didn't seem like Gertrude Stein to me (lovable as she was) -- contrasting really over-the-top Ernest Hemingway. But really - what a great film!