In Your Queue: Idiots All Around Us (“Frances Ha”, “Dealin’ With Idiots”)


Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach

At certain age benchmarks we tend to change, usually rapidly. Thirteen, eighteen, twenty one, thirty — they are times in our lives where we might change our clothes or the kind of music we listen to, the kind of people we want to be when we grow up. Sometimes we change friends, sometimes best friends at that. Frances Ha is about just that, slow dissolution of a best friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they come frighteningly close to reaching 30. They are the kind of friends who describe each other as “the same person with different hair”, roomates with no boundaries but with no boundary issues either. They are the new Oscar and Felix, until Sophie decides to leave Frances and move in with her boyfriend.

After a certain age making new friends is a difficult thing. You’re used to being you without a filter. That you can be too much for a new person, but the filter makes you boring. Frances’s new reality is full of people, but none of whom she really connects to, with or without a filter. The idea of two ships passing in the night comes to mind, but Frances Ha is more like two ships passing in the daytime. It’s a stark and funny, a well observed portrait of friendship and moving on, but a little bit painful to watch if you’re around 30, as one ship sails so smoothly from port while the other —  the graceful dancer — sputters in circles helplessly with no life jacket to rely on. 

Dealin’ With Idiots – Jeff Garlin

This is probably the strangest recommendation for a movie that I’ll ever write. It is, essentially a giant spoiler, but for an improv comedy feature, the trailer ruins more than what I’m about to say, which is: this movie is not that good. If they made an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm about psycho baseball parents, but did it without Larry David, this is what it might be like. It’s flat and only occasionally funny. Often, in fact, it is brutally unfunny, and even JB Smoove and Bob Odenkirk fall on their faces a little in this movie — that’s the big risk with improv — but it is 100% worth watching because the ending absolutely pays off on the promise that the film’s core idea is about. The ending is actually kind of genius, the way everything falls apart so perfectly and idiocy is so well confronted. So that’s my strange recommendation, to stick with this film through the ending. Fast forward through scenes if you need to, but stick with it because it’s so, so worth it.

In Your Queue: This [stuff] ain’t checkers (“Brooklyn Castle”, “Computer Chess”, “Zero Charisma”)

Computer Chess (3)

Gaming is often serious business, one that can either end in elation or with the board being hurled furiously across the room, sometimes both at the same time. There have been three films released this year that capture that all-or-nothing soul-lifting/crushing addiction to outmaneuvering your friends in the world of small pieces, and don’t require a spec of knowledge about chess or RPGs to enjoy.

In Brooklyn Castle, a public junior high school in New York runs riot over the competitive chess world, winning tournament after tournament, team and individual. But now budget cuts threaten the existence of the school’s chess program and its incredible 10 year run. Chess is usually used as a metaphor for life in film, and it is here to a degree, but it’s also a something of a MacGuffin: chess is the door that lets us into this world filled with special kids who are all playing chess for different reasons, whether it be to help with ADD or to help get into a good college. Getting to know these kids — and the school’s chess coach Elizabeth Vicary, who emerges as a star — even for a minute, even through video, is an enriching life experience on its own, one that puts back a little bit of the hope that Teen Mom and Jersey Shore sucked out the world.

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess takes a slightly different route with its chess story. In this early-80s-set faux documentary, computer programmers take up battle against each other in a depressing roadside hotel ballroom in Texas to see who has the superior machine. Peter (Patrick Riester), of the returning champion Cal Tech team, discovers a flaw in the latest version of their software: it would rather play against humans than computers, and nerdy sexual tension begins to pull at the story when he asks the only girl at the tournament, Shelly (Robin Schwartz) from the MIT team, to help him figure it out. The theories range from programming error to government involvement in this deadpan, quirky comedy. The film was shot in black and white with an early vacuum tube video camera. It’s a strange flourish, one that could have been a distraction, but actually ends up helping sustain the film’s warped sense of atmosphere. As the Dissolve’s Matt Singer put it, “every color of the autism spectrum in muddy black and white.”

In Zero Charisma, a charming, nerdy hipster joins a long running D&D-type tabletop role playing game and butts heads with the surly, overweight cartoon character of a Game Master who has sucked all the fun out of the proceedings. The Game Master, Scott (Sam Edison), is the that guy, the geek who lives in his high school bedroom and works in a donut shop. He is the living embodiment of the quote, “Yeah dating is cool but have you ever had stuffed crust pizza?” The lack of life comes out in Scott’s intricate RPG writing, but the thin structure it provides him shatters easily when things stop going his way for a second. He ends up losing his game to Miles (Garrett Graham), the nerdy hipster, and his friends along with it. The film trades on long held stereotypes about geeks and cool kids, and why they don’t necessarily mix, but directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham paint an enchanting, realistic story with their limited palette. The lows are quite low and the victories are very small, but that’s how real life tends to work.

