Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (A-)
U.S.: Alison Klayman, 2011, IFC-MPI-Sundance Selects
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese conceptual artist and subject of Alison Klayman's documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is a heavy-set guy with a frizzy mustache and beard, who has 40 cats and a taste for Carnegie Deli pastrami sandwiches, developed when he lived in New York City. Now back in China, he blogs and tweets all the time and is probably, right now, the word's most famous living artist -- as well as the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for his brave and outspoken activism and protests against the Chinese government and its anti-democratic policies. Many would argue that he's also the best living artist, or one of them, or, according to ArtReview, "the most powerful artist in the world."
Really? I don't want to come across like a philistine or a bourgeois simpleton, but the one thing this movie didn't convince me about was the stature of Ai Weiwei's art -- which may be either my fault, or the film's, or possibly Ai Weiwei's. In any case, as Klayman follows her subject around, exhaustively and sympathetically, from 2008 to 2011, we see a lot of his political activity but we don't actually see much of Ai's art. Some of what we do see is being executed by other people, his associates, according to his instructions.
The most famous Ai work we see is a model for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Bird's Nest Stadium, which was co-planned with two Swiss architects. The most perplexing is a huge gallery installation for London's Tate Modern, consisting of a floor allegedly covered with 100 million sunflower seeds. (Manohla Dargis of The New York Times describes them as handmade porcelain seeds.) It's called "Sunflower Seeds." Another installation in Munich is said to be composed of 9,000 backpacks. One of his more amusing projects involve a series of self-shot snapshots where he gives the finger to a variety of famous landmarks. Anyway, I wasn't impressed by the seeds. Or by the concept. But then I'm not impressed with very much conceptual art. (I'll excuse the Bird's Nest, but then we don't really see much of it.) Ai called the address of his studio (later demolished by Chinese authorities), 258 Fake, and at times, I wondered if this was some kind of private joke.
But I am impressed with Ai Weiwei -- as a cultural or political figure and a man of considerable courage, confronting a government of considerable brutality and cowardice. Documentarian Klayman met Ai in China in 2008, and followed him around and recorded him intimately for the next few years up to his arrest in 2011 on a tax evasion charge. Among the political actions we see him take are his fierce attacks on the government for shoddy school construction that led to the deaths of thousands of students in the Sichuan earthquake. (Ai collected the names of at least 5,000.) When some of his avenues of expression are shut down, he begins to blog and tweet about the scandal, devastatingly. Somewhere along the line, the government arrests him and beats him. (The government denies this, but we see the marks and bruises.)
Klayman, who won the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, also tells us the backstory of Ai's dissident father, poet Ai Qing, who was imprisoned and "re-educated" during Mao's heyday, and is obviously a huge influence on his son. Klayman also shows us Ai's feisty artist wife Lu Qing, his stalwart but worried mother Gao Ying, and some of his 40 cats -- including one remarkable puss who has learned how to leap up and open a door by hitting the latch or knob. Ai is quite impressed by this feline feat, and so am I. I also hope that the artist and the Chinese People win their fight for democracy and transparency. I hope we all do, for that matter. In English and Mandarin Chinese, with subtitles. (Extras: commentary by director Klayman; deleted scenes; interviews; trailer.)
Trouble with the Curve (B)
U.S.: Robert Lorenz, 2012, Warner Bros.
He's an old guy and he knows it and so do we. But he's still got chops. And he can still surprise us. One of the first times we see Clint Eastwood, in his latest role as aging longtime baseball scout Gus Lobel in Trouble with the Curve, he's talking to his penis, standing in the john, trying to coax his aging and now cantankerous prostate into action -- and then cursing it out after he finally gets a decent stream. "I outlasted you, ya little bastard," he says. A classic Clint line -- full of macho bile, funny profanity and an edge covering that air of sweet geniality which is the flipside, or underside, or secret identity of his gruff "Don't mess with me" Dirty Harry persona.
Trouble with the Curve is Eastwood's first role on screen since the seemingly valedictory aging tough guy retiree part of Walt Kowalski in 2008's Gran Torino. It's a good role, and, for the most part, a good movie, even though it's, at times, corny and predictable and full of clichés and a shameless star vehicle and yadda-yadda-yadda. Clichés don't damage a movie as much as most people think though; what matters is how you play them. And, if anyone can liven up a gunfight or a bar-fight or a car-chase or a put-down, it's Eastwood.
