Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Croods (2013)

Yes, The Croods was nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, but I have the feeling it slipped out of sight a bit too quickly. I watched it with other adults, and needed no kid-approval to encourage us to laugh out loud. Fast, funny, smart, great-looking, wonderfully voice-acted—The Croods fits comfortably between the solid child-oriented Pixars and winking Shrek after-comers. And it's no surprise that Nicholas Cage is an amazing voice actor—let alone Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keenr, the great Cloris Leachman—and what a treat: Clark Duke, who fared so well in the last season of The Office—to my taste, in no small part because he looks so much like a young Roger Ebert.

The best thing about The Croods is its dedication to the pace of Tex Avery's work for MGM. Like The Incredibles, it trusts our eyes to keep up, and rewards us—both visually and in its many throwaway verbal gags—for doing so. It's a movie I've seen only once, but as soon as it was over I knew I wanted to see it again. "Good boy, Douglas!"

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

Cutie and the Boxer is a bittersweet examination of the artist's life: quirky and determined, with a sad backstory and an uncertain future. But the show goes on, the Boxer still treks his way halfway around the world, from NYC to his home country, Japan, just to make a couple thousand dollars, an old man hauling sunsplash canvasses of boxing-glove paint-flowers and wacky fantasy choppers—while his wife, a real Cutie in many ways, turns her bulgy-charming autobiographical comic-book drawings into wild wallpaper that surrounds her beginning to end, from her past to the anxious future.

It's quite a situation for these two, avant-garde holdovers from the heyday of power Pop Art, still plugging away. Ushio is aptly the Boxer—"Bullie" in his wife's drawings—who dons paint-soaked spongy gloves and jabs his way across the canvas. Noriko has transformed their life together into an ongoing, lifelong graphic novel, in which her surrogate, Cutie, tries mightily with Ushio/Bullie to be, as Noriko puts it, "two flowers in one pot." It is sometimes almost embarrassing to watch; I feel I'm intruding, their relationship is so intimate—and intimately bound with their troubled past, the Boxer lost in alcoholism, Cutie trying to be both a mother and an artist, both of them cramped in a small space—even their grown son, also an artist, a bit trapped, his own drinking problem stumbling around the little apartment with them.

But in the end, as much as your heart aches, a great triumph emerges: They continue, they still do art, as old and tired as they can get, groaning with the effort to turn their passion into a few dollars, just enough to pay the rent and have something tasty to eat and keep working—and in the process grow young again, their eyes sparkling. The film has the sad air of a fruitless endeavor, but one that revels in the opportunity to try anyway, for love—and, as silly as it sounds (and sorry for you if it feels that way), art.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Super Troopers

Generally, if you want to kill a movie, pass it through the Basic Cable Heavy Rotation machine a few times. Just ask The Shawshank Redemption, Cast Away, or The Lord of the Rings. And while TNT may be movie hit man #1, Comedy Central also is pretty good at wearing a film down to the nub. Fortunately, perhaps because of its solid R-ratedness, Super Troopers has survived every effort to erode the value of a movie in which a traffic stop punctuated by meows counts as an iconic moment in cinema history.

Super Troopers was the second feature film of Broken Lizard, a comedy-troupe-turned-production-team that went on to produce, for better or worse, Club Dread and Beerfest. I'm not here to defend those pictures (although they are defensible, more or less) but to assure the uninitiated that Super Troopers is an amiable sorta-cop, sorta-buddy movie that feels like a really good version of pre-Animal House '70s comedies—with an amiably ironic wink at the need for plot and coherence. That's because the movie works like sketch comedy, and it works most of the time. I'm not going to lay out a string of memorable moments—I want to, but I'd rather you find them yourself—however, I have the distinct feeling that, even if the goofy cruelty of Reno 911! or the fearless foolishness of Pineapple Express isn't paying homage to Super Troopers, they should.

If you decide to watch it, and you begin to think, "This isn't funny, it's just stupid," please remember: "These boys get that syrup in 'em, they get all antsy in their pantsy."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cropsey (2009)

I'm not sure whether Cropsey is entirely successful as a documentary—but as an evocation of some of the most striking features of post-Blair Witch Project horror, it manages to settle into one's consciousness like X-Files Black Oil. That's not to say that its basic "documentary" premise isn't compelling: Staten Island filmmakers/residents explore an urban legend from their childhood involving accounts of child disappearances and the potential link to a local home for developmentally disabled children. The disappearances occurred, the hospital was a snakepit—Geraldo Rivera earned his place in TV journalism history by exposing it back in the early 1970s—and an appropriately creepy suspect was apprehended and convicted; and the film does a good job of exploring the uneasy intersection between the anxious desire to uncover mysteries and the flights of imagination needed to try.

However, what stays with me most are the ghostly, straight-to-tape visuals (Rivera's foremost, his cameraman's bright lights smearing across the darkened frame to catch glimpses of the hospital's miserable inmates cowering under lavatory sinks, huddled in corners) and the overall mood of a dream remembered—as both dream and memory wander, circle closer, then end in uncertainty. Again, while the film explores an idea—the limits of understanding—it does so by evoking the shaky-cam grainy aesthetic of "found-footage" horror films. I'm not sure if the filmmakers deliver an entirely ethical film, but it's invaluable as a confrontation with our desire to see horror at odds with our dread of feeling terror. The former entertains, in a sudden-drop-dizzy kind of way, but the latter—ah, that's Edmund Burke territory, the most sublime feeling, the one that tosses us back a few dozen millennia and lets us peer into the cave where we're not the only ones hiding in the corner: Something's in there with us. And it's Something that we may have made, but it lives on its own now, and little movies like Cropsey swing the light bar and give us a glimpse of what it might be.

