Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

When in Rome


When in Rome

Josh Duhamel and Kirsten Bell hope they are eaten by wild animals before doing When in Rome 2.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Dax Shepard, Jon Heder, Danny DeVito, Anjelica Huston, Alexis Dziena, Kate Micucci, Bobby Moynihan, Lee Pace, Don Johnson. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Love is so mysterious to most of us that it borders on magic. It appears in its own mercurial time, it disappears without warning, it transfers from one person to another and when it hits us head-on, our lives are never the same.

Beth (Bell) is a workaholic sort who has blazed her way into becoming the youngest ever curator at the Guggenheim in New York City. Nick (Duhamel) is an easy-going sportswriter. They meet at the whirlwind wedding of Beth’s sister Joan (Dziena). Beth, stressed over a big exhibition that she is curating that no work is getting done on while she is foolishly enjoying her family’s life event in the company of chip-off-the-old-block pa (Johnson).

Things go inevitably wrong complete with a vase that refuses to break, electrical mishaps and the kind of shenanigans that usually go on at movie weddings. Pay no attention to these. Instead, note that Beth is getting hammered, and as hammered women often do she goes wading into the Fountain of Love (the city fathers of Rome wisely prevented the Trevi Fountain from being associated with this in any way shape or form) and pulls five coins out of the fountain.

This is when the magic happens…so to speak. Each of the men who threw the coins in the fountain – an annoying street magician (Heder), an annoying painter (Arnett), a really annoying model/narcissist (Shepard) and a slightly less annoying sausage king (DeVito) – all fall hopelessly and unrealistically in love with Beth and follow her back to New York where they make attempts to woo her that are about as well-worn as the word “woo.”

In the meantime there is that fifth coin. Was it thrown in by Nick? And if so, does that mean the blossoming romance between Nick and Beth is all a lie, forced by the magic of a fountain which has apparently confused stalking for love. Then again, what would you expect from a hunk of concrete.

There are some elements here that would have made for an interesting movie – unlike a lot of critics, I have no beef with the concept, only the execution. Rather than trying for genuine laughs, the writers opted for weak slapstick routines and cliché comedy bits (if I hear that freaking record scratch again I swear I’ll lose it – and you hear it not once but twice in the first five minutes).

It’s a real shame because Duhamel and Bell are genuinely appealing and make a nice couple. Duhamel, in particular, shows himself to be a real pro, offering a good performance despite the obvious knowledge that he’s in a movie that has some real problems.

I have no issues with Shepard, Arnett, DeVito and Heder individually but I’ve never really connected with them consistently as actors (with the exception of DeVito, who showed in such films as The Oh in Ohio that when given a decently written role he can make something wonderful out of it) and here they seem to be allowed to mug all over the place. I get the impression occasionally that there are four of them because they could get four name actors for the roles; had one of them passed, there would have been three of them – if one more name actor had agreed to do it, five. I found it amusing that all four of the coins belonged to men- statistically, far more women throw coins into the Trevi than men – and thought the movie might have worked better if at least one of the coins belonged to a woman (I could see someone like Amy Poehler as an aggressive romantic stalker).

But then that wouldn’t have played in middle America and one gets the sense that this was a movie assembled to target a particular demographic rather than because the writers had something important to say about love and life. I know that the first instinct of a studio executive is to go with the safe and the familiar, but I think box office figures demonstrate clearly that a well-written movie with an interesting story, memorable characters and something to say about the nature of life will more often than not bring in the box office gold that Hollywood studio executives know more about chasing than they do about chasing love.

WHY RENT THIS: Duhamel is one of the most underappreciated stars in Hollywood and he has nice chemistry with Bell.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The romance is cliché, the comedy is cliché, the script is cliché, the romance is cliché, the comedy is cliché, the script is cliché – say, do you get the strange feeling you’ve seen it all before?

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestion of sexuality but nothing really overt.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Beth first stands in the Fountain of Love and surveys the coins, they are all in U.S. currency even though the fountain is supposedly in Rome.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos and a blooper reel here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43M on an unreported production budget; the movie most likely underperformed or broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Invincible

The International


The International

When someone tells Clive Owen to go play in traffic, he's man enough to do it.

