Four-Warned: June 2012


June 2012

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. PROMETHEUS (1.0)
2. SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (1.4)
3. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1.6)
4. SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (1.7)
TIE. BRAVE (1.7)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (1.5)
2. STELLA DAYS (1.6)
3. PEACE LOVE AND MISUNDERSTANDING (1.7)
4. THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH (1.8)
TIE. TO ROME WITH LOVE (1.8)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

JUNE 1, 2012

6 MONTH RULE (Abanorama) Genre: Romance. A man who believes in a strict six-month limit on relationships falls in love. Release Strategy: New York City (opens in Los Angeles June 8). RATING: 3.3 For the hopeless romantic.
A CAT IN PARIS (GKIDS) Genre: Animated Feature. A Parisian cat lives a dual life; as the pampered pet of the mute daughter of a police detective by day and as the companion of a cat burglar by night. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 This Oscar-nominated feature was also at this year’s Florida Film Festival.
BATTLEFIELD AMERICA (Cindedigm) Genre: Urban Dance. A young businessman hires a dance instructor to turn a group of underachievers into an underground dance team champion. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 4.0 This is the kind of thing that simply doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.
CHELY WRIGHT: WISH ME AWAY (First Run) Genre: Documentary. Country star Chely Wright makes the difficult decision to come out of the closet. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.1 Considering the general conservatism of the country fanbase, this took extraordinary courage.
FOR GREATER GLORY (ARC Entertainment) Genre: True Life Drama. A retired military man sees Mexico fall into a brutal civil war and feels compelled to act. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 An excellent cast; seems a little overly preachy to me judging on the trailer.
HIGH SCHOOL (Anchor Bay) Genre: Teen Comedy. A class valedictorian teams up with a pothead to get the entire student body stoned to protest an anti-Marijuana ordinance. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.9 Who’da thought I’d be longing for the antics of Cheech and Chong?
PIRANHA 3DD (Dimension) Genre: Horror. The prehistoric eating machines are back and this time they’ve made it into a water park. Release Strategy: Limited and VOD. RATING: 3.2 The first one was cheesy in a 70s horror kinda way; this one looks far cheesier.
SEXUAL CHRONICLES OF A FRENCH FAMILY (IFC Midnight) Genre: Sex Comedy. After a young high school boy is caught masturbating in school, his mother decides it’s time for the family to be less repressive about sex. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.7 Sounds interesting but with no trailer the jury’s still out.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (Universal) Genre: Fantasy. An evil sorceress queen seeks to destroy the only woman in her realm who could threaten her reign but her rival finds unexpected allies. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.7 A very much darker look at the Snow White legend than Mirror Mirror.
U.N. ME (Self-Released) Genre: Documentary. A scathing look at the U.N.’s failure to protect human rights. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Looks like they’re trying a bit too hard to be like Michael Moore but the question is a legitimate one.
WALLANDER (Music Box) Genre: Crime Drama. A Swedish police inspector’s dream home turns into a nightmare when the idyllic town he has moved to is shattered by a series of bombings. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.0 One of Jo Nesbo’s signature characters whose mostly appeared on television; no trailer however so hard to get a grip on the film.

