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She’s really, really sorry: Keener in Please Give.

Helpless

By Shawn Stone

Please Give

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Nicole Holofcener starts her latest upscale, urban family comedy with a fast-edited montage of a lot of naked boobs. Nothing salacious here, though, as these boobs of all ages and sizes are being pressed and prodded in the process of mammography. One of the lead characters is in this line of work, but this credits sequence has the only such nudity in the picture. The other mammography scenes are protective of the women being filmed.

The opening is startling: “Wake up, chucklehead, you’re not at a Nancy Meyers—or a Woody Allen—comedy.” Holofcener says the opener is to remind us that the characters you are about to meet are human. This is to say unreliable, unreasonable and as likely to be nasty as nice. As in her earlier films (Lovely and Amazing, Walking and Talking). Holfcener’s characters are prickly, complex and recognizable.

Since the story is set in New York City, money is at the center of everything. Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) make a nice living buying up the unwanted belongings of baby boomers’ recently deceased parents, and reselling said items to hipsters and yuppies at a generous markup. They’ve also bought the apartment next door from its ancient occupant, snarly old Andra (Ann Guilbert, best remembered as Dick Van Dyke’s neighbor Millie), and are doing their best not to wish too openly for the old lady’s prompt demise.

While Alex doesn’t lose sleep over any of this, Kate is guilt-ridden and incapable of finding a healthy way to relieve this guilt. She presses money on the homeless while denying the smallest requests of her remarkably well-adjusted daughter (Sarah Steele). Keener really digs into the raw depths as guilt consumes Kate—she’s so pained, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And sympathize, too.

Alex has his discontents, as do the “neighbors,” Andra’s granddaughters Rebecca, the mammographer (Rebecca Hall, mousy but sweet) and Mary, the spa worker (funny but slightly rancid) who are always visiting ungrateful grandma.

Holofcener has these people interact in the usual ways—fighting and fucking and falling in love—just like any other director of ensemble comedies. What makes her films special are the unpredictable but utterly convincing ways the characters attract, repel, or just drift by each other.

In the end, kindness can’t stop death, cheating can’t end marital boredom, volunteering can’t ease bottomless guilt, and tanning can’t win back your ex. But if you break down and buy your kid a pair of $200 jeans, and let yourself share her happiness in such a deceptively trifling thing, you might just be all right.

Damned Philadelphia Lawyers

The Art of the Steal

Directed by Don Argott

The “relocation” of the Barnes Foundation art collection is referred to as the biggest art theft since World War II, a description that is delineated in The Art of the Steal. This documentary by Don Argott follows the declining fortunes of Dr. Albert Barnes’ private collection of post-impressionist and modern art from his death to its usurpation by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though the film is fiercely one-sided in its view that Barnes’ legal and personal will was violated, it can’t really be seen as biased, since most of the people responsible for the collection’s quasi-illegal acquisition refused to be interviewed.

Albert C. Barnes was born to a working-class family in Philadelphia in 1872. He put himself through medical school by boxing, and soon after developed an antiseptic that made him wealthy. Unlike other self-made tycoons, he collected art that he liked, rather than what the establishment dictated as being valuable. Honing his eye in Paris, he amassed substantial works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, and many more. In the film’s breathtaking opening, art experts compare the superiority of Barnes’ possessions to those in even the most illustrious museums. Even more interesting are the wall ensembles that Barnes created in his residential gallery: He placed paintings by aesthetics instead of categories, surrounding them with African art, sculpture, medieval artifacts, even vintage hardware. When he first exhibited his collection, it was savaged by critics and curators.

Barnes’ antipathy to the art establishment in general and the Philadelphia social elite in particular (especially the newspaper mogul Walter Annenberg) shaped his foundation, which he dedicated to education and to fighting those privileged by financial power and prestige. He utilized his gallery as a classroom rather than a museum, and his will stated that the collection was not to be moved or sold.

Combining archival newsreels, home videos, and photographs with talking heads (mostly devoted former students and collaborators), The Art of the Steal is admirable in its decidedly unstuffy presentation of the contentious life and times of Albert Barnes. It manages—perhaps too well—to dramatize the protracted power shifts and legal battles that defeated the foundation and its stewardship by the Lincoln College, an African- American college that Barnes aligned with his foundation. One fascinating story concerns Lincoln’s Richard Glaxton, a foundation administrator who seemingly sold out by taking the collection on a glitzy tour that raised millions in revenue. Though he resigned amid corruption charges, Glaxton inadvertently kept the foundation independent.

