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Fantastic journey: How to Train Your Dragon.

Man’s Best Friend

By Laura Leon

How to Train Your Dragon

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Even if you don’t catch How to Train Your Dragon in 3D—and, really, you should—the bounce-off-the-screen joy of flight, of sailing through clouds and among giant rock formations over shimmering oceans, is astonishingly real. The closest I get to enjoying flight, or speed, is when I dream that, in running, each step translates to several leagues conquered, so it’s amazing to me that instead of feeling physically repulsed by adolescents hanging on for dear life to swooping, fire-breathing dragons, I was exhilarated. Turning to check out the audience, I got the distinct feeling that every single person in the theater was suddenly 9 years old again, soaring down a hill on their Schwinns.

Based on the story by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon has tried-and-true themes like acceptance and tolerance, but it’s closer in heart to The Black Stallion than it is to, say, Shrek. Unlikely hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), having wounded one of the dragons, which are greatly feared in his Viking community, decides to go against his training by nursing the critter, a giant black creature with lime green eyes, back to health. Long intrigued by the dragons that his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) and others hunt, Hiccup has developed a keen eye for detail, which he uses to hypothesize ways in which to heal his new charge, whom he dubs Toothless. Without dialogue, the cautious development of friendship and gradual elimination of fear is meaningfully developed. Much as was the case with the brilliant opening sequence in Up, here directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders have successfully intuited that in animation there is ample room for silence—something that didn’t occur to them when they directed Lilo and Stitch, another tale of interspecies friendship.

When Dragon features dialogue, it’s mostly sharp and witty. Butler and Craig Ferguson, as Gobber, a fierce mentor, provide the requisite accented burr, and America Ferrera, as Astrid, Hiccup’s competitor turned love interest, is appropriately feisty. The various dragons and night fliers are captivating. Hiccup’s ability to go from complete coward to a master of taming these beasts is a humorous joy in and of itself. The movie nimbly moves toward its 90-minute conclusion, never making you want to discreetly check the time, and it’s not just because it’s well written and fun. How to Train Your Dragon has a soulful grip on the meaning of relationships—and trust—that will not have you rolling your eyeballs, but perhaps checking a slight tear.

Women Scorned

Chloe

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Filmmaker Atom Egoyan loves to fetishize surfaces, whether it’s the shiny walls and glass doors of an austere modernist house in the bleak-but-well-ordered Canadian midwinter, or a young woman’s legs adorned in silk hosiery. Egoyan gives audiences plenty of opportunities to contemplate both in the psychosexual drama Chloe.

As in his best-known films (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica), Egoyan is just as interested in what’s going on beneath these surfaces. So the young woman, a prostitute who calls herself Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), is more than a slick seductress, and the rational right angles of the cubelike house are not reflected in the warped needs and desires of the family that lives within.

Everything Egoyan shows us is either from the point of view of Chloe, as she plays her upscale hooker games in antiseptic Toronto hotel bars, or Catherine (Julianne Moore), a gynecologist consumed with emotional alienation and jealousy. Catherine despairs that her teenage son (Max Thieriot) barely speaks to her anymore, and is feverishly convinced that her suave professor husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating with every winsome young girl who crosses his path.

So Catherine gets an idea, and it’s a really terrible, awful, desperate idea. She hires Chloe to try to seduce her husband. Chloe obliges, and reports on the ensuing sexually charged encounters to a mortified and enthralled Catherine.

This is the part of the drama that clearly engages the filmmaker. Egoyan has always been upfront about his voyeurism, and that’s certainly in evidence here, but he also gives Seyfried and Moore room to test the emotional limits of their characters. Their encounters are wrenching; Seyfried is very good, and Moore is brilliant, gripping. (Moore does so many supporting roles now, it’s a joy to see her at the center of a film.) If Chloe’s central mystery isn’t all that mysterious, it doesn’t matter when these two are playing their dark game.

Eventually, however, there’s a plot to untangle. It’s not very interesting, and the film loses the audience at the same time Egoyan himself grows bored. (You can actually pinpoint the moment Chloe goes off the rails. It’s when Seyfried looks deep into the camera with those lovely bug eyes of hers.) Catherine wants revenge, Chloe wants revenge, and the husband and son are left confused and bitter.

If the film doesn’t go completely insane, it’s probably because of all the tasteful Canadians involved in its production. Avoiding the worst clichés doesn’t save Chloe, however.

—Shawn Stone

The Way We Were

Hot Tub Time Machine

Directed by Steve Pink

I’m not one for fart jokes, references to boogers, boners, blow jobs, bodily fluids . . . in short, everything my older sons and just about every grown male with whom I’m acquainted find hysterical. I’m not saying that to prove some sort of feminine or middle-age superiority, but to underscore the fact that even as I’m repulsed by a lot of the gross shtick that passes for humor nowadays, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine. Yes, I was probably the only viewer over the age of 22 in attendance, and no, I would not advise this movie for school-age children, but damn it, this movie had legs, and not just because it stars John Cusack.

