Margin Call – JC Chandor (2011)

I know almost nothing about wall street, and I openly admit it. I have a bit of a mathematical block in my head. Numbers don’t make sense to me. Words do. In fact, it’s a bit like Kelly Bundy disease. Every one thing I learn about English, it pushes one piece of mathematical knowledge out of my head. By the time I’m 50, I may have read the entire Dostoevsky, but I’ll be unable to do 2+2.

I’m kept company by the writer of this article for Exiled Online, who not only knows as little about Wall Street as I do, but cannot, it seems, read fairly basic dramatic structure.

This is the part that drove me the most crazy:

“Its main premise: Sure these Wall Street guys can be a bunch of greedy gamblers, but they didn’t blow up the economy on purpose.”

Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much the opposite of what the films is about. The film is about what happens to the conscience when such huge sums or money are at stake. The conscience simply goes away. The conscience is promoted into feeling good about the evil it is letting go. Zachary Quinto’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Stanley Tucci’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Neither does Kevin Spacey’s, or Demi Moore’s. They are given bonuses, or simply turn a blind eye, no matter how disturbed a blind eye.

The longest scenes in the film are about how to hoodwink the rest of the firms on Wall Street by flooding the market with the assets that they know to be worthless, selling them to hapless firms, convincing them that they are buying up at a “bargain” to pull the wool over their eyes. Why? Why would they ruin the world like this? $2.7m in bonuses. Don’t feel bad for the hoodwinked firms, though. It’s something any of them would have done themselves if they caught on to the problem first — which is, of course, a pure distillation of evil.

Really, the best scene in the film was the one with Simon Baker and Demi Moore in the elevator talking about what’s about to happen with the cleaning lady standing between them and she has no idea what is about to happen.

Here’s a hint: we’re the cleaning lady.

But is it propaganda? To a certain type of person it it. To the rest of us, not. But to the same kind of person who idolized Gordon Gekko — remember the disgusting scene in Boiler Room where they know his speech by heart? — it might get them drooling a little about the potential bonuses as long as they, too, had an ethical bypass at birth.

Cold Weather – Aaron Katz (2010)

sj_product_image_65_6_1449_6702

Spoilers.

After breaking up with his girlfriend in Chicago, Doug (Cris Lankenau), a listless college dropout returns to his hometown of Portland, Oregon to live with his well-adjusted sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who is has seemingly had only a frayed, partial disclosure contact with over the years. When his ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), visits and subsequently goes missing, Doug uses the knowledge he has gleaned in Criminal Justice classes and Sherlock Holmes novels to try and find her.

Sounds like the synopsis for a pretty decent indie mystery thriller, but director Aaron Katz does little with the film aside from use the pretty Portland scenery to good use.

It’s a problem of trying to serve two masters. It’s a quirky mystery thriller, or it’s a film about a brother and sister reconnecting. It appears to actually be the latter, but the scenes of their reconnection are so sparse and sporadically spaced out that it’s a difficult element to piece together as the film’s main course.

The bulk of the film is spent on the mystery, but really the bulk of the film is spent on misdirection. First you think Doug’s coworker Carlos (Raúl Castillo) has killed Rachel, then a guy in a pickup truck possibly killed her, then she’s alive and apparently a hooker of some sort, then someone has stolen her briefcase full of money she was really in town to deliver. In the end we find out nothing about the mystery and little about the characters.

I like a well played bit of misdirection just like the next guy, but it’s a little too heavy handed here, especially since it never pans out to anything. We don’t find out what was in the brief case, but it’s not in a cool Pulp Fiction way where you can speculate on it, instead it is left to a mundane, almost unimportant existence. Instead of cracking it open to look inside, Doug and Gail sit in the car waiting for Rachel and Carlos and listen to mix tapes he made her during high school. It is a betrayal of the urgency the rest of the plot has had.