It is with some hesitation that I provide a link to Geraldo Rivera's 1972 Eyewitness News piece:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

It's been more than a decade, at least, since I've seen The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)—but, from what I do recall, it's the kind of movie best recommended from a position of uncertainty and in dim recollection. I'm fond of noting the dreamlike quality of many films—of even the act of movie-watching itself—but that may well be a flaw on my part, too willing as I am to fall in love with any bright thing that catches my eye, no matter how dimly.

But this movie is perfectly suited to the oneiric trance-state: I'm certain that even as you watch it, as it lies right there brand-new on the surface of your eyeballs, it will fall into dreams. Jodie Foster is Taxi Driver-young, but already older than you'd think—or maybe like. And Martin Sheen is in that first surprising period of his career when you're never quite sure what he might do next. The two of them are Dreamers, and this movie is suited to their nodding heads—and your own, if you're willing to peer into the fuzzy spaces this movie jams everyone into, the clammy situations—pedophilia, Oedipal glee, blank loneliness, false magic, all kinds of desperate secrecy and everyday weirdness—that the '70s perfected. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was released a year before Eraserhead; David Lynch's picture, though, was four years in the making; he must've exhaled some strange juju across the middle of that decade to encourage all kinds of dank blossoms to bloom, including this one.

NOTE: This title is no longer available on Instant Play; disc only. Curses!

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I can't decide whether Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky is assertively optimistic or aggressively pessimistic—and I could certainly surrender and write that it's both, and not be dismissed too quickly. After all, while those who set themselves against happy-go-lucky "Poppy" (Sally Hawkins in total immersion mode) are damaged at the least and pure creeps at the worst, they do not necessarily prevail: She continues to be herself, and continues to remold the world as a good place. On the other hand, her attempts to do so often seem painfully naive. In particular, the driving instructor she must deal with because her bike had been stolen is a dangerous lunatic—and not a comic one, not a Danny McBride galoot you can't find yourself able to hate, despite his self-absorbed brutishness.  No, Poppy is saddled with a deeply disturbed man (played by the ever-tightly-wound Eddie Marsan, one of the many gems in the British character actor crown). But: She takes to him, she plugs away, she insists that she can be happy—and that he can, too.

I'll leave this inkblot of a movie up to you. If I must commit to some position, I'd offer that it may be a movie that wants you to reject Poppy's worldview—and then reveals exactly the world you're left with. Whether she's a fool or not, Poppy's paradise seems better than the hell she so doggedly attempts to ignore. Whether she can survive her handmade heaven is another matter.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

There's a little joke in Safety Not Guaranteed (or it's one I'm imagining) that anyone who's into "hip" network sitcoms and also was into animation in its 1990s-TV heyday might get: The female lead is named "Darius," and to top it off she's played by Aubrey Plaza, who in Parks and Recreation over the past few years has been honing her almost-Goth-but-mostly-bored post-millennial version of the kind of post-adolescent scorn we know so well from Ghost World—and (the point of the little joke) from Daria, the Beavis and Butt-Head MTV spinoff in the late '90s that featured an Aubrey-Plaza-like dark-haired, monotone-voiced young woman who's long been Over It. What "it," you might ask? Well, like Brando's rebel in The Wild Ones, whatever you got.*

Here, she's ready to have nothing to do with a Silly Season news story that may not be there at all, about a classified ad from someone seeking a time-travel companion who "must bring your own weapons." Let me pause and note that the past decade has seen what may be the Great Time-Travel Movie Renaissance—and not just big-budget near-hits and definite-misses like Hot Tub Time Machine and The Lake House; just scout around, and there's Time Crimes, the ineffable Donnie Darko, and the big-budget, clever-plus-morose Looper—not to mention the mysterious and dense king of the indie time-travel pics, Primer.  Even Woody Allen has fun with time-travel as regressive escape in Midnight in ParisSafety Not Guaranteed actually has more in common with Allen's picture than the others, in that the movie is mostly about states of mind and relationships than it is the usual (and, when done correctly, compelling) paradoxes of tinkering with time.

The tone of the movie is pure indie-quirky, with equal measures world-weary irony and exasperated risk-taking.  Again, let me stress that the fun of the usual time-travel movie is nicely subsumed here into a consideration of the personalities who would indulge in it—and of those who find themselves attracted to such indulgence. Above all, the ongoing skepticism of the reporter and accompanying interns allows the movie its punchline: Is it real? Will someone travel in time? No spoilers here, just a reassurance that things get clear enough at the end to justify Darius' growing conviction that the existence of time travel is not as important as the decision to believe in it.

*And just to lean on the cute-hip-o-meter a little more, Plaza's co-star is Jake Johnson from The New Girl, a show that may be the epitome of postmodern screwball, and I mean that as a big fan.