JUNE 8, 2012

BEL AMI (Magnolia) Genre: Period Drama. The story of Georges Duroy, a rags-to-riches tale of 19th Century Paris from Guy de Maupassant’s novel. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 A lush drawing room/bedroom period piece with a stellar cast including Robert Pattinson as Duroy.
LOLA VERSUS (Fox Searchlight) Genre: Dramedy. After being dumped by her fiancée three weeks before the wedding, Lola tries to come to terms with her place in the world as a 30-year-old single woman. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 Greta Gerwig is putting together an impressive résumé of stellar performances.
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED (DreamWorks) Genre: Animated Feature. The zoo crew are trying to make their way back to New York but wind up stuck in Europe after a wrong turn. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 2.8 The least interesting of DreamWorks’ animated franchises.
PATAGONIA RISING (First Run) Genre: Documentary. The effects of erecting five dams in the Patagonia region of Argentina is looked at in terms of ecology, social and cultural. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.2 Looks to present both sides of the argument but one gets a sense of which side the filmmakers sympathies lie.
PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE (Abramorama) Genre: Musical Documentary. The ’70s songwriter of such hits as “Evergreen,” “Rainbow Connection” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” turns out to be very much alive. Release Strategy: New York City (opening in Los Angeles June 22). RATING: 2.6 I remember him from Phantom of the Paradise; this played at the Florida Film Festival last month.
PEACE LOVE AND MISUNDERSTANDING (IFC) Genre: Comedy. A stressed New York City conservative lawyer is forced to move in with her hippie mom after a divorce. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.7 Looks kind of fun, in a tight-ass liberal kind of way.
PROMETHEUS (20th Century Fox) Genre: Science Fiction. A team of scientists searching for the beginnings of mankind follow clues from ancient civilizations to a rendezvous in the stars – which just might spell the end of mankind. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.0 Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe with what might be the critical winner of the summer.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (FilmDistrict) Genre: Comedy. A group of alternative journalists investigate a claim by a Seattle supermarket clerk that he’s discovered the secret of time travel. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles/Seattle. RATING: 2.0 The trailer is quirky in a not-quite-indie style that looks pretty refreshing.

JUNE 11, 2012

TAHRIR: LIBERATION SQUARE (Icarus) Genre: Documentary. The recent Arab Spring is documented on camcorder by a single archaeologist looking to capture history as it happened. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.3 I was hoping for a good documentary on the events in Egypt and throughout the Arab world last year but not sure from teaser if this is it or not.

JUNE 13, 2012

MARIA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT (HBO) Genre: Documentary. One of the art world’s most controversial artists allows unprecedented access on the eve of her New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.2 She asks “Why is it art?” and I’m inclined to agree.

JUNE 15, 2012

EXTRATERRESTRIAL (Focus) Genre: Science Fiction. A young man wakes from a night of partying in a strange apartment of an (apparent) one night stand in a deserted city with a flying saucer hovering above it. Release Strategy: New York City (opening in Los Angeles June 22). RATING: 2.1 An alien invasion movie if it were made by Judd Apatow.
THE GIRL FROM THE NAKED EYE (Lifted Productions) Genre: Thriller. The protector of a high class escort sets out to avenge her brutal murder. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Looks like an Americanized martial arts film noir.
PATANG: THE KITE (Kushi) Genre: Drama. A successful Delhi businessman takes is family to India’s largest kite festival to be renewed. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.5 Movies about family dynamics always tend to interest me.
ROCK OF AGES (New Line) Genre: Musical. A Broadway musical utilizes classic rock of the 70s and 80s. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 2.4 Intriguing cast but miserable premise.
THAT’S MY BOY (Columbia) Genre: Comedy. A ne’er do well who owes $40,000 in back taxes to the IRS crashes the wedding of his successful but estranged son in order to get it. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.0 Looks like Adam Sandler being Adam Sandler.
THE TORTURED (IFC Midnight) Genre: Thriller. Parents take the law into their own hands when the murderer of their young son is given too lenient a sentence. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 Looks to be a very intense movie based on the trailer.
THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH (ATO) Genre: Thriller. A night watchman for a crime boss takes up a relationship with a mysterious woman, only to discover she’s far more mysterious – and deadly – than he thought. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 There appears to be a supernatural element to the film; looks very intriguing.
YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (IFC) Genre: Dramedy. A man goes to his late brother’s ex-girlfriends vacation home only to find her sister there, setting off a chain of events both awkward and revelatory. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.5 Another Florida Film Festival entry, another movie that looks to be one of the year’s best.

JUNE 20, 2012

KUMARE (Kino Lorber) Genre: Documentary. A well-known guru turns out to be a fraud, a filmmaker engaging in a social experiment. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.3 An interesting treatise on faith and belief that changed both the filmmaker and his “disciples.”