It’s a complete momentum stopping ending that is basically unworthy of the film. It’s actually a really good film until it so abruptly stops. Like Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last, it was almost like they kept shooting the film in order until they ran out of money and called it a film. It just ends. Credits, that’s it.

Still, Trieste Kelly Dunn is a wonderful surprise as the put together Gail, who slightly regresses into high school mode when her slacker brother comes to stay. She plays the role smartly and gracefully, with a great ease and confidence that plays in contrast to the uncomfortable, frail-voiced girls that usually fill these roles.

It ends up being deeply disappointing from Katz, who I rate very highly as a director after his great second feature, Quiet City. I had the chance to interview him when that came out and I found him to be a smart, insightful guy, deeply ambitious (in the best possible way — he mentioned a desire to shoot a western among other things) to not be pigeonholed as one of those mumblecore guys, which he really isn’t, even though Quiet City qualifies. The skill with which he handled the entire film up until the ending gives me great hope about his future projects at the very least.

Somewhere – Sofia Coppola (2010)

SOMEWHERE4

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, we see her protagonist, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a bad boy “it” actor loosely based on people she knows and stories she’s heard, navigating in circles around a desert race track in his Ferrari. The rest of the film plays out much the same, but for Johnny real life comes along at a more glacial pace outside of his car. Still, he barely seems to notice. Johnny is just there, somewhere, not sure where.

Physically, he’s living at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the famous Hollywood hotel, as famous for celebrity deaths as celebrity guests, and where lavish parties seem to accumulate in his room. Emotionally, Johnny is harder to locate. The twin strippers that he orders up probably brought him joy at one point, but this seems to be about the rich guy equivalent to watching the same episode of Seinfeld again just because it’s on not because it’ll make you laugh, but he is just as content smoking a cigarette and staring at the wall. Sex is habitual to him now, not sexual, and he’s as likely to fall asleep in the middle of the act as he is to finish.

It isn’t at all that Coppola forgot to explore the depths of Johnny Marco’s character. It’s just that the depth of Johnny Marco doesn’t exist at the moment. If he turned sideways, you would half expect him to be a flat layer of fabric and skin. No life seems to stir in his eyes until the moment he looks up and sees his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo smiling at him, signing his cast. In the light of her smile, we don’t see the same man that fell asleep in his place the night before.

Played beautifully by Elle Fanning, Cleo is an effervescent hit of sunshine that doesn’t otherwise exist in his world, and DP Harris Savides’ lighting scheme reflects this, almost as if the light were radiating from her blonde locks down onto Johnny. In fact, the film’s main flaw is not enough Cleo. Within the framework of the film, she is just the longest lasting of the characters he brushes shoulders with. Her imprint on the film is huge, though, because she’s the only thing that nudges Johnny out of his listlessness, but her screentime starts too late in the film and ends too early.

Somewhere is less of the tone poem that the director calls it and more of a straight character piece. She has left us mostly alone with the character and left the abundant needledrop soundtrack in a drawer. At times the film almost feels like a staring contest between audience and actor, and much has to be extrapolated from small moments about Johnny’s life that we get glimpses of. He is so detached and so empty that it almost plays as a demure middle finger to Coppola’s detractors who claim her films are filled with frivolous, moneyed characters whose drifting is something only the spoiled can experience and thus has no value. This is the most frivolous, most moneyed character, and his drifting is the most aimless. This, however, does have value, and it all works in harmony with her previous films and as a standalone, as long as you give it the time to work.

Life During Wartime – Todd Solondz (2010)

3b792699d7ff176724d102d2baf39336

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In Life During Wartime, writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest sojourn into the awkwardness and fragility of the demented human experience, we are brought up to speed on the characters that inhabited his 1998 indie film, Happiness. However, it’s not quite as simple as calling it a sequel.