Harold Lloyd: The Other, Other Guy


Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. Or, if you prefer: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd.

The order changes depending on the person you ask1. Some prefer the graceful stunts of Chaplin’s sweet-natured Tramp, a self-sacrificing vagabond who buys his way into your heart with a squint of doe eyes. Some prefer the stone-faced earnestness of Keaton, whose grand, sweeping stunts were as dangerous as they were brilliant. The one thing no one ever argues about is third place. It’s Harold Lloyd.

Even Lloyd fans have a difficult time arguing the point, but there is degree: is it a close third or third by a longshot? Again, it depends who you ask.

That part of the conversation is likely to ramp up in the coming weeks, as Turner Classic Movies airs a 10 hour Lloyd retrospective marathon tonight, and the Criterion Collection releases Safety Last! (aka the one where he hangs from the clock) on DVD and Bluray on June 18th. The marathon features 16 short subjects and four features, and kicks off with Safety Last! at 8pm.

That scene of Lloyd hanging from the clock, dangling over 1920s Los Angeles is one of the most enduring images in film history, and was paid homage in later films like Back to the Future and Hugo. Like the image of Justus D. Barnes firing blanks directly into the camera in the The Great Train Robbery (which itself was paid homage to in Goodfellas), the image of Lloyd hanging from the clock face is more famous than Lloyd himself, and the only thing many people know about him.

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  1. It’s Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd for me 

In the Loop – Armando Iannucci (2009)


It’s safe to say that there will not be a funnier film delivered to theaters this year than In the Loop. My bladder hasn’t been at such a high risk of succumbing to gasping hysterics since the relentless assault of the Uncle Fucker scene in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, during which I literally fell out of my seat laughing. I was able to comport myself a bit better during this film – instead of a single scene, the entire film is relentless – but just barely.

In the Loop is something of a continuation of the BBC TV seriesThe Thick of It. The utterly fantastic Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins revive their roles as Malcolm Tucker and Jamie MacDonald respectively in this farce about the lead-up to war in the Middle East.

After a disastrous radio interview in which the unlucky British minister of international development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), slips up and calls the war “unforeseeable” – quite against the government’s established media line, Tucker assures him – Foster and his staff are unexpectedly tossed into the middle of an international imbroglio with both the doves and the hawks. Foster doesn’t help matters with a second disastrous interview attempting to fix the first, in which he says the British government must “climb the mountain of conflict.”

The haplessness of politicians (and their equally hapless aides) is a universal truth, it seems, and there is no better time than now to run them through for their mealy-mouthed tendencies and their ineffectiveness as thoroughly as Iannucci and company do here. The wit and skill on offer don’t quite make up for the lack of brains and balls in power seats in government, but it does make it all right for two hours at least.

The film is about the political intrigue, of course, but really, its centerpiece is the enduring satanic charm of Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director. The willful exuberance – almost glee – with which Tucker goes on his vituperative rampages, savaging anyone in his line of sight, is one of the most skillful bits of writing and acting seen in ages. It’s a masterstroke of nuance and strategy, not just a string of blind “fuck you”s stuck in for comedy or snarling charm. (When confronted by a female staffer, Tucker unleashes the following: “Where do you think you are, in some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your ‘purview’ and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”) Tucker slowly bends everyone to his viewpoint and manipulates his way through the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

In a way, Tucker is the anti-Ari Gold, his closest American onscreen analogue – the jerk agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage, while all vicious bluster on the surface, is a sappy family man on the side. (Oddly enough, the character of Ari Gold is based on the real-life brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s scream-happy chief of staff and the closest thing we have to a real-life Malcolm Tucker counterpart.) Tucker? You can’t imagine him having a family or even having had a childhood. It’s as if he accumulated out of thin air fully formed and smarter than you on the day the prime minister was sworn in. He is a straight pit bull with the bark, bite and heart that entails.

