If You Let It, “Venus in Fur” Will Dominate Your Senses

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)

Whether or not one finds Roman Polanski a great artist, a problematic human being, or both (there’s a terrific 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that explores his sexual crime of the 1970s), he proves in his new French-language film, Venus in Fur, that he can still direct a powerfully affecting story. Given that this movie takes place in a single location with only two actors, who spend all of their time talking to each other without the benefit of visual effects (unless one considers lead actress Emmanuelle Seigner’s leather corset one such effect), Polanksi’s feat in creating such a cinematically gripping tale out of such spare tools is especially remarkable. True, it all breaks down and descends into a bit of forced hokum at the end, but until it does, Venus in Fur is a movie that dominates your head, your heart and possible other parts unmentioned.

The film is based on a play by David Ives (who collaborated with Polanksi on the screenplay adaptation), which was, itself, inspired by the 1870 Austrian novel of almost the same title, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name, because of this book, formed the basis of the word “Masochism”). The story is that of one Thomas Novachek, a playwright (and first-time director) who has just adapted von Sacher-Masoch’s book for the stage. At the end of a hard day of terrible auditions, as Thomas is preparing to leave the deserted theater for a relaxing dinner with his fiancée, in walks a bedraggled woman of uncertain age and provenance, who introduces herself as Vanda (the same first name as the main woman in the book and play), and declares that she is there (albeit late) for an audition. She has even come with costumes, including a modern leather dominatrix outfit (which Thomas sneeringly derides as anachronistic) and a 19th-century dress. She is working-class and vulgar, and not at all in the mold of the character that Thomas has written, yet after some back and forth, she manages to convince him to let her read. And then, suddenly, she metamorphoses into an almost perfect incarnation of the woman of Thomas’s words (and, possibly, dreams).

What follows is a delightful series of short vignettes of the play within the movie – a play which appears to be about one man’s obsession with seeking pleasure from pain and punishment at the hands of a dominant woman – interrupted by frequent breaks when Vanda insists on questioning the themes of the play, and Thomas’s motives in writing it. Slowly, this woman whom Thomas initially treats as his own private Pygmalion begins to take over the action, turning Thomas from creator/dominator to creation/submissive. It’s a fascinating progression, and the two leads incarnate their characters with wit, wisdom . . . and no small amount of sexiness. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among many terrific roles), one of France’s finest actors – and here coiffed à la Polanski, becoming the film director’s doppelgänger on screen – gives a performance imbued with the usual thoughtfulness we have come to expect from him, along with a touching nervousness I had not seen before. It is Seigner (also in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which she played Amalric’s long-suffering wife), however, who is the revelation here. Earlier in her career, in movies from her husband Polanski’s fallow period, such as FranticBitter Moon and The Ninth Gate, she demonstrated an almost embarrassingly shallow range of emotions. But in the last 10 years she has grown as an actress, and now in her late 40s is a magnificent and nuanced screen presence. The way she makes her Vanda instantly jump from 19th-century diction to 21st-century patois is a marvel to behold. See the movie for her (and her boots!). True, for this viewer, the ending became too obvious and clumsy for me to call the entire film great, but until those final 15 minutes I was hooked.

Midday on Film, 7/25 @ 1pm: Hits, Misses, Sleepers & Indies – The Narrative of Summer 2014

Rodricks Summer 2014 Movies Blog Image

It’s that time of year again, when we review the films of the summer blockbuster season – those in theaters, those that have come and maybe gone, and those soon to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and what to avoid. From Transformers: Age of Extinction to Snowpiercer to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Think Like a Man Too to Obvious Child to Life Itself and beyond, we’ve got your summer movie needs covered.

Join us on Friday, July 25, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University - appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss the hits, the misses, the sleepers and the independent releases (now often called “specialty market” or “limited debut” films).