The title entity is part and parcel of the fondest memories of Adam (Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson), who seek to put a weekend tonic to their middle-age malaise by returning to the Kodiak Valley ski resort where they reveled in their 1980s youth. Coming along for the ride is Adam’s couch-potato techno-geek nephew Jake (Clark Duke), who lives in his uncle’s basement since his mom moved in with her latest loser boyfriend. Unfortunately, the quad finds that Ko-Vay is now a veritable dump, lined with boarded up businesses, and that their dearly remembered ski lodge is akin to a SRO, complete with one-armed bellhop Phil (Crispin Glover) and a crusted-over hot tub. Desperate to salvage some portion of their weekend, the guys clean up the tub, grab several gallons of booze and proceed forthwith, where in short order crazy things begin to happen, resulting in massive hangovers and the realization that they’re back in 1986. “What color is Michael Jackson?” asks a desperate Nick. When a girl in a “Where’s the Beef” T-shirt says “black,” he goes into full-scale panic, and the movie begins its daffy, wild trip back to the future.

Director Steve Pink keeps the zingers and the gross bits coming like a blitzkrieg barrage, leaving little time to appreciate the more acerbic references to leg warmers, Jeri curls, the band Poison, or the fact that Jake’s mother was a potty-mouthed slut. A running gag involving speculation as to when Phil, now two-handed, is going to lose his grip, literally, is tastelessly hysterical, and its resolution, which actually draws on Red Dawn, is genius. Cusack takes advantage of our memory of his dreamy (yes, dreamy) Say Anything qualities, while providing the occasional sardonic Better Off Dead-type bon mot. He’s older now, and his crinkly eyes have less a hungry look than a weathered one; it helps give Hot Tub Time Machine unexpected heart. Indeed, the shocking truth of the movie is that as miserable as its lead trio is in 2010, they weren’t exactly winners back in 1986. The movie ends with a delightfully subversive reversal of fortune that satisfies even as it makes you wonder—if you could do it all over again, would you?

—Laura Leon


A real pain in the ass: Stiller in Greenberg.

Under the Covers

Greenberg

Directed by Noah Baumbach

I’d like to discuss Greenberg on its own merits, but I don’t think it’s possible: Not because it doesn’t have its own, it does. But because, to my way of watching, director Noah Baumbach’s latest flick is more homage than original: Though Greenberg is credited to Baumbach and his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (he being the screenwriter-director, and the pair sharing story credit), I must quibble. Greenberg feels like a cover version of director Joe Swanberg’s Nights and Weekends as performed by Ben Stiller.

A bit of curious back story: Greenberg’s lead actress, Greta Gerwig, was also the lead in 2008’s Nights and Weekends. In fact, she is a frequent collaborator of Swanberg’s, and shared both writing and directing credits on that, largely improvised, movie. Note, as well, that Swanberg’s follow-up, Alexander the Last, was produced by . . . Noah Baumbach. So, a stylistic sympathy is understandable. But the similarity goes beyond that.

Greenberg has a number of explicit, seeming tributes to Nights and Weekends: a female character with a single painted nail; an anecdote told awkwardly and trailing into nothing; a clumsy attempt at oral sex; a reference to a train, which though inaudible in Greenberg, is in Swanberg’s movie pointedly loud; there are more. All of these cute in-jokes, if that’s what they are, would be excusable—even amusingly clever—as bread crumbs to follow back to the source, if the source weren’t such a distinct piece of filmmaking.

Swanberg and Gerwig are among the most recognizable names in the film community known—somewhat derisively—as “mumblecore.” Also known as “bedhead cinema,” it’s not so much a genre as a practice. These are extremely low-budget movies, frequently shot on digital camcorders, highlighting the often- improvised relationship dramas of 20- to 30-somethings. To put it mildly, they are not everyone’s cup of tea: Typically there is little plot and, therefore, little resolution. The great, daring thing that mumblecore filmmakers seem to have done is to dispose of the dramatic convention that each character must want some single, identifiable thing. Mumblecore characters are not, generally speaking, on a quest. They seem, if not fully post-desire, certainly desire-wary. They are politely commitment phobic: This is the cinema of, “No, but thanks.”

Which explains another condescending nickname for the style: Slackavetes. It’s a reference to the independent, iconoclastic and gritty work of John Cassavetes. But, to the extent that mumblecore is gritty, it’s the grit of the first Brooklyn sublet after graduating from a decent private college. It’s Cassavetes bleached of virility and rage.