In the 12 years since Happiness was released it’s become something of a mythic line in the sand amongst film fans, fanatic and casual alike. It is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, with its supporters preaching it needs to be seen because of how fucked up and brilliant it is, while its detractors vocally and viciously deride it because of how fucked up and miserable it is.

The characters, even a decade plus later, are still stunted by their delusions and emotional walls, and as such tend to look more towards breaking even in life rather than getting ahead. Any thematic sense of a positive move forward the film possesses is shouldered handily by the youngest Maplewoodson, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, has learned his father is not actual dead, but an imprisoned pedophile and rapist. This news throws an abrupt and considerable – but not impassable – hurdle into his path towards manhood. For everyone else, it seems to have caused them to skew into an alternate 1998 and live imitation lives.

But this is likely Soldonz’s intent. As with his previous films, his characters are, in equal measures, loved and pitied by his camera. They are not quite easy to root for sad sacks as much as living, breathing wads of neuroses and baseness. But it’s tough to root against them either. Especially Joy.

Jane Adams is replaced by Shirley Henderson as Joy, the waifish songwriter and failed do-gooder. She is still a floundering mess trying to figure it out, but is now burdened by the specter of Andy (Paul Ruebens, not Jon Lovitz) haunting her neural space, still trying to get laid. In fact, every character is bodied by a different actor, adding to the absurdity of Solondz’s charm. While not offputting, it does set the film into more of a companion piece area than a sequel, but works despite these character facelifts.

But the most remarkable makeover is Bill Maplewood. If the saying “prison changes a man” ever came to life on screen, it would be here. Once the slight, effete suburban dad played by Dylan Baker, the kind of man you might imagine jumping up on a chair and shrieking upon seeing a mouse, the character is now a sturdy, serious man who might stomp on and eat the mouse played by Ciarán Hinds. His mission, somewhat oddly, is a noble mission. Not exactly redeeming one (there is no redemption for him, ever), but it is a good and necessary first step for such a malignant, fractured character.

While Wartime may end up in the discussion for worst film of the year by some, I find it hard to dismiss so easily. Yes, gone is the shock value of the fifties throwback American family man serially raping little children and the depravity and criminality of a lonely apartment complex. But to replace it, Solondz had to try and find real stories within his characters, and he does. And, more importantly, he succeeded.

The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)

concours-lillusionniste-1-dvd-jacques-tati-5-L-2

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.

Autoerotic – Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard (2011)

While this film’s co-director Adam Wingard is mostly an unknown quantity in this equation, partner in crime Joe Swanberg — the indie director of collaborative efforts Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — is no stranger to sex or controversy, both of which are courted nimbly in Autoerotic, a four-part omnibus film that takes a penetrating and at times unexpected look at exactly the topic the film is titled after.

It’s not necessarily an aim to court controversy by being explicit, though. “I am trying to document the humans around me, the same way a nature show would document elephants or lions, and a big part of our lives is spent thinking about sex, trying to have sex, or having sex,” Swanberg told me during a Hannah-era interview. “For me it’s obvious that sex would have a big role in the films.”

But while Hannah, Weekends, and Alexander the Last have been more straightforward relationship dramas with sex in them, Autoerotic returns to the thematic ground forged in the pre-Hannah films, LOL and Kissing on the Mouth, which you could say were films about sex with relationships in them. He returns to that ground a much wiser, more technically proficient director and collaborator, but one who has remained as starkly honest and continued to be able to get actors to trust him wholly, without reservation or worry about embarrassment. It’s a trust explicitly needed in the first two segments — the first, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story about a man addicted to penis enlargement pills; the second, about a girl who is turned on by a stiff breeze and delves into the dangerous area of autoerotic asphyxiation.

The trust is thanks in no small part to his wife, Kris Swanberg, who is perhaps more vulnerable in the third segment — about a sexually unfulfilled pregnant woman who lets a girlfriend try and work out what her husband can’t achieve — than anyone else in any of Swanberg’s films. She is very honest, very open, very pregnant and very naked all the while. That kind of willingness for vulnerability can so easily be considered contemptible, but I find it to be commendable.

