PICK OF THE WEEK
The Kids Are All Right (B)
U.S.; Lisa Cholodenko, 2010, Focus
This is the kind of top-quality medium-budget movie they should definitely make more often in Hollywood: a smart, realistic, humane script with lots of savvy contemporary observations, and good parts for excellent actors. The actors, a first-rate ensemble -- especially Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo -- have a ball, and director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko fills scene after scene with Cassavetsian realism/spontaneity and Hal Ashby-style L.A. humor and sparkle.
The story centers on a longtime lesbian couple -- workaholic doctor Nic (Bening) and easier-going part-time landscaper Jules (Julianne Moore) -- who have had a son and daughter, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton's Alice), by the same anonymous sperm donor.
Curious about his father, Laser persuades Joni to join in seeking his identity -- and they soon discover that the distant dad is a happy-go-lucky, motorcycle-riding organic gardener-restaurateur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who proves open to establishing ties with his children, and even to starting up a friendship with their mothers. He's a charming guy with a what-the-hell swinger's attitude and a real nonstop Mark Ruffalo smile, and Jules, Joni and Laser all like him. But Nic, the control freak of the family, thinks he's trouble and suspects he might want to take over her family. She's right -- as he soon proves it by starting a clandestine affair with Jules, whom he first hires for a landscape job. Troubles follow, portrayed sometimes wittily, sometimes with dramatic intensity. (The funny scenes are usually better.)
Ruffalo gives a brilliant performance as Paul. He's got the character's laid-back hedonism and seductive hang-loose patter down pat. Bening, who's been giving really wonderful performances in recent years (in Mothers and Sons, for example), is wonderful here too. She stops just sort of making Nic an obnoxious control freak, and she has that great nervous, anxious grin. But she also shows clearly why the household and family need her, as even more than a breadwinner. And Moore, whom I've never seen play a false moment, conveys Jules' sweetness and languor with great delicacy and spice.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Chaplin at Keystone (A)
U.S.; Charles Chaplin, Mack Sennett and others, 1914, Flicker Alley
Charlie Chaplin was 25 when he signed with the Keystone movie studio in December 1913. He was a short, unusually agile young Britisher, with an unusually radiant smile, hailing from the slums of London, and fresh out of Fred Karno's touring comedy troupe. And he had just contracted to make a year's worth of two-reelers for Hollywood's reigning master of slapstick movie comedy, Keystone's head laughmeister, Mack Sennett. Chaplin -- or Charlie, as he was soon to be known almost everywhere on the planet -- thought making a few movies would be good publicity for his stage act.
But soon the young comic's movie career had far surpassed his old theatrical one. He acted in his first two-reeler, Making a Living (produced by Sennett) in February 1914. It wasn't too good. Then he began to write, and to direct.
By the end of 1914, working almost nonstop, he had acted in 35 comedies for Keystone, including the first-ever silent comedy feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance. He had written and directed (or co-directed) 18 of those pictures, and already made some of his first classics (Dough and Dynamite, Laughing Gas, The Masquerader, The New Janitor, The Rounders). He had created, refined -- and even thrown together the costume and false mustache for -- the character the Little Tramp, who would become the 20th century's most universally recognized symbol of laughter, tears, helpless love and kicks in the ass.
Quite a year. And it's all here: restored, preserved, presented and beautifully annotated in this magnificent comedy collection from Flicker Alley: 32 of the Keystone films, and two fragments, with only one short film, His Friend, the Bandit still completely missing and unaccounted for.
What the four-disc Flicker Alley set documents and displays is one of the screen's great comic creations, as it progresses step by step, skip by skip, to hilarious fruition. Chaplin's Tramp -- with his ill-fitting clothes (the jacket too tight, the pants too large, the derby perched tippily but unfallingly on his brow), his nose-length smudge of a mustache, his disastrous flopping shoes, his lewdly flipping and slashing cane, his quick shifts between an incandescent smile and stunned gloom, his resourceful kicks and whirls and leaps and bouncing skittering hop-hop-hop right turns -- that was Charlie's prize persona, his mother-lode, his comic crown jewel, his fortune.
Chaplin created many other characters as well that first year, including a gallery of marvelously sleazy gigolos, villains, and rakes, some pitch-perfect park leches and mashers, one of the screen's great inebriates, a few wittily henpecked and mischievous middle-class husbands, a clutch of inexhaustibly energetic working-class misfits and scamps, and even, briefly, one of the Keystone's celebrated, hopelessly inept Kops.