And that brings us back to Greenberg, and to Stiller. As an actor, Stiller is an ongoing tantrum. He is entirely believable as Roger Greenberg, the titular 41-year-old recently discharged from a mental hospital, to which he retired from the exhaustion of being a defensive, judgmental prick. Convalescing at the home of his more successful, though no more likeable, brother, Roger takes up with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Gerwig), and proceeds to torture her emotionally. (Stiller would be right at home in a Cassavetes flick.)

Gerwig is natural to the point of effortlessness. You’re compelled to watch her, as there’s no evidence of acting—it’s a bit like watching a magician. As Greenberg’s long-suffering best friend, Ivan, Rhys Ifans is perfectly wiped-out and understated. So, we have two compellingly low-key performances framing the intensity of Stiller’s portrayal, positioned almost antithetically in a borrowed mumblecore framework.

It’s not wholly a failure. Gerwig and Ifans make it worth the time; and Baumbach is showing a surer directorial hand. But the overall experience is a bit like listening to an amiable midtempo classic, albeit one with a hot-shit solo, after discovering a scratchy, haunted delta blues original. For all the pop and hiss, and the ungainly weirdness of the earlier version, you know it means you can never truly love the remake.

—John Rodat


Sophisticated lady: Constance Talmadge.

Sister Act

By Shawn Stone

The Constance Talmadge Collection (Kino)

The Norma Talmadge Collection (Kino)

This pair of single DVDs containing two films each from the premiere sister stars of the silent era is certainly a welcome surprise. The Talmadges, Norma and Constance, were glamorous and immensely popular; driven by a smart, determined stage mother, they broke into films at the beginning of the modern era, established their own production companies, and stayed at or near the top of the Hollywood elite until the talkies came in.

And they’re almost completely forgotten today.

Norma Talmadge is the least known superstar in American cinema history. By the mid-1920s she had eclipsed the better-remembered divas like Gloria Swanson; her omission from our cultural conversation is, as Jeanine Basinger suggested in Silent Stars, the equivalent of having no idea who Bette Davis was. And she’s well worth getting acquainted with.

Norma was a subtle performer who played women who endured: struggling working-class girls, pioneer wives, prostitutes. In Within the Law (1923), a dead serious melodrama directed by solid (often stolid) Frank Lloyd, she’s a shop girl wrongly accused of stealing by her millionaire employer.

The wealthy son of a bitch even makes a point of commiserating with the trial judge to ensure she’s allowed no leniency; in the 1920s, even films produced by millionaire movie stars weren’t shy about portraying the class war.

Locked up, she does what many innocents who land in jail do—she makes friends with crooks she can work with later, on the outside (as in the French drama opening locally this week, A Prophet). Norma Talmadge may project a tender quality that’s key to her persona, but deep down she’s tough as nails—she beats the hell out of a fellow inmate who deliberately stomps on her garden.

Within the Law may drag a bit at the end, when redemption rears its ugly, inevitable head, but it’s a good introduction to Norma. Kiki (1926, directed by Clarence Brown), the other film in the set, is a delightful comedy that’s an anomaly in her career. She’s good, but her performance is a little too deliberate; she lacks the light-but-knowing comedic touch of sister Constance.

Constance Talmadge is one of the most gifted comic performers of any era, and Her Sister From Paris (1925) is a real gem. She plays twin sisters Lola, a celebrated dancer, and Helen, a Viennese housewife married to an unappreciative author, Joseph (super-suave Ronald Colman, who also costarred in Kiki). It’s that old farcical plot about the bland sister getting a makeover, pretending to be her own sister, and making her husband fall in love with “her sister from Paris.” But Constance imbues both Helen and Lola with such distinct personalities—the dancer is thoroughly sophisticated and self-assured, exuding glamour, contrasted with Helen’s charming naiveté—that hubby comes across as a dope for not realizing that he’s romancing his own wife.

The special effect is seamless; Constance seems more at ease acting with herself than with her other costars. (Which is amusing in itself.) And her comic timing is flawless.

Her Sister From Paris, along with the other film in the Constance set, Her Night of Romance, was written by longtime Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Hans Kraly. Both films have the kind of breezy sophistication and knowing approach to sexuality we associate with Lubitsch. If director Sidney Franklin lacks as sure a touch, he at least keeps things moving, nicely framed, and properly focused on the star.

Her Night of Romance (1924) is a softer, more conventional comedy. It’s still charming, and Constance is very fine, but it lacks the anarchic kick of something like The Duchess of Buffalo (1926).

There’s no complaint to be made about Kino International’s presentation. It’s bare-bones—the only extras are a couple of photo galleries—but the transfer is first class. Her Sister From Paris suffered some noticeable decomposition before it was preserved by the Library of Congress, but only in spots and never during Constance Talmadge’s scenes. (It’s like the nitrate film gods were looking after her.)

If these sets sell well enough, Kino might release some more Talmadge. I say, bring ’em on.


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