Last 10 Films: From SALMON to CHANNING

DARK SHADOWS: Don’t piss off Ms. Pfeiffer

Since PIFF (and hopefully, an extensive review of the new Wes Anderson film) looms, some short takes on what I’ve seen over the past five weeks…

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
Even with a novel premise (the title is all you need to know), a sturdy (if unexceptional) anchor in Ewan McGregor and sound support from Emily Blunt and a tart Kristin Scott Thomas, it all sinks under the weight of some forced melodrama involving Emily’s character and an additional love interest included only to keep her and Ewan apart. What, you’d expect more from such an obviously faux-indie romantic comedy, not to mention director Lasse Hallstrom, who at the very least once had the ineffable charms of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp to peddle this kind of mush?  C-

HEADHUNTERS
Art theft in the guise of corporate headhunting is all fun and games until you discover an unconscious body slumped over in the front seat of your car (or find yourself literally standing up to your ears in shit). This quick-witted, twisty and occasionally gruesome Norwegian import starts off slow but is a hoot from the moment that body shows up in the car. Aksel Hennie is a refreshingly diminutive anti-hero, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a delectably deceitful villain and the story is involving and enjoyable enough to nearly make up for its implausibility.  B

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s films seem custom made for multiple viewings; this, the one he also directed, perhaps the most Kaufmaniest of them all, absolutely requires them. On my third go-around (and first since its theatrical release), it did not resonate emotionally with me the way fellow multiple-viewing-reward-er Wes Anderson often does, but I found it more fascinating than ever. Just the synecdoches themselves, whether in the production design or the dialogue, drawn you in with their ingenuity and sheer omnipresence. I originally called the film an absolutely terrifying comedy; four years later (and older), it’s more of a hilarious tragedy.  A

DARK SHADOWS
Not exactly a return to form for Tim Burton, but easily the best remake/adaptation he’s done since his BATMAN films. Junk culture like a cheesy horror-laced soap opera seems closer to his heart than Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl ever did, and it was a near genius move to set most of it in 1972—the era’s bad taste meshes very well with the gothic overtones. Apart from a real live Alice Cooper appearance, the pop music cues are thudding and obvious but for once, Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins is perfect casting and the ensemble works too—even Michelle Pfeiffer looks like she hasn’t had this much fun in twenty years.  B+

BERNIE
This ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a meek funeral director who murders a wealthy, irascible widow is meant to play like MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF SMALL TOWN EAST TEXAS. While Austinite Richard Linklater is the right director for the region, he’s not a great fit for dark comedy. Thus, the film never finds the right tone and loses momentum post-murder. Jack Black displays more nuance than usual and it’s always a hoot to see Shirley MacLaine play the bitch. The best parts of BERNIE, however, are the interviews with real residents of the town sprinkled throughout, suggesting this could’ve been a great Errol Morris documentary.  B-

ELENA
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN is one of the best directorial debuts of the past decade. His second film (which never found US distribution) was nearly as good, and his third is nearly as good as the second. If this suggests a very gradual decline, it shouldn’t because the direction, visual palette and acting are consistently strong in all three. That leaves the story, which carries intriguing implications about class, family, loyalty and wealth, all in a post-Soviet Russian context.  While these implications linger long after the credits roll, the story wraps up with little mystery or ambiguity, feeling a little pat, which makes this a slightly lesser (if no less technically accomplished) work from a still-promising director.  A-

BRINGING UP BABY
The essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for my all-time favorite comedy. Watching it for probably the tenth or twelfth time (and my first in a theatre), I was left speechless by its non-stop hilarity. I mean, every single scene is jam-packed with as many jokes as a film like AIRPLANE!, yet they all hit their targets and do so gracefully. The awe-inspiring (and somewhat depressing) thing is, it’s hard to believe anyone could ever replicate this level of sublime silliness—it’s a faultless work that will likely endure long after today’s rom-com fixtures are forgotten.  A+

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
With this tale of retiree-age Brits relocating to India, I expected an entertaining, middlebrow dramedy and it was exactly what I got. What I did not expect, however, was how affecting it occasionally was. On one hand, how could it fail with the likes of Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, etc; (although Dev Patel doesn’t help matters by egregiously overacting); on the other, why should it succeed? Perhaps director John Madden’s depiction of India is more subtle and honest than Danny Boyle’s? Or is it because a few of the narratives here (particularly Wilkinson’s) take thoughtful, unexpected turns? Whatever the reason, it mostly works.  B+

TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, PART ONE
Forget Teams Edward and Jacob; I’m on Team Bill Condon, who is the first director of this frankly ridiculous franchise since Catherine Hardwicke to exhibit some personality. The baby-birthing climax owes more than a little to ROSEMARY’S BABY, but gleefully revels in the utter schlock of such a conceit. The rest is ho-hum and Jacob such an annoyingly inconsistent character that I groan every time he appears. Let’s hope Condon retains and expands that final scene’s energy into the saga’s upcoming final chapter.  C

CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE
You may argue that the world wasn’t waiting for a Carol Channing documentary, to which I respond, “Yes, but can anyone name another performer remotely like her?” That instantly recognizable voice alone could inspire its own Broadway musical. Pushing 90, Channing nearly looks it and has lost much of her physical agility, but she’s as lucid and charming as ever. Her late-in-life reunion with her first and truest love gives her story a touching arc and the archival footage from all stages of her career is a treat. If the praise heaped upon her by one interviewee after another has a whiff of hagiography at first, it quickly dissipates as one realizes Channing is the real deal—she’s one of the most genuine and generous living legends we have.  B

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