Sunshine Cleaning – Christine Jeffs (2009)


The bored, middle-aged women taking a break from shopping for an after-lunch sneak preview screening had come to see the girl from Enchanted and the girl from The Devil Wears Prada in their new movie. As the gasps and “Oh-mi-god”s filled the theater during the first scene, it became clear that these women may not have been aware of the film’s premise, that the pristine pair would soon be tidying up the incidental mess after their “clients’” murders and suicides – like the one they just bore witness to.

It’s a ballsy way to start a movie that, despite its low-key indie vibe, is a fairly mainstream comedy, one not shy to tout its Little Miss Sunshine pedigree.

Sunshine Cleaning stars Emily Blunt and Amy Adams as Norah and Rose Lorkowski, two sisters in desperate need of money who start a cleaning service catering to post-mortem cleanup. The idea for the business is suggested by Mac (Steve Zahn), a police detective who was Rose’s high-school sweetheart, but is now married with children. He still sees Rose on the side while Norah thinks she’s at class. Mac’s wife knows the situation, but wears blinders to it out of a suburban fear of loneliness.

Naturally repulsed by the job description upon first hearing about it, they dive into the decay and detritus headfirst when Rose’s son, the rambunctious Oscar (Jason Spevack), is pulled out of an incompetent school and put in the care of their father, Joe (Alan Arkin), until other arrangements can be made.

The delicacy of the blood-and-guts job hits the emotionally fragile Norah hard. When she finds a fanny pack full of pictures of a departed client’s daughter, the guilt of her own family’s tragedy kicks in, the industrial-strength cleaning solvent starts to erode the wall she’s built up between herself and her past, and she cannot help but save them from the incinerator, against the strict rules of the trade, and try to return them to the girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub).

Director Christine Jeffs’ brilliant casting takes everything we thought we knew about the pair’s prim princess and posh career girl personas and turns it right on its head. To see Adams scrubbing blood off a mirror and Blunt vomiting as a (rational) reaction instead of as a weight-loss measure is deliriously funny, but surprisingly not a one-note gag. It’s played for laughs sparingly once we get beneath the girls’ outer layers and dig into their stories.

It’s a concept that most of us can relate to in one way or another – though maybe not in ways as horrifying as cleaning up brain tissue. We’ve all done jobs that went against our personal sense of self because of human need; money is the key to all of our desires as well as our basic survival. Jeffs has crafted a brave, evocative work that fits neatly into the debt-burdened zeitgeist while offering a jarring possible reality, something the down-and-out in this grim economy might actually look into as a possibility. Hey, it beats flippin’ burgers.

Paris 36 – Christophe Barratier (2009)


French films that end up with general theatrical release in this country tend to exist as contented Oscar bait: beautifully shot, sentimental period pieces that are supposed to be uplifting and touching, but aren’t willing to take chances artistically to get there. What results are films that try to please everyone while failing to truly stimulate anyone.

Paris 36 is no exception in that regard. It tells an interesting story about an interesting time in history and does so in an interesting way, but it takes absolutely no chances. The film delves heavily into the push-pull interplay between Communism and Fascism and how the spirit of the times sucked even political atheists into the web in 1930s France, but the production comes off like an unseasoned steak: It’s good on its own, but a little salt and pepper would make all the difference.

The film follows roughly nine years in the life of a small Paris neighborhood, but concentrates mostly on one year, the titular 1936. It concerns the fates of the stagehands and performers of the Chansonia, a small vaudeville-style music hall that is struggling financially. When the owner falls behind on his payments to the local loan shark, he has to hand the hall over as forfeit; he ends up checking himself out of this life at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, while everyone else is downstairs celebrating.

The loan shark, Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a politically corrupt Fascist who runs a violent team of strikebreakers, promptly closes the music hall and puts everyone out of a job, including Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a brash young Red constantly at odds with Galapiat and his strikebreakers, and Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), the head stagehand, who turns to the bottle while his son Jojo (Maxence Perrin), an accordion prodigy, busks around Paris for money.

Meanwhile, the stagehands – led by Jacky Jouquet (Kad Merad) – attempt to occupy and reopen the music hall. That’s when Douce (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful, blossoming singer, walks into their lives and changes everything.

Director Christophe Barratier has not crafted a film for the ages here, but it’s a workable, fun piece about family and friendship, full of wonderful songs and musical numbers performed on the Chansonia stage. Because Barratier refuses to play with the politics he presents, however, Paris 36 is more a slice of life than an important film. The in medias res opening tells us the plot culminates with a murder; in an hourlong TV drama, that would work just fine, but here the disclosure sucks every ounce of tension from the preceding events we’re about to see. We wait in suspense for the big shoe to drop (a letdown, naturally), thus rendering the smaller moments practically invisible. And a film like Paris 36 is nothing without its small moments.

