Thursday, December 23, 2010

December Films in Brief


And Everything Is Going Fine
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Opened December 10, 2010
Released by IFC Films

In this portrait of monologist Spalding Gray (who committed suicide in January 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry), Steven Soderbergh—who directed Gray in King of the Hill and Gray’s Anatomy—has taken hours of footage from Gray’s widow and fashioned an 89-minute valentine to this singular American performer.

And Everything Is Going Fine comprises footage from several Gray monologues, interview excerpts and even home-movie footage of Gray as a child and Gray with his child, son Forrest (now 18 and credited with the movie’s score). Soderbergh’s canny editing sensibly keeps maudlin moments to a minimum, but this is also not a whitewashed portrait. Gray was always brutally honest in his monologues, especially during the traumatic time when he broke up with his long-time girlfriend after fathering a child with the woman with whom he was cheating.

Still, for all its bittersweetness, the movie’s most lasting image is one of its last: the new father onstage with a boom box, blasting and dancing to Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumper.” When I saw Gray do that years ago during the monologue Morning, Noon and Night, he seemed to have finally found happiness. Too bad it turned out to be so fleeting.


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Opens December 25, 2010
Released by Roadside Attractions

Biutiful is another of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s hit-or-miss dramas, in the mold of his earlier 21 Grams, Babel and Amores Perros. At his best—Amores Perros, parts of 21 Grams—Iñárritu creates powerful stories about people we end up caring about. But when he falters—Babel, parts of 21 Grams—he wallows in a mire of obviousness.

Both of these Iñárritus are at play in Biutiful, whose title comes from a drawing made by the young daughter of Uxbal, a shady underground figure who helps illegal Chinese immigrants find menial jobs, from which he receives a cut for his efforts. When Uxbal discovers that he has terminal cancer, he sets out to reconcile his complicated relationships with his two children and his estranged wife.

Javier Bardem gives Uxbal an intensity and integrity lacking in the ham-handed script: the movie becomes risible when Uxbal starts seeing dead people, and its grimness becomes oppressive when a group of immigrants is found asphyxiated thanks to Uxbal’s thriftiness. Although beautifully shot and performed, Biutiful too often falls into a dramatic rut of Iñárritu’s own making.


The Illusionist
Direction, adaptation, character design by Sylvain Chomet
Original script by Jacques Tati
Opens December 25, 2010
Released by Sony Pictures Classics

The visual elegance of Jacques Tati’s early movies stems from his subtle physical humor, for which “slapstick” sounds like an overly harsh description. Tati’s grace in Mon Oncle, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Jour de Fete compares with the best of Chaplin and Keaton, making Tati one of our most beloved screen comedians.

In The Illusionist, Tati lives again—or his animated doppelganger does, thanks to Sylvain Chomet, creator of the whimsical delight The Triplets of Bellville. Based on a script Tati wrote but never filmed, The Illusionist shows the odd but heartfelt connection between a failed French magician and young Scottish woman he befriends while working in a local pub. Their platonic relationship lasts through his career changes and her finding first love, then ends as quietly as it began.

Chomet understands the delicacy of Tati’s story, and his oblique but simple animation follows suit. His quicksilver, wonderfully vivid drawings approximate Tati’s comic persona, and also unveil a 1950s Edinburgh that a sharp, colorful backdrop.

But try as he might—painstakingly recreating Tati’s movements and the kind of physical comedy he excelled at—Chomet misses out on illuminating Tati’s comic persona. So, for its many accomplishments (notably a yearning to re-watch the early Tati comedies as soon as one leaves the theater), The Illusionist remains a mere illusion.


The Next Three Days
Written and directed by Paul Haggis
Opened November 19, 2010
Released by Lionsgate

In The Next Three Days, Russell Crowe plays an ordinary professor from a Pittsburgh community college whose life is turned upside down when his wife (the always charming Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murder. After she’s found guilty and all appeals are exhausted, Crowe does what any self-respecting husband and father of a young son would do: he plans to break her out of prison.

How he goes about it is the essence, and failure, of Paul Haggis’ movie, which follows Crowe as he dots every “I” and crosses every “T” before putting his plan into action. However, there’s far too much left dangling, as if Haggis couldn’t trust his own material and decided to cram standard thriller elements into the plot to ratchet up the tension.

Tension Haggis gets when Crowe follows a low-life junkie to a low-rent neighborhood and pulls a gun on him and his buddy to get cash he was robbed of earlier. But credibility goes out the window at such moments, as when he tests a homemade key in the county jail on visiting day. A camera records him doing it, he denies it on questioning, they let him go, he walks out of jail and immediately vomits in nervousness and anxiety. Wouldn’t the Pittsburgh police—one detective is already suspicious of him—be keeping a closer eye on him?

Of course if they did, he’d be found out immediately, and there wouldn’t be the exciting if nonsensical climax, with foot chases on hospital elevators and the subway and car chases on the highway…just wait until you see the spin-a-rama move Crowe pulls with his SUV as Banks hangs out the passenger door. It’s all fairly ludicrous, and the furrow-browed Crowe needs to crack a smile occasionally. In addition to Banks’ solid work, Ty Simpkins is fine as their son and Olivia Wilde considerably brightens the stock part of a young mother who helps (but doesn’t bed down!) Crowe in his time of need.

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