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

Roger Ebert Embodies “Life Itself” in All Its Glory

Life Itself

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Documentary director Steve James (Hoop DreamsThe Interrupters) began filming Roger Ebert five months before he died. Just as they began making the movie, Ebert was admitted to the hospital with a pain in his hip, which turned out to be a cancerous tumor. This followed a series of health issues that began in 2002, when the then 60-year-old film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (made famous through his long-standing collaboration with Gene Siskel) was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which ultimately led to the amputation of his lower jaw in 2006. In spite of that history, neither James nor Ebert, nor Ebert’s wife, Chaz, could have foreseen that Ebert would die (in April, 2013) before the project upon which they had just embarked would be completed. They had intended the film to be a celebration of Ebert’s life as a man, critic and thinker. It would have been nice for Ebert to see this moving tribute to him, but his death in no way inhibits the power of the encomium: indeed, taking its title from Ebert’s 2011 autobiography, the film is a most fitting eulogy, revealing Ebert in all his great humanity and intellect.

At times the film is hard to watch, since Ebert allowed himself to be filmed during his final days, and seeing the once vital television presence reduced (physically, not mentally) to a shell of his former self is painful. Still, though the lower part of his face may loosely flap where the jaw used to be, Ebert’s eyes remain bright throughout. Narrated by James, the film also includes interviews with Chaz, Ebert’s friends, his colleagues, filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, one of the film’s producers, who wasn’t always well-reviewed by Ebert), as well as fellow critics (who didn’t always agree with him). We see archival footage from some of the many tapings of his show with Siskel (including behind-the-scenes sniping between the two, which is funny), as well as from some of his innumerable appearances at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s annual Conference on World Affairs, plus home videos of his life with Chaz and her children and grandchildren. We learn a lot more about the man (who won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975), but for me to reveal all it in this review would spoil your pleasure in discovering the information, yourself. Suffice it to say that the film is about a powerful populist thinker who never doubted the ability of anybody, anywhere, to appreciate art as entertainment, entertainment as art, and to see thoughtful ruminations on both as one of the reasons we were put on this earth. As much as he loved movies, however, he also loved Chaz and his family, and life, itself.

This is the movie to see this weekend in Baltimore (it’s playing at the Charles Theater). Go.

In “Sex Tape,” Diaz and Segel Avoid Complete Disaster, So There’s That . . .

Sex Tape

Sex Tape (Jake Kasdan, 2014)

Wow! There is not a single “top critic” on the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes that liked this film. The two reviews I read before seeing the movie were in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and both made it seem as if the film would be a yawn from start to finish (and a messy yawn, at that). So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing in many parts, enjoying some clever comic mise-en-scène (when it happened), and even admiring the way the film put a loving married couple at the center of a raunchy sex comedy. True, the film is crass and stupid in many ways, and completely falls apart in the last third, but before it comes unraveled it provides some decent laughs. While not as good as the previous outing from the team of director Jake Kasdan and stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, Bad Teacher, it still manages to entertain (for a while, at least). if that’s damning with faint praise, so be it, but the film is far from the unmitigated disaster that reviews would lead one to believe it is.

What comedic success there is is due in no small part to the efforts of Diaz and Segel and a new partner in crime, Rob Lowe (who has long been proving his comic timing on the TV show “Parks and Recreation“). Diaz and Segel play Annie and Jay (loving parents of two tweener kids), whose once-active sex life we see in flashback as Annie narrates a blog post she writes as the film opens. Like so many other married on-screen couples before them, Annie and Jay now have to find time to schedule sex, and it’s getting them down. One night, after Annie has successfully closed a deal to sell her blog to a company owned by Hank (Lowe), they pack the kids off to grandma’s, drink tequila, and after failing to have sex numerous times (they’re just too out of practice), drunkenly hit on the idea of filming themselves (on a new iPad) re-enacting all of the positions in Alex Comfort’s 1970s sex manual The Joy of Sex. Bingo! Flash forward to the next morning, when Annie tells the groggy Jay to make sure to delete the file. He says he’ll do it.