It’s he fourth and final piece, about a man desperate to keep his old sex tapes with a girl who (presumably) dumped him — or find something a little more lifelike — is where the film hits something of a snag, though: it is just downright uncomfortable to watch. The film actually starts off with a short piece from this segment, showing a static shot of an iPhone as it shoots the now-broken up couple having rather boring looking sex. This provocative whiff  works very well as a front bookend to set up the films other stories, but the actual segment, with its incredibly dry, overly honest assessment of the deeply warped spaces in a lonely guy’s mind doesn’t work as a closing bookend. It’s the one piece that asks too much. Whether that is because of an overload from the previous pieces or naturally occurring within the fourth piece, I can’t decide, but, to go with film’s motif, ends up being the pubic hair in the mouth of an otherwise thought provoking and essentially good time.

It’s a little strange thinking about people doing these things in real life. They’re almost mythic stories that you run across commonly online, but for some reason, or maybe it’s just this Catholic prude, don’t seem to be real, they seem to be the creation of fetish porn sites. But the facts are this: people take penis enlargement pills; people are into autoerotic asphyxiation; people invite third parties into their bed; and most guys do cling onto mementos of past relationships, especially the dirty ones. It’s brought to the absolute extreme here, but the last part is actually, I would think, the most common thing. Even in the relatively tame Juno, Paulie hangs on to the undies Juno wore during their big night.

This demanding, quietly confrontational film asks you to take a step back and consider your desires, and how far you let yourself go, or how much you hold back. Whether or not it’s a public conversation starter, Autoerotic should at the very least start an internal dialogue.

Super 8 – JJ Abrams (2011)

super8frame

Spoilers.

“Nostalgia, I hate it!” raves a disgusted Nat (Walter Matthau) in Herb Gardner’s superb 1996 film I’m Not Rappaport. “The dread disease of old people, kills more of us than heart failure!” It is, despite constantly indulging in it throughout the film, the worst thing he can possibly thing of, aside from being shipped off on the Siberian Express to a nursing home. So what is it about this extended generation — the one born around Woodstock, but before Woodstock II — that embraces nostalgia so readily and easily?

I’m guilty of it myself (for I liked this film, and the last nostalgia trip I saw, Paul), but I find that guilt a curious thing. For one, I don’t feel especially guilty about it. I enjoy these little trips down the entertainment memory lane, where everything bad could be set aside and cleared right out of your headspace for Star Wars, or a few issues of Daredevil. Was this generation coddled too much, made too afraid of the real world and its real problems? I’m sure that’s partly it, but I think it’s also partly that some of the real world problems and pressures are a lot tougher now, and things move a lot faster now that it did in the past.

In JJ Abrams’ sci-fi thriller homage to Lord High God Steven Spielberg, Super 8, budding filmmakers Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney) actually have to wait three days to get the film from their super 8 zombie movie processed to see just how much of the train wreck their cracked lens actually captured.

Three days! And that’s the rush job. Can you imagine that now, in this plug-and-play right now digital world? But wait they did, and rewarded for that wait they were. They caught quite a lot, it turns out.

It is just cinematic happenstance that brings Charles and Joe, and few of their friends to the train station on the outskirts of their little Ohio town one night. They are there to shoot the new dramatic scenes Charles has written to flesh his short film out, where the story’s detective, Martin (Gabriel Basso), is begged to leave the zombie infested town by his wife, Alice (Elle Fanning). The eternal search for production value has led them there, where they end up filming — really, fleeing for their lives from — a train wreck caused, seemingly on purpose, by one of their teachers at the middle school. By the time they finally see their film they and find out what terror has escaped from an overturned car in the accident, it has cast a shadow over the town, and the military do whatever they need to do to try and stop it.