JUNE 22, 2012

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (20th Century Fox) Genre: Horror. The sixteenth president of the United States turns out to have been a killer of nosferatu. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.6 Although the premise sounds a tad goofy, looks to be a solid summer film from the director of Wanted.
BRAVE (Disney*Pixar) Genre: Animated Feature. A Scottish princess learns that changing her own destiny is not without consequences. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 1.7 A new original Pixar feature and it looks smashing.
THE INVISIBLE WAR (Cinedigm) Genre: Documentary. A look at the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 The subject matter is important but the trailer looked a bit choppy.
NATE AND MARGARET(Breaking Glass) Genre: Romance. A19-year-old student and a 52-year-old spinster find their lives turned upside down by their own friendship. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.7 A tagline of a gay Harold and Maude for the 21st Century doesn’t get my anticipation up.
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (Focus) Genre: Comedy. As the world is about to be wiped out by a meteor, a couple of people find each other during the last days. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 Steve Carell looks to be at his very best in the trailer.
STELLA DAYS (Tribeca) Genre: Drama. An Irish movie theater in the1950s becomes the focal point for a struggle between the Catholic Church and Hollywood. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.6 Looks like another winner for Martin Sheen.
TO ROME WITH LOVE (Sony Classics) Genre: Comedy. Rome is the setting for a group of vignettes as a group of people find life and love in the Eternal City amidst laughter and tears. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 The latest from director Woody Allen continues to move the New York-centric director through Europe.

JUNE 27, 2012

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Fox Searchlight) Genre: Drama. A young girl in an isolated bayou community whose father is dying is further challenged by an unimaginable storm. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Was one of the most acclaimed films to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
GYPSY (Bontonfilm) Genre: Drama. In a Slovaki Gypsy community, a 14-year-old boy is sucked into shady activities by his nefarious stepdad. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.5 A peek into a notoriously closed society.

JUNE 29, 2012

MAGIC MIKE (Warner Brothers) Genre: Comedy. A veteran male stripper takes a new dancer under his wing and tries to show him the ropes. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.8 Loosely based on star Channing Tatum’s life as a dancer (which he did before he took up acting).
NEIL YOUNG JOURNEYS (Sony Classics) Genre: Musical Documentary. While driving from his hometown in Ontario to a Toronto show, musician Neil Young recounts anecdotes from his life to filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 The third collaboration between Young and Demme.
PEOPLE LIKE US (DreamWorks) Genre: Drama. After his father passes away, his deeply in debt son discovers he must deliver a large sum to a sister he never knew he had. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 The directing debut of Alex Kurtzman who with Roberto Orci has been one of J.J. Abrams’ go-to writing/producing teams.
TAKE THIS WALTZ (Magnolia) Genre: Drama. The wife of a renowned cookbook artist falls for the handsome young artist living across the street. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 From director Sarah Polley with star Michelle Williams, one of the best actresses working today.
TED (Universal) Genre: Fantasy. A young boy’s wish brings his teddy bear to life; unfortunately the living stuffed animal won’t go away even after he grows up. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 The live-action feature debut of “The Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane.
TYLER PERRY’S MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION (Lionsgate) Genre: Urban Comedy. A Wall Street executive under witness protection for testifying against a money laundering firm for the mob winds up staying with Madea. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.4 Is the Madea franchise beginning to run out of steam?
UNFORGIVABLE (Strand) Genre: Thriller. A successful French crime novelist falls in love with a beautiful realtor, but begins to get suspicious of her activities and hires an ex-con to follow her. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 A definite change of pace for director Andre Techine.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
Snow White and the Huntsman, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Rock of Ages, That’s My Boy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Brave, Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, Magic Mike, People Like Us, Ted.

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Defendor


Defendor

Clark Johnson can’t believe he gets stuck with the low-rent superheroes.

(2009) Action Comedy (Darius) Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Clark Johnson, Lisa Ray, A.C. Peterson, Kristen Booth, Charlotte Sullivan, Tony Nappo, Ron White, David Gardner, Bryan Renfro, Max Dreeson. Directed by Peter Stebbings

 

When you think about it, in order to be a superhero vigilante sort you have to have at least a screw loose or two. It would be much worse if you didn’t have any super powers to speak of.