Except he doesn’t, and because of a strange habit (which strains credulity) he has of giving away his older iPads every time he buys a new one, and keeping those older iPads synchronized with his current music (and, accidentally, movie) playlists, through an app he thinks he understands (but doesn’t), suddenly the “sex tape” is in the possession of more than just Annie and Jay. Whoops. The rest of the film sees the panicked couple running around trying to collect the donated iPads (because Jay only later learns that he can “remote wipe” the playlists from his home computer), resulting in ever-more-desperate adventures. One such adventure lands them at Hank’s house, since Annie (in another move that strains credulity) has just that day given Hank (who hardly needs it) one of Jay’s used devices. But stupidly plotted though Hank’s involvement may be, the resultant mayhem is well worth watching, and the funniest part of the movie.

And then, yes, the story veers wildly out of control, though we do get one more funny cameo, this time from Jack Black (Bernie) as the head of their friendly local internet porn site, YouPorn (to which I will not link here). But the messes do pile up, and it becomes harder and harder to root for team Annie-and-Jay. Still, if you’re not too picky, the film provides decent slapstick before the energy disappears. It’s not great, but it’s not a total cock-up, either.

“Begin Again,” oh “Chef” – Two Films About Keeping It Simple, Stupid (Sort of)

Better late than never, right? I finally got around to seeing two films that have been in theaters for a bit (especially Chef, which opened in May), and found that they shared similar themes. Turned off by the usual bloated blockbuster fare (which has led to lower-than-hoped-for box office returns)? Perhaps these two simpler stories can entice you back to the cinema again. Neither are great masterpieces, but they entertain with charming stories and likable characters, and without massive explosions (imagine that).

Begin Again

Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

Written and directed by John Carney, who also wrote and directed the surprise 2006 hit (in indie terms) Once (since turned into a Broadway musical), Begin Again sells the virtues of not selling out and staying true to one’s artistic vision. Perhaps Mr. Carney has some concerns about his own career trajectory, but if that is what has motivated him, at least he has put those concerns into a sweet story of fall and redemption, with another almost-romance at its center, where two people in need of a fresh start meet not-so-cute, find mutual attraction, and make each other’s lives better without falling into the sack. Put like that, it sounds just like the plot of Once, in fact, except that this time, we’re in New York, rather than Dublin.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a songwriter (and sometimes singer) – whose rising-rock-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5, perfect for the part) has just ditched her on his way up - who meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo, charismatically rumpled, as always), an alcoholic former hot-shot music producer whose luck has completely run out. In spite of his lack of assets, Dan convinces Gretta to let him produce an album of her songs, to be recorded live on the streets of New York, rather than in a studio (since he doesn’t have access to one, anyway). He manages to put together a band of decent backup players, and off they go. Along the way, we meet Dan’s estranged wife and daughter, who look initially askance at his redemptive effort, but eventually buy into it. We also glimpse Gretta’s ex, Dave, as he releases his own – overly produced and mastered – album, by way of contrast. Of course, Gretta’s music is purer, as is her surprise decision, at the end, of what to do with it.

Except that, as lovely as the movie and central characters are, the problem with the film is that Gretta’s music is not that pure. We spend a lot of time with Ruffalo in the beginning as he listens to demo CDs sent his way, ranting about how bad they are, and so are primed to expect better from the songs he creates with Gretta. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when we hear how ultimately ordinary (and overly produced-sounding) they turn out to be. Still, there are a few moments in the film where Knightley – an actress I generally do not enjoy, yet very much do here – surprises us with the sweetness of her voice as she sings acoustic versions of her character’s compositions. Would that Carney had stuck with those recordings. Nevertheless, Begin Again turns out to be a genuinely pleasurable experience, and a welcome reprieve from the Bayhem madness of 2014.

Chef

Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014)

Chef is another film about someone deciding to simplify his life in the aftermath of a major crisis. Written and directed by writer/actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who started with the cult hit Swingers, in 1996, and then rose to the top of the Hollywood pyramid with Iron Man and Iron Man 2, before making the box-office and critical flop Cowboys & Aliens in 2011. Chef is the first feature he has directed since that particular fiasco, and in it he seems to be trying to return to the days when he wrote character-based stories that were not heavily dependent on special effects. The result is a likable, if slight, dramedy (heavier on the comedy than drama) that, like Begin Again, may not stay with you for long after you see it, but which offers a pleasant enough diversion while you’re watching it. Be forewarned however: do not go into the movie hungry, or you might not make it to the end of the screening, as food and cooking is in abundance, and very tempting, indeed.