The Limits of Control – Jim Jarmush (2009)


Jim Jarmusch is not a prolific filmmaker by any means, but when he does make a film it makes noise – divisive noise – thanks to his oddball-arthouse style and the challenging questions he poses to the audience. His fans are used to his style by now, over 20 years into his career, but it’s a harder one to grasp for the influx of new fans Broken Flowers, his last film, and its star, Bill Murray, might have brought in.

For the uninitiated, Jarmusch films unspool in languid labyrinths of subtleties and reversals, where what you are being presented is only a piece of the puzzle, and the puzzle you see may not even be the real picture. His plots are an existential cryptex.

In The Limits of Control, however, Jarmusch has forgotten to give us the codeword. African actor and Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé plays a nameless man on an unknown mission. He has arrived in Spain, where has a clandestine meeting in the airport via translator. The two seedy, Bond-villain-by-way-of-Abbott-&-Costello types he meets pass him a matchbox with a code inside and send him on his way to the next in a long line of such meetings.

The incongruity of “art film” and “big budget” (judging by the rich luxury on the screen) doesn’t gel together. Jarmusch stocks his film with lavish sets, beautiful old apartments, ritzy locations (and even a helicopter) following the nameless man all over Spain, but there is very little substance to back it up.

Instead, we are treated to vignettes of movie stars – Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray – musing about the mysteries of life, while Paz de la Huerta roams through the film in the nude. It’s a pretty film, and for more reasons than de la Huerta. Shot by the ultra-talented Christopher Doyle, the varied old-world and modern beauty of Spain is taken advantage of, from the cosmopolitan Madrid to the breathtaking seaside villages.

There are jokes within the awkwardness of the exchanges, but they are too few and far between, if you are even awake to hear them. Every time something seems to be happening, Jarmusch tips us gently back into sleep mode. It’s enough to make you long for a sip of one of the countless espressos the nameless man enjoys.

Whatever Works – Woody Allen (2009)


Pairing fellow ne’er-do-wells Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David together is an idea so natural that it comes as a forehead-slapping shock that it actually happened. Peanut butter and jelly come to mind at the idea of the perfect synthesis of these two bespectacled hypochondriacs illuminating the screen in tandem; for as much as they laid down a basic thematic principle for Woody, the jokes at the beginning of Annie Hall (“The food here is terrible, and in such small portions!”) could sum up David’s style just as well. Here are two guys of similar neurotic Brooklyn upbringings who are both nonplused that anyone finds them interesting. On paper, it’s a perfect fit.

What works on paper, however, does not always translate onscreen. Then again, perhaps judging Whatever Works against the very idea of comedic perfection is asking too much.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is the definition of a misanthrope: He hates you; he doesn’t know you, but he thinks you are a submoronic inchworm anyway. Yellnikoff’s philosophy boils down to the simple concept that life is miserable, and in such a small portion. Thus, “Whatever works,” he says, to get through it. He likes to remind people that he is a man with a huge-beyond-comprehension worldview – a self-satisfied perspective with the end result of a full-on mortality crisis that leads him to divorce and attempted suicide.

But this misery that starts as a scathing lament for the failed human species ends up a tender, funny meditation on the staggering mathematical improbability of everyday chance encounters, like when a Mississippi street urchin named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) charms her way into Boris’s apartment and, eventually, into his life. What follows is an astute movie about existential torment and impractical desire.Whatever Works won’t set the world on fire but it has more than its share of riotously hysterical moments and delicious absurdities.

David does not play the “Woody role” as such. Boris was originally written for the huge shoes (and belt) of Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but could not be made before he died. Therefore, the film comes off as a throwback to Allen’s older, quick-witted verbal comedy. The script was revived thanks to the threat of an actors’ strike that never materialized. This is not the first time David has stepped into Mostel’s shoes – the fourth season of Curb featured David stepping into Mostel’s role in The Producers – but the problem is that every other character is in a Woody Allen film, while Boris feels ripped directly from Curb. The character is not enough of a stretch from the Larry David of the TV show to bridge the gap in styles.

Fanboys – Kyle Newman (2010)


When the end credits rolled on the New Trilogy of George Lucas’ legendary Star Wars franchise in 2005, this was all supposed to go away. The space-epic story was supposed to revert back to the world of paperback novels and video games from whence it came, and that would be that. But there were still the Original Trilogy DVDs, released a few months earlier, to sift through. Then there was a cartoon to prolong it a little bit longer.