That’s Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) to a “T.” By day he’s a mild-mannered construction worker – actually, he’s the guy who holds the “Slow” and “Stop” signs on road crews. He was abandoned by his mother as a boy and is certain that she was murdered by a super villain named Captain Industry. He has dedicated his life to tracking down this nefarious criminal, thus far without success. Usually it involves Arthur dressing up as the superhero Defendor – yes, spelling is not one of Arthur’s strong suits. He puts on some army surplus blacks (with a “D” on his chest in silver duct tape), a video camera on his helmet and eye-black serving as a kind of mask. More often than not he gets his butt kicked.

One night he interrupts a pimp beating up on a crack-addled hooker and stops it. It turns out that the pimp is actually a cop, Sgt. Dooney (Koteas). The girl, Katerina (Dennings) is in no shape to go anywhere so Defendor/Arthur violates one of his own rules and takes her to his Batcave…err, lair. She finds him to be a bit unbalanced but sweet – and maybe her ticket out of this horrible nightmare that is her life. She intimates that she knows who and where Captain Industry is and things escalate in a very bad way.

There have been a number of delusional superheroes without powers movies of late, mostly on the indie scene but best known is Kick-Ass from a couple of years ago (a sequel is supposedly on the way). This one doesn’t really add anything to the conversation about delusional superheroes but neither does it disgrace itself either.

The reason for that is mostly Harrelson, who has been really turning in some memorable performances of late. Defendor doesn’t have powers per se and he’s not much of a fighter, but he uses some clever weapons – like jars full of angry wasps, and marbles to trip up his opponents. Harrelson captures the hangdog Arthur nicely, making his delusions organic and believable. We never doubt Arthur for a moment.

The framing device of Arthur’s psychiatric sessions with a sympathetic doctor (Oh) goes a long way in helping with that. In fact, the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular, with Johnson as a sympathetic police captain, Kelly as a sympathetic co-worker and Koteas as the dirty cop (Koteas has proven quite adept at portraying dirtbags). Denning is also notable in a role that could be entirely cliché but is given plenty of personality by Denning, who to my mind is one of the most exciting young actresses around. She has all the earmarks of having a career filled with meaty roles and Oscar-caliber performances.

Stebbings is a Canadian actor who is making his feature-length directing debut here and his inexperience shows. There are times when the editing is a bit abrupt and quite frankly much of the material is rather hit or miss. There was some potential here, but I think a more experienced hand at the wheel might have cajoled it out. I wanted to like this movie more than I did but the flaws of pacing, writing and lighting are just too glaring to ignore.

WHY RENT THIS: Harrelson continues with his string of good performances. Denning delivers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t add anything to the “Superhero without powers” films that have been coming out. Hit or miss.
FAMILY VALUES: This one’s got it all; violence, drug use, bad language and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ellen Page was at one point rumored to play the Kat Dennings role; she wound up in the similarly-themed Super.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44,462 on a $3.5M production budget; a box office flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Insider

New Releases for the Week of June 1, 2012


June 1, 2012

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

(Universal) Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Eddie Izzard, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Lily Cole. Directed by Rupert Sanders

The fairy tale of Snow White is re-imagined as an epic tale of magic and battle. A wicked queen, obsessed with retaining her youth and beauty, uses a magic mirror to prophesy that her reign would be eternal if only she dispatched the only woman whose beauty could potentially eclipse hers – Snow White. However, the girl has fled into the dark forest in habited by all manner of creatures. She dispatches a brave huntsman who has no fear of the woods in to kill her. Instead, they form an unlikely alliance, along with seven doughty dwarves to take on the might of the queen and her magic minions.