Favreau (always an enjoyable screen presence) plays Carl Casper, a divorced father of one and celebrity chef in Los Angeles, who one day loses his cool over a negative review from top food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, doing his thing). He confronts said food critic at his table, and the filmed confrontation (smartphones and social media play a big role in the story) goes viral. Suddenly, Chef Carl is out of a job. So his loving ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara, playing a variation on her “Modern Family” role), invites him to tag along on a trip to see her father in Miami, ostensibly so he can finally have some time with the son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, cute), he rarely sees. Carl soon figures out that she is also scheming to set him up in a food truck owned by ex-husband #1 (Robert Downey, Jr: Iron Man, himself), an idea the two of them had once discussed when still together. Soon, sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo, also doing his thing) flies out to join them, and before you know it, the two men and Percy (with mom’s permission) are off on a road trip across America to recapture the essence of what makes food important. As a metaphor for retooling the mechanics of storytelling in the face of big-budget disaster, it’s perfect.

It’s also a little pat, and once the road trip starts, a little simple. How do they get permits to sell everywhere? How can they constantly find such great ingredients everywhere? Isn’t riding as a passenger in a food truck, without seats or safety blest, dangerous, especially for a little kid? Well, sure, these are important questions, but it’s also possible to just forget about verisimilitude for a bit and enjoy the ride. Favreau, Leguizamo, Anthony and Vergara (when she’s around) are such fun performers, with great chemistry, and the food looks so scrumptious, that it seems almost a shame to quibble over details. And it’s hard to argue with a film that promotes family unity and love as a central message. So, if possible, leave the cynicism at home, sit back and enjoy the tasty repast. You may be hungry for something more substantial, later, but in the meantime, it’s a hell of a snack.

Chimps Rule in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Summer is always a tough time to be human at the movies, and now we have a new threat from neither zombies nor aliens but – gasp – animals: in fact, from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. For those of you who saw the first film in this rebooted series, the terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you know that this is a very serious threat, indeed. Whereas in the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes (based on the 1963 novel of the same name by French author Pierre Boulle) – and the four sequels it spawned – the reason behind apes becoming the dominant species on our planet had to do with a time loop (as in, a talking chimp came back from the future to create the new race of talking chimps), in this new series the root cause of our own destruction is – as in all good disaster films - hubris. James Franco, in Rise, playing a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s, creates a virus to increase brain power, which is first tested on chimpanzees. When one such chimp goes on a rampage, forcing the owner of the lab to order all of the animals to be put down, Franco is unable to destroy the baby of that rampaging mother, and takes him home to raise as, more or less, his own child, naming him Caesar. By the end of the film, young Caesar leads a large group of liberated primates – all with enhanced intelligence, like himself – into Muir Woods, outside San Francisco. The movie ends ominously: though the apes are free, the very same virus that makes them super-smart is also deadly to humans, and we see an infected airline pilot walking through a crowded airport, coughing blood, as the credits roll.