In this case, C.E. puts the juice into a predictable but very good-natured baseball movie about an old coot of a scout going blind and trying to hide it and hang on as the younger punks in the Atlanta Braves front office try to shove him out the door. Meanwhile, stubborn Gus goes on the road to North Carolina to evaluate a supposed high school homer-hitting phenom, this time with the help of his very brainy, very pretty lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), with whom he's had communication problems since her mom died when Mickey was 6, but with whom he now gets a chance to bond.
Did I mention John Goodman is on board as Gus' best friend in the front office, chief of scouts Pete Klein, who keeps trying to save his buddy's butt from the resident smart-ass, Philip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who's angling for Pete's job, and probably saw Moneyball five times and sounds as if he should be on a yacht somewhere, sloshing a martini and putting moves on Mila Kunis? Or that Mickey has a likely beau in Johnny "The Flame" Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a one-time flame-throwing pitcher whom Gus recruited and who blew out his arm in middle relief in the bigs and now is one of Gus' rival scouts, working for the Red Sox? Or that there's a bar scene where the bar regulars do a clog dance and where some joker hits on Mickey at the pool table, and Gus rams him against the wall and wheezes "Now get the hell out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you." (See what I mean about pros and clichés?)
The object of all these scouting reports and Machiavellian machinations, the home-run-hitting high school phenom Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), is a pudgy egomaniac who bullies his teammates, insults Mexican peanut vendors, acts like a real asshole, and maybe has -- dare I say it -- trouble hitting the curve ball.
I liked most of those scenes and all of those characters and most of the actors (especially Eastwood and Adams). The whole movie might have been terrific, actually, if Eastwood had directed it as well as produced and acted in it. Trouble with the Curve is one of those "little" movies he liked to make in his big star actor-director heyday: movies like the antic Bronco Billy and the melancholy Honkytonk Man -- the more offbeat shows that pointed the way to his eventual prestige-laden post-Unforgiven career.
Eastwood was the producer here, and his director was Robert Lorenz, Eastwood's longtime producer, assistant director and second unit director. This is obviously a "thank you" from the boss. And Lorenz does a good job, just not a great one. (Extras: discussion between Eastwood and Lorenz; discussion with Adams and Timberlake.)
Pitch Perfect (B-)
U.S.: Jason Moore, 2012, Universal
In the mood for a teen-oriented movie musical comedy about college boys' and girls' a cappella groups? Want to watch (and hear) a bunch of enthusiastic unaccompanied singers slugging it out in the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), with unaccompanied (sort of) renditions of songs like "Whip It," "Turn the Beat Around" and "Like a Virgin"?
Want to watch (and hear) a movie where star Anna Kendrick does a Psycho shower scene parody, while playing a tattooed, ear-pierced mash-up freshman queen named Beca who joins a failing a cappella group called the Bellas and is pursued by a persistent freshman boy singer called Jesse (Skylar Astin) -- a sweetheart of a guy who thinks the world's most moving movie (and one of the five best-scored) is The Breakfast Club? I didn't think so.
Well, as Rebel Wilson's character Fat Amy might say, never judge a book or a movie (or a song) by its cover. Defying all seemingly reasonable expectations, Pitch Perfect turns out to be a cute, smart, funny show, well-directed (by Jason Moore), well-acted (by Kendrick, Wilson and a cast of dozens), well-sung (there are lots of songs and they're usually fun) and (this is a shock) well-written. Pitch Perfect is full of clichés of course. But it also has a lot of surprisingly sharp wisecracks and snappy dialogue -- courtesy of 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon.
If you skip Pitch Perfect you'll be missing all the bouncy a cappella scenes, which even survive a projectile vomit gag or two. And you'll miss the scene with Toni Basil's "Mickey" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and all of Wilson's one-liners. You'll miss Fat Amy herself, one of raunchiest, most amusing characters in any recent movie, played by an actress who sometimes has three times more presence than anyone else on screen.
The movie is based on the non-fiction book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, by Mickey Rapkin, which gives the actual lowdown on these contests. So even though this show is corny and predictable, it speaks (and sings) with some authority.
Jason Moore, who directed Broadway's Avenue Q, keeps things zipping along. Writer Cannon keeps the badinage popping. The choreography, by Aakomon "A.J." Jones, is nifty.
Anyway, the show is entertaining. The cast is delightful. Anna Kendrick... well, she's a sugarplum, tattooed or not, in or out of the shower. As for Rebel Wilson, she's a sugar-cantaloupe, an encyclopedia of wit and wildness. This woman deserves an Academy Award for sass. (Extras: commentary by Jason Moore and producers Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman and David Brooks; featurettes; deleted and extended scenes; My Scenes; "Starships" music video.)