Chaplin worked with great or highly gifted colleagues -- producer-director-writer Sennett, saucy little costar-codirector Mabel, and grand fellow clowns Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Charley Parrott (a.k.a. Chase), Mack Swain, Chester ("I am Mr. Walrus") Conklin, mug-happy Ford Sterling (the Keystone lead comedian whom Charlie replaced) and his Tillie Partner, Marie Dressler, a Broadway empress who had to wait for talkies to became a superstar. And he worked with them all well and generously, with full appreciation of their comic gifts and of how to use them, and with seeming utter lack of scene-stealing malice -- though of course, he could steal a scene from anyone, if he really wanted to. Silent movies, with intertitles and musical scores. (Extras: Charlie et sa belle (Charlie's White Elephant), a1 916 French cartoon, with animated Chaplin figure; Inside the Keystone Project, a featurette on the Lobster Films-Flicker Alley project; Silent Traces: The Keystone Locations, a featurette revisiting the real-life outdoor settings of Charlie's Keystone films; rare image Gallery; booklet with a Jeffrey Vance essay on Chaplin, and Vance's valuable notes on the films.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Clash of the Titans (B)
U.S.; Louis Leterrier, 2010, Warner
The Kraken, the Medusa, the Pegasus and the lobster monsters are smashing successes in director Louis Leterrier's lavish remake of Clash of the Titans -- the 1981 Ray Harryhausen mythological epic. But the people and the Gods could use a little more work. That's a typical story for a big-studio fantasy blockbuster. Great CGI, obvious characters spouting, in this case, predictable mytho-gibberish.
But this genuinely spectacular movie, which plunges us into the adventures of the demigod wanderer Perseus, impersonated by Avatar's Sam Worthington (with a Russell Crowe glower and some Don Johnson stubble), does have something to knock your eyes out in almost every scene. We follow Perseus' incredibly action-packed agenda, from the moment he's plucked out of a coffin floating in the ocean, and from his mother's arms, by good fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), to his Spartacus-like capture at Argos, to his recruitment into the war of the humans against the Gods (and Devils), to his last bloody battle with the rampaging Kraken and the madly pretentious Hades. And, as we do, the movie visualizes, stunningly, one mythological adventure and Greek-god coup de theatre after another (often reprised from the 1981 Clash).
Leterrier (who also directed The Incredible Hulk) keeps hurling all this spectacle and mythomania into our faces -- from bloody warfare and tumbling statues on the ocean-whipped crags and cliffs of Argos, to writhing snake-women slithering up from the lava pits of the fiery underworld ruled by whispery Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to the soaring flight of the black-winged flying horse Pegasus swooping over Ancient Greece, to the Lawrence of Arabia like desert trek of Perseus, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and some monstrous-looking pseudo-Arab sheiks mounted on the suddenly tamed scorpions, to the climactic furious moment when the Kraken explodes up from the ocean like the Alien ripping loose from John Hurt's chest, and makes all hell break loose for the last act.
Mount Olympus, unfortunately, is the one set where production designer Martin Laing and supervising art director Troy Sizemore and company were a bit asleep at the myth-switch. Up on that showy mountain resort of the gods, is a skimpy-looking heaven, where the deities stand around uncomfortably on little circles in scenes that had all the ambiance and power of an Allstate commercial.
Leterrier seems to be having fun with the material. He is another of the current crop of French action and horror movie slam-bangers like Pierre Morel (Taken), Gerard Krawczyk and Alexandre Aja (High Tension). He and they try to beat movie Yanks at our own violent games, and some of the time, they succeed.
The Last Airbender (D)
U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan, 2010, Paramount
Based on the highly praised anime TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender -- but sadly unable to use "Avatar" in the title -- this is M. Night Shyamalan's futuristic saga of a post-Apocalypse world divided into the warring kingdoms of Earth, Air, Wind and Fire, with the kingdom of Fire, run by Cliff Curtis' evil Lord Ozai, bullying everybody -- including the young Avatar, Aang, who is played by Noah Ringer -- and forcing them all to live in a horrible universe dominated by bad 3D effects. By the way, to make up for the fact that "Avatar" couldn't be used in the title, it's used at least ten thousand times in the dialogue.
Is there any truth to the rumor that M. Night Shyamalan has been kidnapped and that this movie, originally called "The Last Fenderbender," was directed by an impostor named M. Night Schlemiel? I'm afraid not, though the gifted Shyamalan may need a Seventh Sense to recover.
Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (D+)
U.S.; Brad Payton, 2010, Warner
I wouldn't wish this movie -- a parody of James bond films starring animatronics or digitally enlivened cats and dogs in comedy super-spy roles -- on my worst enemy. In fact, after the opening credits, a parody of Maurice Binder's floating Bond Girl credits with floating Bond Kitties, and right after the opening scene, where a cute little puppy starts photographing secret documents -- I desperately wanted to leave.
Soon the movie was happily introducing me to its photogenic, barking hero, Diggs, a well-meaning but overenthusiastic police German Shepherd (voiced by James Marsden), whose cop-buddy Shane (Chris O'Donnell) can't save him for the over-punctilious force. Diggs though is rather oddly being recruited by the Central Intelligence Arf, or whatever it was, to fight the insidious Kitty Galore (Bette Midler). And Diggs is paired with ace spy, feline beauty and exemplar of dog and cat détente Catherine (voiced by Christina Applegate).
The writers' chutzpah, or catzpah, knows no bounds. They've written a scene for villainous cat Mr. Tinkles, in which he's strapped up in a cell like Hannibal Lecter, and they have a doggie role for ex-Bondsman Roger Moore, as tuxedo cat Tad Lazenby (last name in honor of the star of On Her Majesty's Secret Service). I'm glad Daniel Craig and Timothy Dalton resisted any possible blandishments. But what about a cameo for Sean Connery as a Scottie?
No idiots, I trust, were harmed during the making of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Worse movies have been made. Perhaps though, this movie will be the springboard of what now seems a badly needed adjunct of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Audiences by Animal Movies.
Lottery Ticket (C)
U.S.; Erik White, 2010, Warner
One of my best newspaper buddies used to say about colleagues we knew who'd gotten great jobs or notable career advancement without really deserving them: "They won the lottery!" I always knew what he meant. Winning the lottery is a surefire way of getting ahead in the world without displaying a lick of talent or hard work.
That's why, on one level, it's a favorite fantasy of lots of the citizenry -- and also why its hard to sympathize too much with ex-kid rapper Bow Wow as Kevin Carson, the protagonist of the comedy Lottery Ticket. Kevin is a likeable guy from the Atlanta projects who suddenly wins $370 million in the "Mondo Millions" super-sweepstakes.
One hitch. It's Saturday of a fourth of July weekend that will stretch through Monday, so Kevin can't cash the ticket until Tuesday the fifth. He tries to keep it a secret, but unfortunately, the other person who knows is his terminally talkative Grandma (Loretta Devine).
Soon, Kevin's life has taken a marked turn for the worse, or at least the more dangerous. All of a sudden, he has all kinds of "friends" he doesn't want -- and his real longtime friends (including Brandon T. Jackson as best bud Benny, and Naturi Naughton as true-blue gal pal Stacie -- are feeling neglected. Terairra Mari as foxy Nikki, who wouldn't give him a tumble, appoints Kevin her newest cutie. Projects smart-aleck David (Charlie Murphy) keeps pulling out his pistol to support him. The local pastor, slick Rev. Taylor, preaches a sermon about a new multimillion-dollar church building project, and it's aimed straight at Kevin's pew. The local godfather and loan shark, Sweet Tee (the always excellent Keith David), is happy to float Kevin a $100,000 loan and leave him with a torpedo named Jimmy the Driver (Terry Crews).
And the most dangerous man in the projects -- psycho ex-con Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) -- wants the ticket, the $370 million, and maybe Kevin's bootie, and doesn't care whom he has to bash to get it.
Lottery Ticket has a terrific ensemble cast, and first-time feature director Erik White keeps them all in high gear. The performances are lively, snappy, and sometimes as rich as Kevin will be, if he survives to Tuesday.
The script, unfortunately, falls apart by Sunday.
The Extra Man (C+)
U.S.: Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman, 2010, Magnolia
Very funny performance by Kevin Kline as a threadbare, acid-tongued Manhattan Noel Coward type who survives by escorting old ladies to posh parties, and who takes on a nave young Manhattan arrival (Paul Dano) and shows him the ropes. Dano, Katie Holmes (the girl in the story) and John C. Reilly are not as good. (This is one of Reilly's weirder performances, and voices, as an eccentric, shaggy artist). But they don't have to be; it's Kline's show, and he gives it the right edge-of-the-ledge sparkle. Written and directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who portrayed an American oddball aesthete with similar wit and sympathy in American Splendor. (Extras: commentaries with Kline, novelist Joanthan Ames and the directors; featurettes; deleted scenes.)