One of the most interesting aspects of that first film is the fact that our sympathies lie so strongly with Caesar, rather than with the humans. True, we like James Franco, but we love Caesar. A CGI creation, Caesar is nevertheless acted by a real person, Andy Serkis (Golem in The Lord of the Rings films), a “performance capture” guru, whose movements and vocalizations form the basis for the animations laid down later. As Caesar grows from a baby into a mature adult, we feel he pain as his realizes how the world sees him and his ilk. Since we know he is smarter than many humans, we react viscerally to the mistreatment he suffers when Franco is forced to give him up to a shelter. I found it fascinating to be identifying with a character whose actions will eventually lead to the destruction of my own species. I enjoyed the way the film makes us question our allegiances, and makes us see the world through the eyes of our ostensible enemy.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which takes place 10 years after Rise, the virus – now called the “Simian Flu” – has wiped out most of the world’s human population. Our friends, the liberated chimpanzees (and gorillas and orangutans), have spent the time building a lovely community in the redwood forest. They follow Caesar without question, and he now has one adolescent son and another baby on the way. It’s been a few years since the last sighting of any humans when, one day, a small search party of men – and one woman (Keri Russell, fine but under-written) – led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke, very good), wanders into the woods, looking for a hydro-electric dam to restore power to the nearby city. Things do not go well – a young chimp is shot, and the humans chased away – which leads to a series of escalating confrontations and, eventually, full-out war. Caesar tries to keep the peace, but a rival of his, Koba, works behind the scenes to strike at the humans “while they’re weak” (it seems that Koba has very nasty memories of his time in captivity). Since chimpanzees are significantly stronger than humans, once an army of them gets a hold of guns, the few remaining humans who have not succumbed to the virus don’t stand a chance.

Much more than in the first film, this movie is all about the apes and their internal relationships and politics. Jason Clarke and Keri Russell try hard to make us care about their own situation, but the script keeps returning us to the problems of Caesar vs. Koba. The movie even opens and closes on a close-up of Caesar’s eyes (as if to make the point that, the closer you get, the less they look “other”). Indeed, Dawn is at its best – better than its predecessor – when it focuses on the primates. It is at its worst – worse than its predecessor – when it brings us back to our own kind (when a young soldier dies, and Gary Oldman, as the leader of the human resistance, looks at him, stricken, we struggle to feel involved). That said, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Caesar returns to the home he grew up in and watches a video of himself as a baby, with Franco teaching him. We may not feel the pain of the loss of humans, but Caesar clearly does.

Helmer Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) does an excellent job taking over from Rupert Wyatt, who directed the last one, but he can’t quite surmount the primate/human empathy gap embedded in the script. At 130 minutes (25 minutes longer than Rise), the movie also feels a little long in parts (mainly the battle scenes). Still, in the dismal movie season that is summer 2014, so far, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands out as a work of serious science fiction that both entertains you and makes you entertain serious thoughts about the nature of life and humanity. It’s well worth watching.

One last thing: though the 3D is actually quite beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily add to the experience, so consider sparing yourself the money and the headache and seeing it in 2D.

It’s the End of the World, Did You Know It? Apocalypse and Death at the Summer Cineplex

Transformers 4

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014)

Let’s start with the fourth entry in the Transformers movie series. Film critic A.O. Scott, in his New York Times review, somewhat (but not entirely) jokingly referred to this new film as an example of a kind of auteurist cinema, in that the aesthetic clearly reflects the vision of one man, director Michael Bay (who also directed the previous three films). It was Scott’s review (hardly favorable, but thought-provoking because of that comment) that led me to the cinema yesterday to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction.

My verdict? I want those 2 hours and 45 minutes back. And no, there is no particular aesthetic on display. Just a lot of noise, cartoonish dialog, and very bad acting. However, to be fair, the film opened to big domestic and international office, and appears to have legs through the Independence Day holiday weekend, so it’s providing escapist entertainment to a lot of people,. Who am I tell the folks who enjoy this kind of spectacle not to see it? I enjoy this kind of spectacle, too, however – I loved Captain America: Winter Soldier, for example – but not when the plot is this incoherent. Since the film opens with the title card “in association with Hasbro,” reminding us that the sole inspiration for the entire series was a line of children’s toys, the fact that there is little story coherence should come as no surprise.