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language)

Battlefield America

(Cinedigm) Marques Houston, Mekia Cox, Christopher Jones, Zach Belandes. A young businessman takes a group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks and tries to turn them into a champion underground dance crew. They’ll have to battle the odds – and each other – to rise above the streets, the drugs and the hopelessness they came from.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving some drug material, and for some language)  

Bernie

(Millennium) Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rip Torn. The true story of a beloved figure in a small Texas town who taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and worked at the local funeral home. When he befriended a rich widow whose outlook on life was as sour as her bank account was large, nobody was surprised – everybody liked Bernie, after all. When she turned up dead and Bernie was arrested for the murder, though, that was a surprise.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief strong language)  

Crooked Arrows

(Freestyle Releasing) Brandon Routh, Gil Birmingham, Michael Hudson, Chelsea Ricketts. A native American reluctantly takes on the lacrosse coaching duty at a reservation high school. As he helps the kids connect with a game that is largely part of their heritage, he in turn reconnects with his own native American spirituality as he leads his decidedly underdog club against an elite prep school with its own longstanding lacrosse tradition.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG-13  (for some suggestive references)

For Greater Glory

(ARC Entertainment) Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Oscar Isaac. The story of General Gorostieta, a Mexican military officer who had retired from war and hoped to live his life out in peace. However when civil war came to his country fueled by the injustice and repression of a corrupt regime, he feels compelled to take up the cause and turn a ragtag group of farmers and peasants into an army.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for war violence and some disturbing images) 

High School

(Anchor Bay) Adrien Brody, Michael Chiklis, Colin Hanks, Mykelti Williamson. After a high school principal declares a zero tolerance for drugs and initiates mandatory drug testing for all students, the class valedictorian takes offense. In fact, he sees this as a grave injustice. So rather than risk that some of his fellow students be expelled for drug use, he decides to get the entire student body high – they can’t all get expelled, can they? This will take some doing however, but with the help of an epic stoner, he might just succeed.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive drugs and language, crude and sexual content, some nudity – all involving teens) 

The Intouchables

(Weinstein) Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot. A wealthy but spiritually bereft white French man who is a quadriplegic brings a black ex-con into his life as his attendant. Both men end up transformed by the experience. Saw this at the Florida Film Festival in April; you can read my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some drug use) 

Rowdy Rathore

(UTV) Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Supreeth Reddy. A conman meets and falls in love with a woman at a wedding he wasn’t invited to. Yearning to turn over a new leaf in order to keep the girl of his dreams, he runs into a six-year-old girl who inexplicably believes him to be her father. In the meantime the small town that he wants to settle down in, ruthless gangs are set to make life there a living hell…and he will need to find the inner hero to save the town, get the girl and be the father he needs to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR 

First Position


First Position

Gaya Bommer-Yemini and Aron Bell pensively await their turn onstage.

(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman

 

I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.

Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.

The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.

Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.

Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.

Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.

Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about  a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.

Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.

The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.

I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.

NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.

FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound

COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Defendor

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky


Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky does not find his muse amusing.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger, Grigori Manoukov, Radivoje Bukvic, Nicolas Vaude, Anatole Taubman, Eric Desmarestz, Clara Guelblum, Maxime Danielou, Sophie Hasson, Nikita Ponomarenko. Directed by Jan Kounen

 

Sometimes it’s difficult to see historical figures as flesh and blood human beings. We see them as perpetually engrossed in whatever it was that made them famous, be it war, music, fashion, politics, religion or art. Nonetheless, these giants and icons had time to live, love, eat and have relationships, both friendship and the next level up.

Igor Stravinsky (Mikkelsen) went to the 1913 premiere of his latest work, The Rite of Spring brimming with hope. It was to be the piece that established him as not only a great composer, but one who altered music itself. With a ballet choreographed by the great Nijinsky and a debut set in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. To his horror, the audience reacted not only with boos but with such passionate hate that a riot broke out. Despite the solace offered by his wife Katarina (Morozova), Stravinsky sank into a depression, but the performance was witnessed by young Coco Chanel (Mouglalis), then establishing herself as a leading star in the world of fashion.

Seven years later, Chanel ran into Stravinsky at a party. The great composer had recently fled his native Russia after the revolution and between that and The Great War was virtually penniless, and his wife now suffered from tuberculosis. Still a great admirer of his talent, she invited the composer to her villa Bel Respiro in Garches along with his family so that he could work undisturbed by interruption or need.