Now there’s Fanboys, a Lucas-approved geek-stoner comedy that takes us back in time a decade, to six months before Episode I – The Phantom Menace was unleashed on a willing but unsuspecting populace.

The time frame of “six months before” becomes a problem when Linus (Chris Marquette), a lifelong Star Wars devotee, finds out he has cancer and only three months to live. This injustice cannot stand, decide his equally devoted friends Eric (Sam Huntington), Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Windows (Jay Baruchel), so they band together and take him for one last wild ride: a cameo-filled road trip from their home of Ohio to Marin County, Calif., to steal the film’s work print from under Lucas’ nose at the Skywalker Ranch.

It’s a plan Linus has been dreaming of, in jest, for years, but to make it happen takes more suspension of disbelief than is possible, and the plot’s implausibility is clearly too difficult for first-time feature director Kyle Newman to overcome. What begins as a relatively simple, straight-line buddy comedy turns into a twisted corkscrew of in-joke hurdles, each level escalating in ridiculousness and none more incomprehensible than Seth Rogen’s double cameo as both a Trekkie and a Wars geek, brawling with each other over Han Solo’s honor on the floor of a Vegas casino.

The movie has a built-in, highly specific audience in mind, as the film’s poster, a mix of The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s marketing design and Darth Vader, indicates. Don’t know a nerf herder from a Nerf ball? Don’t bother. Not gonna get baked in the parking lot before you go in? Skip it. That goes double if you’re a Trekkie.

The cancer plot ends up as the catalyst, rather than the heart. What little heart the movie does possess lies within the inadvertent love story between the oblivious Windows and one-in-a-million, doesn’t-exist-in-real-life fangirl Zoe (Kristen Bell), whose sharp tongue and love of torturing Hutch is one of the few bright spots in this dreary paint-by-numbers comedy.

Fanboys’ development has become legend – originally slotted to come out in August 2007, it was delayed for reshoots and re-edits by a hack-for-hire director, Steven Brill, who traded foul e-mails with some of the film’s defenders in the fan community. Ironically, the film isn’t a victim of executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s well-known eagerness to edit films to death – a trait that’s earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands” – or of Brill or anyone else. Its essential problem is one of timing. Ten years earlier, before the spate of alternating sappy-raunchy bromance pictures and before Star Wars references were run deep into the ground, there was room in the world for a movie like this. It may not have been any better a movie a decade ago, but it would have at least been a fresh take. It’s too late now, though. Star Wars is over, and it’s time to let it go.

Daydream Nation – Michael Goldbach (2010)


First films are a notoriously tricky proposition, and in Michael Goldbach’s debut film, Daydream Nation, just released on DVD, the director has stumbled into every predictable pitfall along the path.

The film finds a city girl, Caroline (Thor’s Kat Dennings), in an emotionally perplexed state as she and her father settle into a small suburban town to escape the ghost of her dead mother. Caroline, of course, hates the town and is instantly rejected by the kids in her new high school. She’s a bitch, they say, and a mega-slut.

The only positive attention she gets is from Thurston (Reece Thompson), a stoner who is hiding from the ghost of his best friend in a cloud of pot smoke. Caroline also befriends a cute novelist, Mr. A (Josh Lucas), who is slumming it as an English teacher until he makes his first sale.

To get a few things out of the way: Yes, this is the setup for every movie about teenagers. Yes, it turns into a mess. Yes, she actually is a bitch and a mega-slut, and the goodwill that the charming Dennings has built up in earlier films, such as 40-Year-Old Virgin and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, doesn’t excuse this role. And naturally, this movie’s climax is set at a bitchin’ house party. (No, Loveburger doesn’t reunite to play it.)

Daydream Nation’s problem can be boiled down to one telling scene in which Mr. A excitedly asks Caroline for her opinion on his manuscript. She proceeds to, justly, shred the novel for the drivel it is. It turns out that the awful book he’s written is a mirror of Goldbach’s own script: the stoner youth, the ethereal angel come to save him with notes of depression and death, all of it derivative. If Caroline thinks that’s bad, wait til she sees the movie she’s in.

The only real surprise this film has to offer is that Caroline never gets pregnant, which, these days, is some kind of triumph of narrative restraint. Otherwise, Daydream Nation only succeeds in coloring neatly inside the lines of a stolen coloring book.