I cannot even begin to summarize the film, other than to say that it takes place about 5 years after the last one, and that certain sinister government agents are colluding with an intergalactic bounty hunter to kill and capture humanity’s former transformer allies, the “Autobots,” and that Mark Wahlberg (appearing for the first time in the series), playing a down-on-his-luck inventor is the unlikely savior of both Optimus Prime (the leader of the Autobots) and the planet. Kelsey Grammar and Stanley Tucci are along to ham it up (and collect their paycheck), and a screaming blonde in short shorts plays Wahlberg’s daughter. Oh, and confirming my sneaking suspicion, as I watched the film, that it was written by a 12-year-old boy – like last year’s Pacific Rim, which featured dinosaurs and giant robots – the movie ends with giant metallic robot (excuse me, Autobot) dinosaurs. I kid you not.

Of far greater interest to me, however, than any of that, is our continuing fascination, as a species, of watching our homes, cities, countries and planet destroyed in various apocalyptic fantasies. We like to die (or, rather, see others die) vicariously on screen. Mayhem and death make for great catharsis.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

However, if you wish to indulge in such a fantasy, might I suggest a different movie, one with an actual sense of visual design (i.e, aesthetic): Snowpiercer. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host), and based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film is rich in atmosphere and features powerful performances from some very fine actors, including Chris Evans, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Jamie Bell. Many people die (though the worst acts of violence are never shown in gratuitous close-up), and the fate of all of humanity is always on the table. In short, it’s just like Transformers: Age of Extinction, only with a better script, better cinematography and better direction of actors. True, a close textual analysis of said script just might reveal that the core plot is no less moronic than that of Michael Bay’s robot opus, but since there appears to be an actual intelligence behind the camera and a real of sense of design to the mise-en-scène, it is easy to suspend one’s disbelief and allow the film’s vibe to take firm root in one’s soul. In spite of some gaping story problems, I was won over from the get-go.

We are on a special self-sufficient train – “The Rattling Ark” – in 2031, 17 years after our misguided leaders sprayed a new chemical – CW7 – into the atmosphere to combat global warming by lowering the earth’s temperature. Whoops. Big mistake. The world froze, killing all life on the planet. But not before a group of select individuals were gathered onto this train, which now circles the globe in an endless loop. On board, a strict class system exists, enforced by the residents of the front of the train (the upper classes), who keep the denizens of the rear in working-class thrall. Chris Evans (proving, with this and Captain America, that he can truly carry a movie), one of these latter unfortunates, under the tutelage of John Hurt, and with Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell in tow, plans and then leads a revolution to upset the order and gain control of the train. Tilda Swinton – almost unrecognizable in buck teeth – leads the oppressors. What follows is a series of masterfully staged intense battles – fought in close quarters – where anything can and does happen. By the time we get to the front, we will have been surprised and amazed by what we have seen, with more surprises to come.

This is one of the better post-apocalyptic films I have seen recently, which elevates the occasional stupidity of its premise with the deep questions it asks us to ponder about class and power. Unlike in Transformers, the deaths, when they happen, mean something. And the ending, if absurd, is nevertheless profoundly moving.

Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014)

Speaking of profound, The Fault in Our Stars, based on the best-selling book of the same title by John Green, aspires to teach us some deep lessons about the value of life and the meaning of death. It is, in other words, the antithesis of a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction. If I was somehow less moved by it than I was by Snowpiercer, it is not because I am a heartless bastard (at least I don’t think I am), but rather because it wears its intentions so obviously on its sleeve, and thereby too often feels as if it’s using its characters’ deadly illnesses (along with some awful music on the soundtrack) as a manipulative emotional cudgel. Whenever it backs away from bathos, however, The Fault in Our Stars can be very effective, largely thanks to its two appealing main actors, Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) and Ansel Elgort (Divergent, in which he plays Woodley’s brother!). The film opened very strongly a month ago, but has since largely faded from cinemas (after highly respectable earnings), but I only got around to seeing it today (I wanted to read the book first).

