journey: How to Train Your Dragon.
to Train Your Dragon
by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
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
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.
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
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.
Way We Were
Tub Time Machine
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
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,
real pain in the ass: Stiller in Greenberg.
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.
lady: Constance Talmadge.
Constance Talmadge Collection (Kino)
Norma Talmadge Collection (Kino)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.