The military has always played a somewhat enigmatic role in Spielberg films. He never succumbed to the paranoia of the 1970s like his peers did. The few times he has, like in War of the Worlds it felt flat and distinctly un-Spielbergian. The military in his films always had something of a redeeming factor, too, whether it be an internal redemption, such as Keys (Peter Coyote) in E.T., or an external one, like Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) in Close Encounters. In Super 8, the military is just plain evil, ready to kill, determined to get their way at any cost, even if that cost is the entire town of Lilian, Ohio. It’s a strange disconnect in the ability to read an audience that exists between Abrams and his mentor, where he was trying to cross Close Encounters with The Goonies and E.T., he ended up just adding children to Cloverfield.

Abrams has gotten recent praise, though, for his promotional strategy of not showing the “monster”, after initially taking quite a lot of heat for it. The problem with his strategy is not that he didn’t show the monster, but by saying he wasn’t going to show it, he gave the false impression that this was really a monster movie. It is, sure, but it also isn’t. It’s more that it happens to have a monster in it, and if you take it solely as a monster movie it fails miserably. It offers few scares, nor is it original in concept, design or action.

The meat of the film is about the somewhat complex interpersonal relationships that develop between friends over time, and how easily they are uprooted in unexpected ways when new elements are injected.

The new elements in Super 8 are both the addition of a hierarchy into the group of friends making of their short film, as well as the introduction of member into their group: Alice. Alice is pretty, smart, a surprisingly great actress and just enough of a tomboy. In short, she is the girl everyone falls for, regardless of standing in the new friendship hierarchy. Falling for a girl at that age puts you in such a tumultuous state that its hard to recognize that the kid next to you that you’ve known since kindergarten is in the same state over her as you. Worse still, if you get even the tiniest hint that she is in the same state thinking about you, you cannot possibly give any though to the fact that she is not at all in that state for your friend.

This is the real drama of the film, the Elle Fanning-shaped wedge that is finding its way between Joe and Charles. And as if everything weren’t going badly enough for Charles in Super 8, the wedge is his own fault, invited into the movie by him, the director — the boss, at the top of the new hierarchy. Even though he has no problem talking to and bossing his friends around on set, there is trouble communicating this to Joe, of course. There is an expectation on Charles’ part that Joe should just know, so close is their friendship, but Joe is in no emotional shape to see.

Aside from the misguided, tv-minded decision to have Alice kidnapped and remove Elle Fanning from the film for a half hour, there is plenty of meatiness in this fledgling, awkward triangle to sustain the film where the typical monster mayhem nonsense doesn’t. Awkward teenage romance is its own nostalgia beyond anything you saw at the movies growing up, and it’s a universal thing, especially here: if you got the girl, you can relate to Joe. If you didn’t, you can relate to Charles or use Joe and Alice as your escape.

There is a trick to actual nostalgia in film, though, and its one that Abrams hasn’t quite figured out, or at least not conveyed here. You can, and should be, inspired by the thing. Hell, even rip it off if you want to. Ford stole from Murnau, and Welles from Ford. Truffaut and Scorsese have stolen shots wholly from directors they admire. But they used it to extend their craft. It was a supplement, massaged to fit neatly into their own visual and thematic schemes. Abrams, well, I don’t know what he’s about except that he likes to play in other peoples’ sandboxes. He hasn’t personally expressed anything here as a filmmaker beyond being a fan of other peoples’ films. The lens flares in Close Encounters helped to visually build upon the themes that Spielberg was setting up. Close Encounters is as much a visual experience about light and sound as a common language as it is an emotional experience about Neary and Lacombe and their search for the truth. In Super 8 they just seem to be there. It’s not a visual experience where the quality of the light is important, it’s about the kids overcoming the things kids (and adults) need to overcome, or move beyond. It’s aimless copycatting for the sake of being a copycat. I don’t know that being up front about it changes the fact that it wasn’t necessary to the film. It wasn’t even that necessary to building an homage to Spielberg.