Woodley plays Hazel, a 17-year-old girl with terminal cancer, who meets Elgort’s Augustus, an 18-year-old cancer survivor with an amputated leg, in a cancer support group. Each in their own way is trying to lead as normal a teenage life as they can, given the circumstances, and each resists being seen as merely a victim of their disease. And for that, both book and movie deserve all the success they have earned. With wit and good humor, Hazel and Augustus flirt and insist on their right to live, and their moments together are almost always strong. There is no way to avoid the ultimate pitfall of terminal-disease stories, however, which is that the inexorable advance of the tumors takes the burden away from the screenwriters to write scenes that rise above easy sentimentality. The Fault in Our Stars does seem aware of this problem – and author Green has injected a bitter and alcoholic writer (played by Willem Dafoe in the film), whose book both Hazel and Augustus admire, as a cynical counterweight to the sappy sweetness – but it still succumbs to it. How you ultimately react to the film will depend on your tolerance  for such manipulation (mine is low).

Still, there is much to recommend here, since, as in Snowpiercer, the film reminds us why death has meaning (because life is so precious). In spite of its faults, it mostly succeeds in that one essential regard.

Close Encounters Phone Home: “Earth to Echo” Echoes Better Movies Past

Earth to Echo

Earth to Echo (Dave Green, 2014)

Are you a fan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and/or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Did you enjoy director J.J. Abrams’s 2011 homage to the Spielberg canon, Super 8? Great! Unfortunately, Earth to Echo, which references the former and aspires to the latter, comes nowhere near the quality or thrills of any of them. Then again, it’s wholesome family fun, and if you’re choosing between this and Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, choose this.

Made in the “found footage” genre, Earth to Echo follows three pre-teen boys (and, eventually, one girl), as they strike out for one last adventure before their families all move out of their Nevada housing development, slated to be cleared for freeway construction. Tuck (Astro from “The X Factor“) is the filmmaker of the bunch, constantly capturing the action through multiple cameras (which, conveniently, provide multiple angles). Newcomers Reese Hartwig and Teo Halm – as precocious tech guru Munch and foster kid Alex, respectively – plus Ella Wahlestedt (from “Army Wives“) – as poor little hot girl Emma - round out the cast. There are a whole lot of nondescript adults, as well, but the story lies squarely with this foursome. And, unfortunately, with Echo.

Echo, as you might guess from the E.T.-like poster, is an alien. He’s also, I will admit, very cute, since he’s been designed to look like a metallic toy owl. But he is not in anyway a compelling or believable character, beyond that cuteness. But he’s harmless, and I don’t want to appear overly cruel, so I’ll leave it at that.

Our kids head out to the desert on their adventure because of recurring cell-phone disruptions that they correctly interpret as pixelated maps. Curious (and eager to have one final night together), they jump on their bikes and ride deep into coyote territory, where they find the scared titular character in need of assistance. Being good children of Spielberg, they decide to help the little guy, and the rest of the story is eminently predictable (the found footage technique adds nothing to the storytelling). Lessons are learned, the good guys triumph, and friendship proves eternal. Actually, put like that, it seems like a great movie. Too bad we’ve already seen it a hundred times.

“Tammy” Drives into a Sinkhole

Tammy

Tammy (Ben Falcone, 2014)

Here’s the thing about Melissa McCarthy: in films such as Bridesmaids, This Is 40The Heat and now Tammy (and many more) – not to mention her television show “Mike & Molly” – she has played variations on a character who is overweight, profane and/or sloppily gross, and mined all of those characteristics for ever-more-desperate humor. She is certainly not devoid of talent (personally, I loved her on the long-running “Gilmore Girls“), and if you enjoy her shenanigans, then, well, you enjoy them. So be it. I usually don’t, so perhaps we come from different planets. I find it odd that there was such a hoopla last year over film critic Rex Reed’s (granted, very clumsy) assertions of the basic facts of her appeal, since McCarthy, herself (co-screenwriter, with her director husband, Ben Falcone, of this new film), attempts, in each new outing, to find ever more over-the-top ways to stereotype herself. But I won’t argue that point anymore, other than to say that Tammy breaks no new comedic (or any) ground – unless we’re talking sinkholes - but merely recycles much of what we have come to expect from a McCarthy effort. It’s her moment, so why should she stop doing the same-old same-old? God help us all.