Total Recall (B-)
U.S.: Len Wiseman, 2012, Sony
Total Recall is a remake, or recycling, or rehash, of the 1990 Paul Verhoeven-Arnold Schwarzenegger-Sharon Stone sci-fi actioner of the same title about a company that creates false memories, which in turn was based (not that faithfully) on one of Philip K. Dick's stories, the impudently titled "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (a riff on the title of a Jerome Weidman novel). It's a typical Dick idea. On a future Earth, a company called Rekall implants false memories in the mind of the central character, who discovers that the world he knows and the life he leads may be a phonies and illusions. An intriguing set-up. But good Dick ideas have been wasted or buried under shtick and gloss before and that's often the case here.
When Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger made the first Total Recall back in 1990, scripters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett added to Dick's story a revolutionary movement on Mars. The new movie, directed at full throttle by Len Wiseman and designed smashingly by Patrick Tatopoulos, junks Mars and replaces it with a revolution on Earth. (Or is it?)
But (unhappily) it doesn't return more of the inventive story and rivetingly loony plot twists of Dick's bad-dreamy original. Instead, Wiseman and scenarists Kurt Wimmer (of the preposterous Law Abiding Citizen) and Mark Bomback (of the exciting Unstoppable) dream up a future Earth divided into a domain of the Haves (The United Federation of Britain, on the isle of the old Great Britain) and the Workers (The Colony, where Australia used to be). These two areas are connected by an immense elevator tunneling through the earth, called The Fall, which, naturally, becomes an arena for frequent fights and chases and all-out mayhem.
In fact, fights and chases and all-out mayhem -- beginning with a bad dream in which Doug Quaid and heroine Melina are pursued by obvious bad guys, are what this movie is all about. It's basically a slam-banger, with minimal characterization and so-so dialogue, but with almost nonstop action and carnage. It also has a good cast underused: Colin Farrell in the Schwarzenegger role of Doug Quaid, Kate Beckinsale in the Sharon Stone role of Doug's suddenly mean wife Lori -- plus Jessica Biel as rebel gal Melina, Bryan Cranston as charlatan tyrant Cohaagen, Bill Nighy as rebel leader Matthias, and Bokeem Woodbine as Harry, Doug's affable co-worker. Or are they, really?
Now, I know the automatic answer to objections about the mediocre writing here: People don't go to movies like Total Recall for dialogue and character; they go for the action.
I don't think that's true, and it shouldn't be true. In the great action and adventure and science fiction movies (like the Dick-derived Blade Runner), as much as any other kind of movies (except silent ones), audiences want, or should want, and should have, all or most of those elements, and they deserve all of them. It seems ridiculous to spend mega-millions on a show, and not try to make it as good as possible in every area. Why cast actors this talented in a production this elaborate and expensive, and in a story with concepts and themes as provocative as Dick's, and then give those actors almost nothing to do but fights and chases?
Wiseman, who directed the first two Underworld movies (with his now-wife Beckinsale), as well as Live Free and Die Hard, is a devotee of the first Die Hard, the first Lethal Weapon and the Indiana Jones movies, so it's easy to see why he emphasizes action so much. But if, in fact well-staged action and bloodshed is all that audiences really want, then our movies have been sadly depleted, robbed of their full power (the power of people and emotions as well as of action and machinery) and so has our whole popular culture.
You can tell part of what's wrong here by watching the cast try to shove some meaning and emotion into their roles. Nighy, often a splendid actor, wanders in and out here, as if he's stumbled onto the wrong set and was trying to find his way out without too much embarrassment. Cranston seems to be rehearsing for a Saturday Night Live parody of sci-fi epics. Bokeem Woodbine may have a sitcom in mind.
Farrell takes his job seriously, and he's certainly a better actor than Schwarzenegger was. But unfortunately he doesn't have lines as good -- an unusual kudo for a Schwarzenegger movie. As for Beckinsale and Biel, they're a seductive pair, even though, in this movie, they have too much fighting and chasing, and not enough seducing or femme-fataling. It's also sometimes hard to tell them apart -- except that Lori snarls a lot. Watching this latest movie stab at Philip K. Dick's fantastic world, I knew how she felt. (Extras: featurettes; gag reel; Total Action; God of War game demo; pre-visualization sequences.)