The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (2011)

3

Of all of the filmmakers in the world, Terrence Malick makes it the hardest to form an opinion on his films after one sitting. He doesn’t really make films as much as he makes complex, dense, highly populated visual poems with cameras and actors. While the films always maintain an airy, easygoing charm, each second that the film is unreeling a new idea presented somehow. This isn’t because his films are unfocused; rather the opposite, his films are so highly focused and expect, demand so much of the viewer that to watch it once is almost a crime.

Despite resting on the bed of a relatively simple plot about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, The Tree of Life simply defies description or label in the traditional sense.  It is about life, but in the most indescribable way possible, which is something that Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) himself struggles with (and eventually mucks up) greatly throughout the film. The idea of this film is what he is trying to convey to his three sons, and to his wife (the wonderful newcomer, Jessica Chastain), and he cannot do it properly. Yes, he can teach them manners, and even how to fight — but this, this is something else. Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually takes the wrong lessons out of the fragments that his father can give to him. It’s not his fault, no one can put these concepts into words, not even Terrence Malick. Hell, not even the Bible is of any use.

To that end, it is not actually a film about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, that’s just where most of the concepts unfold. The film spans in time from the Big Bang through to the modern day, where the eldest son of the family, a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), has become lost in some sort of emotional netherworld due to a mixture of the delayed turmoil of his brother’s death (at war, one would assume, though it is never confirmed) and the subsequent distance from his family as well as the decaying blight of modern’s man effect on the planet.

Malick finds an overriding beauty in the smallest elements of life (the most beautiful shots in the film are of a simple sunflower patch), but man has scarred this beauty with skyscrapers and greed. This natural beauty is science formed, though, not God formed. Malick goes out of his way to deliver this message with a lengthy and stunning creation sequence, where trial and error, natural experiment on a planetary level and natural selection rule. Life is eventually formed and fostered formed out of the nascent planetary gases, and man comes of this. But man ruins it: he is different. He thinks. He blushes. He destroys. He creates God for order, for peace, and the Devil to blame when, inevitably, neither of these happen.

It could be viewed as possibly the greatest argument for a Godless universe, where man is the annoyance, the “thin film of life” so invisible, yet so ignorantly wrapped up in its own existence, as Carl Sagan put it. One almost gets the sense that nature is waiting us out, and it may be.

But The Tree of Life stands upright as a visual document (the creation sequence itself will be re-released later this year in IMAX), and Malick and his team have created something more stunning than The Thin Red Line. What it stands for poetically will take a little longer to put it into proper perspective, but this is doubtlessly a major work of art, and it must be seen.

Tuesday, After Christmas – Radu Muntean (2011)

04

For most films, the centerpiece scene comes somewhere near the end of the film, or at least past the midpoint. The Lufthansa heist and subsequent murder spree in Goodfellas, for instance, or finally meeting Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But in the Romanian drama Tuesday, After Christmas, we get it right off the bat.

The opening scene finds Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) in bed together in a comfortable, if somewhat small, apartment somewhere in Bucharest. They are naked and content, not worried about bills or work or the shape of their bodies. They are happy travelers as far as we can tell, teasing each other the size of their toes and whether or not Santa will be visiting this year — as lovers do in this state. It’s only slowly, and very skillfully, that we find out that Paul isn’t actually married to Raluca, he’s married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), mother of his daughter, Mara (Sașa Paul-Sze).

Taken as a simple synopsis, this, of course, sounds like the set up to every one of those melodramatic “why don’t you leave your wife for me?” films. And while it does end up in that station, the path followed is a slightly different, less guilt ridden one than normal.

Things begin to go wrong (or right, as you will) for Paul one afternoon as he is taking Mara to the dental clinic. He receives a call from Adriana that her schedule has changed, allowing her to join them at the clinic. Mara’s dentist, of course, is Raluca, who is more than surprised at the unexpected appearance of her lover’s wife.