There was a surprise in Tammy, however, and it was Susan Sarandon, and it was not a good surprise. Cast as the grandmother, Sarandon has neither the insanity nor stupidity to make her believable as a woman from whom McCarthy is descended. That, and she just looks too good. In fact, she looks like Susan Sarandon in a gray wig, with a little bit of make-up on. We’re meant to believe that she’s lived her whole life as a hard-drinking hell-raiser, yet we see none of that in her face. McCarthy and Falcone would have been better served casting Kathy Bates – who appears halfway through the film as Sarandon’s cousin – in the grandmother role. I love Susan Sarandon, but Bates is more versatile of an actress, and could definitely play both dissolute and crazy.

Plot? Tammy is a lunatic loser in a dead-end job (from which she is fired at the start of the film), with a cheating husband. Somehow, her mother is Allison Janney (another bit of strange casting). When she walks to her parents’ house (they live next door) to take refuge from the awfulness of her life, grandma – looking for adventure – offers up both cash and car if Tammy will take her on a road trip. So off they go, and mayhem follows. Whether or not you find it funny may determine whether or not you continue to read my reviews.

To be fair, there was one moment where I laughed out loud. One: Tammy, locked outside of her motel room, sleeps on the doorstep with a package of donuts in hand (see, above, about stereotyping), and then the camera pans left and we see a raccoon munching on one of them. It doesn’t seem funny in the retelling. Sorry. I did laugh, though. Oh, and every time Mark Duplass is on screen, the film almost works. I don’t know why. See the movie and help explain it to me. Or don’t, and spend your time wisely.

There’s Nothing Obvious About Delightful “Obvious Child”

Obvious Child

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)

Obvious Child, the first feature film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre, is a romantic comedy about a young woman getting an abortion. That’s right: girl and boy meet cute; girl and boy get drunk and screw; girl gets pregnant and doesn’t tell boy; boy wonders why girl avoids him; girl gets an abortion; life goes on. Normally, in such films (romantic comedies – not films about abortion), the main obstacle to overcome is that the potential romantic partners don’t initially like each other (from It Happened One Night to When Harry Met Sally to the utter failure that was Blended, this has been the pattern). Here, they actually get along just fine, despite their obvious differences. Instead, the obstacles in the way of their eventual union lie entirely within the neuroses of the main (female) character, twenty-something Donna Stern, played with great zest and charm by thirty-something actress and stand-up comedian Jenny Slate (until recently best known for dropping an f-bomb in her debut appearance on “Saturday Night Live). That and the fact that Donna actually goes through with the abortion (as opposed to the main characters in Juno and Knocked Up) makes this a very fresh and delightful take on both the rom-com genre and films about abortion (if you are against a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body, however, then you may not like the film).

I was actually quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. I usually avoid films from the mumblecore set, and worried that this might hew too close to that aesthetic. I was wrong. Through a combination of genuinely funny writing, performances both sharp and sweet, and fine cinematic camera moves and editing flourishes, the movie wins both your heart and mind. True, Donna Stern is initially an annoying self-absorbed twit, but Slate shows us how the character’s insecurities are the cause of her cluelessness, and allows her to mature before our eyes. The supporting cast – including Jake Lacy (Pete from The Office,” Season 9) as Max (the impregnator), and Gaby Hoffmann (most recently in Veronica Mars) as Nellie, Donna’s best friend - is also excellent, and has the additional virtue of looking more normal than the usual denizens of rom-com-land. All in all (again, unless you are an ardent pro-lifer), the film’s a winner.

And let’s talk about that abortion. The film never treats it like a joke (though everything else is fair game), but instead uses Donna’s predicament to muse on the options facing single women accidentally with child. In one lovely scene, Donna and her mother (a terrific Polly Draper) have a heart-to-heart in which they share stories of their respective unwanted pregnancies. How often do you see that in a film, much less a comedy? In its refusal to judge Donna even as she struggles to earn our respect, Obvious Child may just be the most radical film of the year. Of course, it’s also a raunchy sex farce which never feels like it’s preaching to you. What more could you ask for?