Like moths to flames the two great creative minds are drawn to each other, first as mutual admirers and then physically. For the next 18 months they have a torrid affair which they did little to hide from Katarina, who endured the humiliation with the wisdom of a woman who recognizes that her husband’s foolishness was merely temporary. Still, during this time Stravinsky would write some brilliant compositions and Coco along with her collaborator Ernest Breaux would create her iconic scent Chanel No. 5, still the most famous perfume in the world.

The movie is taken from Chris Greenhalgh’s speculative novel of the same name (Greenhalgh also co-wrote the screenplay). The actual affair itself was never made public although confidantes and biographers of both Chanel and Stravinsky have since confirmed that it occurred. Much of what is depicted here between the two of them is extrapolation; how much a muse they were to one another is extremely subject to speculation.

Both Stravinsky and Chanel are both depicted as being not terribly likable. Chanel is a driven, demanding woman who was uncompromising in her vision and in the sense that she knew her place as arguably the most important creator of style in the 20th century; nearly single-handedly she changed the idea of what was feminine and her Little Black Dress remains a mainstay for any woman’s wardrobe to this day.

Stravinsky comes off as aloof, arrogant and self-promoting. He, like Chanel, was perfectly aware of the musical revolution he was creating and was, like Chanel, driven to be the one to lead that revolution. Both of them seemed outwardly perfect for one another, although with egos that almost guaranteed that once the passion ran its course there was no way they could continue any sort of relationship.

Mikkelsen certainly resembles Stravinsky facially with his angular bone structure and heavy-lidded eyes. The composer is rarely given opportunity to show any emotion except to his wife and mistress. He had children but is rarely shown displaying any fatherly emotions. It’s not what I’d call a gripping performance, although Mikkelsen is certainly a capable actor; I’d describe it more as restrained.

Mouglalis is certainly beautiful as Chanel herself was; I’m not sure she truly captures the force of personality that Chanel possessed but she certainly tries; in defense of Mouglalis I’m not sure anyone could as Coco Chanel was by all accounts an extraordinary woman who simply dominated every room she ever entered. She was as much a force of nature as a human being and Mouglalis gives some indication of that aspect of her. When it comes to displaying her more human side, well, it doesn’t quite necessarily work.

The character who engenders the most sympathy is Katarina and Morozova nearly steals the show. While she is being cuckolded, she is certainly no fool and is perfectly aware of what’s happening around her. She alone understands Stravinsky’s music and his needs for acceptance and adoration; even though mostly bedridden due to her affliction, she spends an enormous amount of time transcribing the composer’s work. She is strong, never self-pitying and is enormously protective not only of her children, but also of her husband in subtle ways. It’s a wonderful performance and Morozova may well be an actress to watch out for.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of not only recreating the disastrous premiere of The Rite of Spring (based on meticulous research) but also of creating Bel Respiro, which no longer exists and for which few images remain. The set design is sumptuous and certainly indicative of its time, the beginnings of Art Deco. Many of Chanel’s designs are used in the women’s costumes and this is as good-looking a production as you’re likely to see.

What I would have liked to have seen more of however is the hearts of the two icons. This is almost an intellectual exercise as we are shown how the two influenced one another. We see precious little of the souls of the artists other than what can be gleaned from their works, which might be the truest insights to their souls in any case. For a tale of a passionate affair, there is surprisingly little passion (although the sex scenes are somewhat heated, they are oddly un-sexy). I suppose that this isn’t really a love story, but still – I needed to have my feelings stimulated as well as my intellect and that just didn’t happen here. Be that as it may, this is still a worthwhile film to watch although those who think PBS is too highbrow may not agree.

WHY RENT THIS: A meticulous recreation of the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. Sumptuous set design.  Fine performances by leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly cool and emotionless. Appeals more to the head than the heart. Neither Chanel nor Stravinsky are easy to like.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality, including some fairly graphic sex and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Mouglalis appeared in several Chanel ads before being cast as Coco. Chanel (and their then-chief designer Karl Lagerfeld) gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to their archives and Chanel’s apartment in Paris.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget; sounds like a likely box office profit was made.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: First Position

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)


A Town Called Panic

Cowboy and Indians, Cats and Dogs…it’s all the same.