Ironically, the Barnes Foundation was undone by other foundations, such as the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, and other parties interested in turning Philadelphia into a “world-class city.” Though moving the collection from suburban Meridian to museum row in Philadelphia will give the public greater access, turning it into a tourist attraction defies Barnes’ stated aims, and breaks a public trust regarding individual will—an issue made even more ironic considering the individualism of the artists whose works are usually referred to by their combined commercial worth “of several billion dollars.”

—Ann Morrow

You Can’t Go Home Again

The A-Team

Directed by Joe Carnahan

The A-Team used to be on NBC on Monday nights, and if I got home in time from my accordion lessons—don’t ask—my parents and I would watch an episode. Even then it wasn’t exactly “must see” TV, but the presence of the still-good-looking George Peppard, always ready with a quip and a flick of cigar, and the jokey ferocity of Mr. T somehow made it palatable. The premise of the show, four former Vietnam servicemen betrayed by their government, still had resonance, so the idea that this same quartet would embark upon lucrative mercenary activities was semi-plausible. The makers of the show obviously owed a debt to such ensemble blow-em-up predecessors as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, but this time, as someone has already written, Mr. T got to drive the jeep, and that in itself (the guy wore scores of pounds of gold bling on his massive neck, after all), was something.

Admittedly, my Metroland film editor and I were kind of psyched about the big screen adaptation, mostly because of the lineup. Liam Neeson takes on Hannibal, the Peppard role. Hunky, snarky Bradley Cooper is Face, District 9 breakout star Sharlto Copley is gadget geek Murdock, and martial arts phenom Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is B.A .(as in Bad Attitude). Clearly, this had the potential, based on talent, to be at least worthy of a mindless two and a half hours at the drive-in this summer. But this A Team has me thinking that maybe Joanie Loves Chachi or Silver Spoons weren’t that bad . . . and that’s not good.

The plot is superfluous. Director Joe Carnahan goes out of his way to avoid staging anything approaching realistic, well-edited fights or explosions. With the possible exception of Rampage Jackson, who may have the easiest role given its qualifications are to look suitably menacing, the cast is adrift, left to float on the barest minimum of a concept. Neeson tries too hard to make Hannibal a fully dimensional character, which may have worked in Iron Man but is woefully wrong for this fluff; Cooper relies heavily on sarcasm, washboard abs and teeth that would be the envy of any Big Bad Wolf. Coply’s Murdock is slightly more interesting, but the role is a series of starts and stops, so that we never get to figure out why he’s so weird. The demographically required x-factor is provided by Jessica Biel, playing Face’s ex and the authority figure who is hot on the A-Team’s trail. Translation: she gets to wear dominatrix-type ensembles and flout the benefits of years spent with a personal trainer, all the while disproving her hotly argued points (in many women’s mags) that she’s been unfairly stereotyped by Hollywood.

The A-Team should have been a fun, Raiders of the Lost Ark type of matinee escapism. What it is, however, is a grim reminder of the mediocrity that was much of 1980s TV, and to which, for some reason, we continue to look for cinematic inspiration. Paging Netflix: send me episodes of St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues and Knots Landing, please, before I find out that my next review is a movie adaptation of Jake and the Fatman. . . .

—Laura Leon


Let ’em rot: (l-r) Fox and Brolin in Jonah Hex..

No Country for Dead Men

Jonah Hex

Directed by Jimmy Hayward

Just to clarify: DC Comics won’t be seeing a franchise out of Jonah Hex. Though a $47 million budget is conservative by today’s standards, the film’s near total failure to connect with audiences should place it in the great pantheon of big-time flops, where it will fit right in alongside Howard the Duck. It’s a not-great film whose not-greatness is compounded because it could have been done so much better. Context doesn’t do it any favors: Neveldine/Taylor, the guys behind the Crank films, were originally set to direct but left the film due to “creative differences.” That’s a shame, but a bigger shame is seeing their screenplay hijacked by a director (Jimmy Hayward, whose first eight films were cartoons) who is so totally out of whack with its vision. You might say the creative differences found their way onto the screen.

Josh Brolin is serviceable if not engaging as the slightly undead, post-Civil War bounty hunter Hex, though much of his Sling Blade grunt is buried under the loud metal soundtrack (hello, Mastodon). However, it might actually be the arrow-straight Brolin who foils the plot. The performances from Megan Fox (complete with a perfectly awful accent) and the supporting cast—John Malkovich, Will Arnett, Aidan Quinn—hint at a tongue-in-cheek camp that’s bobbled by the film’s flat direction. This dichotomy in tone, accidental or not, is maddening.