(Columbia) Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brian F. O’Byrne, Ulrich Thomsen, James Rebhorn, Jack McGee, Michel Voletti. Directed by Tom Twyker

Given what is happening in the world economy today, most of us have come to the conclusion that bankers have shuffled off what morality they may have had and are operating strictly on a greed motivation factor. Still, even given their reprehensible behavior nobody is ordering contract killings…at least so far as we know.

Louis Salinger (Owen) is a hard-bitten Interpol detective who has been investigating the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) for a long time. Every time he gets close to nailing them for ethical or legal violations, witnesses recant, die or disappear. Currently he is working with Manhattan assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) investigating corruption in the Big Apple having to do with the bank. Eleanor’s boss (Rebhorn) sounds the cautionary bell but the two plunge on.

However, it appears to be happening again. Louis’ partner dies of an apparent heart attack that was brought on by what might have been a lethal injection after meeting with a bank insider, who shortly thereafter perishes in a car accident. From then on Salinger is looking for leads, running up against dead ends and generally acting pissed off in various locations around Europe before following a likely bank-employed assassin back to New York. After a shoot out in the Guggenheim finishes off the assassin, Salinger recognizes that he cannot get justice via ordinary means. He will have to resort to extra-legal methods.

The above plot synopsis is really a bit of an injustice to this very complex and engaging movie. German director Twyker has a very good sense of pacing and utilizes the locations nicely, capturing the wealth and power of the IBBC and those who orbit around it. Those who remember his signature film Run, Lola, Run will appreciate The International’s twist and turns as well as its compelling action sequences.

Owen has the hangdog, unkempt and sleepless look of a man caught up in the throes of his own obsessions (which Salinger surely is). Only in the eyes does Owen allow Salinger’s consuming rage to show through. That his performance is so nuanced is a credit to Owen’s abilities as an actor; that his character is so easy to root for despite the fact that he’s a bit of a jerk cement my opinion of Owen as a major movie star coming into his own.

Usually I like Naomi Watts but she seems a bit lost here. While there is no romantic connection for her to play off of Owen with, the chemistry between the two seems nonexistent, like two people who work in the same building and recognize the face enough to exchange nods in the hallway. Surely two people who have been directly in the line of fire as these two are depicted would have at least more of a bond?

This is a bit of a police procedural (I never knew that Interpol agents were not allowed to carry firearms) and a bit more of an action film. The Guggenheim sequence, with Owen and his allies running down the ramps of the iconic museum in a running gun battle with black-suited assassins hired by the bank is as marvelous an action sequence as you’re likely to see. Not only would it do the James Bond series proud, but the way Twyker edits the sequence together would bring the warm fuzzies to the heart of a Hitchcock aficionado as well.

Yeah, the storyline can be confusing upon occasion, particularly in the second act and Thomsen as the head banker Skaarsen is a bit bland, which weakens his position as lead villain a bit. Mueller-Stahl is a terrific character actor who manages to be chilling and charming at the same time, something like finding out a beloved grandfather was once a serial killer.

Even though I give it only a mild recommendation because of some of the tendency to over-plot as well as for some of the gaping holes in logic that result, if I think about it I’d probably give this a higher rating after revisiting it in the future. Tom Twyker is a terrific director working with a terrific actor and movie star in Clive Owen. Something tells me that a few years in the future this movie may wind up being a watershed first encounter between two talents who I believe are destined for big things in this business.

WHY RENT THIS: The behavior of IBBC is appropriate given the recent behavior of major financial institutions contributing to our current financial crisis. The action sequences are breakneck and satisfying. Clive Owen is, in my mind, a big star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the financial biz stuff is fairly boring. No chemistry between Owen and Watts. The storyline can be confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence coupled with a good deal of bad language. You make the call.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the Guggenheim Museum, in which a major action sequence takes place, was built in an abandoned locomotive warehouse using the original blueprints from the Guggenheim.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Most of the usual featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Red Cliff