(2009) Animated Feature (Zeitgeist) Starring the voices of Stephane Aubier, Jeanne Balibar, Veronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Christelle Mahy, Vincent Patar, Franco Piscopo, Benoit Poelvoorde, Eric Muller. Directed by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar

 

When you were a kid (at least if you’re my age or so), you probably spent hours, as I did, in your room playing with your plastic toys, assigning to them personalities and creating entire worlds for them to explore. You would move them around, create dialogue for them and sometimes build sets for them out of other toys, cardboard, shoeboxes, whatever you can find. Some of those playtimes were far more imaginative than anything you’d see on the Saturday morning cartoons.

The Belgian creators of A Town Called Panic realized this and decided to create a Saturday morning cartoon with the same imagination and low budget that they had as kids. Using only plastic toy figures and stop motion animation, they created a television series that was actually a series of five-minute vignettes strung out into half hour television shows. Now, they’re trying their hand at a feature film and it’s alternately charming and strange.

Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Ellison) and Horse (Patar) live together in the small town where Panic is not just the name, it’s the attitude. Their neighbors are Steven (Poelvoorde) the Farmer and his wife Janine (Dumont) who makes her husband gigantic pieces of toast for breakfast. Horse has a thing for Madame Longree (Balibar), the equine music teacher in town.

With Horse’s birthday around the corner, Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue. They order 50 bricks over the Internet but due to a computer snafu, that order of 50 bricks becomes 50 million. Cowboy and Indian try to hide their error but the bricks eventually wind up destroying their house. Fortunately, they have enough bricks to rebuild.

But someone keeps stealing their bricks; pointy-headed creatures from the bottom of the sea who arrive through a hole in the ground. Horse, Indian and Cowboy head after them and wind up on a wacky trek to the North Pole (where they are attacked by mad scientists in a mechanical giant Penguin). In the meantime, the shy Horse has to keep giving excuses to Madam Longree why he has missed yet another music lesson.

Even the description here doesn’t do the movie justice; it’s like Gumby on acid. You’d think that a movie as zany as the one I’ve described would move at light speed but that’s not it at all; in fact, one of the main knocks against the movie that I’ve seen is that the pacing is too slow, even for a movie that is only 75 minutes long. Still, there is that out there humor that seems to appeal to Europeans more than all but a select American audience; it’s a bit sad that Americans can’t find the charm and humor as easily in a stop motion film of toys being manipulated as they do in a CGI film of toys being manipulated (i.e. Toy Story).

WHY RENT THIS: Wacky and surreal, will most likely appeal to adults more than children.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes over the top with it’s out of left field.

FAMILY VALUES: Very surreal which might be a bit much for kids but certainly acceptable in terms of violence, sexuality, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Town Called Panic was the first stop-motion animated feature to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is the winning entry of a fan video competition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196,176 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

Men in Black 3


Men in Black 3

Will Smith: 21st Century cool even in the 60s.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alice Eve, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Bill Hader, David Rasche, Michael Chernus, Keone Young, Cayen Martin, Lanny Flaherty. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

 

Men in Black is an iconic film from the 90s, one which helped establish Will Smith as the superstar he is today. It has been 15 years since that film came out and ten since its sequel. Does the world need a third, or care about it?

Judging from the early numbers, it does. Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones) are doing what they do best, taking care of aliens violating the law in and around the Manhattan area, but they are both getting too old for this sh….stuff. The two are like a couple that has been married so long that there’s no longer any passion; and J is frustrated that he doesn’t know the close-mouthed K any better than he did when they first met.

On the moon, one of the most dangerous and nastiest aliens to ever be arrested by the MIB organization – Boris the Animal (Clement) – has been imprisoned for forty years, his arm shot off by Agent K at the time of his arrest. He has his first visitor in 40 years – a pen-pal girlfriend (Scherzinger) who brings him a cake that appears to be mostly organic. Not that a file baked into it would do any good – his cell is solid steel. However, there’s a nasty little surprise in the cake that helps him get out of the lunar hoosegow.