It’s frustrating that Hex jumps from scene to scene with no real regard for story, and that its 85 minutes (more like 81 without credits) play like the longest trailer ever. But knowing Neveldine/ Taylor make unique, exhilarating films that way—now that’s frustrating. Had the writers been able to bring their bizarre, hyperactive visual style and sense of humor to Hex (and, maybe, cast Jason Statham) we might have had another Hellboy. Rather, it’s . . . well, it’s another Howard the Duck.

—John Brodeur

To adulthood and beyond! Toy Story 3.

Boats Against the Current

Toy Story 3

Directed by Lee Unkrich

My youngest is a week away from leaving day care and entering the big kid world of summer day camp and pre-K, and while I eagerly imagine what I will do with the money we will be saving, I have more than a few twinges of nostalgia and even a sense of loss. In addition to saying goodbye to a truly remarkable day care and its devoted staff, I realize with an ache that my kids are off and running, and that their days of innocence and make-believe are fast diminishing. The days are numbered for many of the playthings that clog every surface and container in my house, and while I welcome the end of diaper bags and all that, it’s sobering, especially in the case of the eldest, who is off to high school in the fall.

Pixar’s Toy Story came out the year Denis was born; Toy Story 2 four years later. Those were days when he’d spend countless hours setting up elaborate scenes using play or stuffed animals or building massive fortresses for miniature soldiers to bombard. The day I took my youngest boys to see Toy Story 3, Denis and his next oldest brother stayed home and played Wii or doodled on Facebook. I know I’m not alone in marveling at how, for a particular generation of parents and kids, the Toy Story franchise parallels our increasingly frantic gallop toward aging and maturity.

That sounds incredibly bleak, perhaps, but it’s a fact of life. Time goes by much faster as we age, and particularly as we watch our children grow into adulthood, and this is a reality which Toy Story 3 mines exquisitely, even painstakingly. In this go-round, Andy, the owner of Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals, is days away from going off to college. While the toys understand that their duty is to “be there” for him, they realize with sad plastic hearts that the days when he’d come bounding upstairs to play with them are over. At the movie’s onset, the toys engage in an elaborate ruse using Andy’s cell phone to get him to open the toy box, in the collective hope for a final play date before being stored in the attic for another generation or, worse, left on the curb for the garbage truck. Not only is Andy fully grown, but little sister Molly, anxious to take over his room, is more into her MP3 player than anything like Barbie. After the bagged toys are mistakenly put out for trash, an ingenious plot twist has them being donated to a day-care center instead. What at first seems like paradise—tons of new kids to play with!—becomes a nightmare, when Buzz and the gang realize that they’ve been left in what has to be the “bad kid” classroom. Hours later, covered in snot, Play-Doh, crayon and who knows what else, they regroup to plot a solution.

This time around there are new characters, notably the day-care center major domo, a strawberry-scented bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty), his chief enforcer, a formerly cuddly doll called Big Baby, and Ken (Michael Keaton), who lives to find a girl like, well, Barbie (Jodi Benson), who can appreciate his many wardrobe changes. Despite his outward cordiality, Lotso is a damaged toy, felled by apparent abandonment issues; it’s this character’s darkness and cynical worldview that Woody, Buzz and the gang must challenge in order to restore normalcy as well as their inherent sense of goodness. Toy Story 3 actually has a middle section in which Andy’s toys are held prisoner, complete with harmonica background. The movie owes a lot to the book and film The Brave Little Toaster.

I have to admit, despite a rollicking intro, the early parts of Toy Story 3 left me a little restless. But something interesting took over, as the movie subtly plays on very real emotional issues. Almost impossibly, the Toy Story franchise, with all its high-tech wizardry, has compelled us to honor and revere our old-fashioned yesterdays, whether they be from the ’60s or the ’90s. Andy’s reluctance to toss his toys, and the decision he (and Woody, for that matter) ultimately makes regarding them, bring the viewer up short. Similarly, a moment when Andy’s mom enters his now empty room, and realizes with both satisfaction and grief that she’s completed her job, something stirs in the heart and mind, something that reminds us not just of past possessions, but of the dreams they inspired. And, always, the brutal rapidity and impermanence of youth and joyful play.

—Laura Leon


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