They play it cool, but Raluca’s body language betrays her physical distress. Or, it would if the transformation from the warm, playful girl we’ve already met wasn’t into, well, as cold and focused as a dentist should actually be.

Adriana leaves unaware, but not for long. Oprisor and Branescu play the eventual break up scene spot on, leaving the impression for the viewer of not only being a fly on the wall, but of being a fly on the wall that is scared to the point of shaking at the emotional tornado shattering the fabric of what was once a happy little domestic life.

Director Radu Muntean has said this is not a film about guilt, but a voyeuristic take on the choices people are forced to make when they come to a crossroad in their life. But the crossroad Paul comes to is not a natural feature of the landscape of his life that just happens to be there. Whether you consider the crossroad the beginning of the affair or telling his wife about it — or both — it’s a crossroad that Paul seems to have designed into the map of his life. It’s true that there appears to be little chemistry left in his marriage beyond the fact that he and Adriana share a daughter in Mara, but it all does come off a bit selfish of Paul in the end, maybe because of that solitary fact. That he isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t excuse the fact that he does, and deeply at that.

Tuesday, After Christmas is one of those films that lives a better life in your head in the aftermath of seeing it than it does seeing it for the first time, but only aesthetically so. Outside of the three mentioned scenes, there is little flow or excitement, and the film works almost as an exercise in disengagement with the audience, almost as if Paul is saying, “I’ve endured this for 15 years, give it a try.” But a film needs to work as an active experience, a sum of its parts, and that it doesn’t is a fatal flaw in the end.

The Hangover II – Todd Phillips (2011)

The-Hangover-II-15

In a way, it’s hard to believe guys like this actually exist. I don’t mean that in a just world guys like this wouldn’t exist, because I personally have no stake in it either way, but in the way that it’s hard to believe that super models actually exist in the flesh. I mean, they must, if only in secret, because places like Vegas exist and the root of these films comes from a true (supposedly) crazy bachelor party weekend, but I’ve never met any of them. Thanks to the magic of movies, I don’t have to.

The movie gods have brought the boys to Thailand this time, and set them lose on the streets of Bangkok to drink themselves into amnesia, losing Stu’s (Ed Helms) sixteen-year-old soon-to-be brother in law, Teddy (Mason Lee), along the way.  In order to find him and save the wedding the boys must once again retrace their steps and endure the wacky hijinks and have profound discoveries of self to find the keys that they cannot remember.

The major complaint with The Hangover II seems to be that it’s basically the same exact film as the first one. But I honestly don’t see that as being a valid complaint because it’s laid right out for you in the trailer. You have been warned. You should know from the glut of sequels to wacky comedies anyway. The whole feel of the movie — just like every other comedy sequel — is, “whoops, we did it again, only worse.” That’s the promise made, and that’s exactly what the movie delivers. Whether that’s your cup of tea or not isn’t up to the filmmakers.

Everything, in fact, from the first movie is back again — the good, the bad and the ugly, but this time the ugly is a little uglier, and more bald. But this time, instead of a tiger there’s a drug dealing monkey who holds the key to finding Teddy.

But the bottom line is this: it was true of the first film, and true of this one. The slideshow of pictures at the end were the only really, truly worthwhile moments.

There are laughs throughout the film, though, I won’t deny that, but they are mostly empty, easy laughs. The kind of laughs that are so easy that in Talking Funny (HBO’s comedy documentary featuring Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK and Ricky Gervais talking about their stand up careers) the comedians spend 10 minutes talking about how they refuse to keep this kind of material in their act despite it killing night in night out. There is no real skill in creation involved, just skill in execution. Who could say that this wasn’t executed flawlessly?

That’s what this film boils down to, though: crowd pleasing, easy jokes. Pay your $13, click off you brain, and laugh at the monkey. If you didn’t expect that, it’s kind of your own fault.