Back on Earth, the MIB are mourning the late Zed who is eulogized by O (Thompson), the new leader of MIB, in an alien language that sounds something like seals mating. J and K are continuing to be catty to one another like that previously mentioned old married couple. The next morning J comes to work – and K has been dead for 40 years. He’s also got an insatiable craving for chocolate milk, which according to O is a sure sign of temporal displacement.

But that’s the least of their worries now. The Earth is under attack by the Boglodites, the race of Boris the Animal which should have been impossible because his race died off 40 years early when K had captured Boris and enacted the ArcNet shield around the Earth, preventing the Boglodites from invading back then and causing them to starve to death as a species.

O and J deduce that Boris the Animal must have gone back in time and killed K, leading to the events that were now transpiring. It’s up to J to go back to 1969, rescue K, allow him to put the ArcNet shield up and restore the space-time continuum to where it belongs.

Once in 1969, J discovers that it’s not that easy. Trying to ambush Boris at Coney Island (where J knows he’ll be, owing to the file on the killer stating that he would murder an alien named Roman the Fabulist), unfortunately, J is too late and winds up being captured by the younger K (Brolin) and the 1969 MIB team. It takes a little bit of convincing but J manages to get K to understand that he’s from the future trying to prevent an invasion of Earth – although J leaves out the part that he is also there to prevent K’s death. They are aided by Griffin (Stuhlbarg), a gentle alien who lives five-dimensionally and is able to see every possible future. Now that’s a big help, although it would be, as Griffin himself puts it, a pain in the ass.

However, that is easier said than done. K has no idea what an ArcNet shield is, or how to erect it. There are two Boris the Animals out to murder K, who to J’s astonishment, has a romantic link with the young O (Eve). Plus in order to save the world, J and K are going to have to get through one of the tightest security nets in the history of the United States.

It’s nice to see Smith back on screen again (it’s been three and a half years since he’s been in a movie) and especially in a role that is so identified with him and let’s be frank – a role he does better than anybody else. His chemistry with Jones is scintillating but what’s surprising is that Brolin steps right into the role as the young K and not only mimics Jones perfectly, but also in terms of the chemistry with Smith – it’s almost indistinguishable between the actors. That’s part of what makes the movie worth seeing.

The movie holds up pretty well with the second (although not as well with the first). Rick Baker returns to make plenty of oddball aliens, including Boris the Animal (who has a little spider-like thing that resides in his remaining arm which is able to shoot out fang like darts that can be lethal). I can’t help think about what’s missing from the other films – notably Frank the Pug (who only shows up as a painting in J’s living room), the worm aliens (who make a brief cameo) and Rip Torn as Zed, whose funeral is near the beginning of the film. These were part of the indelible charm of the first two movies and their absence is noticeable.

Other than the time travel element, this is really business as usual for the franchise. Strangely, the filmmakers opt not to use the 60s as much more than a background for the movie (other than a scene set in the Factory of Andy Warhol (Hader) who turns out to be an MIB agent) which is a wasted opportunity; the setting could have enhanced the film a lot more than it did. In some ways, they could have easily set the past sequences in any decade from that standpoint. I would have liked to have seen a bit more use of the time period as a part of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong; this is fine summer entertainment and anyone who chooses to go see it is not going to leave disappointed unless they’re incredibly anal about time travel continuity and the franchise in general. Of course, if you didn’t like the first two films in the franchise, chances are you aren’t going to like this one either since it pretty much is more of the same. Which, to my mind, is a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Brolin does a great job of channeling Jones. Will Smith is, well, Will Smith. Touching coda.

REASONS TO STAY: Not quite as memorable as the first MIB.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s just a little bit of sci-fi violence and a smidgeon of sensuality – mostly implied.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mother and daughter in K’s apartment (after he disappears from the timeline) that J gets chocolate milk from are an actual mother and daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The film got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Files: Fight the Future

CHRYSLER BUILDING LOVERS: Will Smith makes his leap into the ’60s from one of the gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Town Called Panic