She’s really, really sorry: Keener in
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.
Art of the Steal
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
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.”
Can’t Go Home Again
by Joe Carnahan
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.
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. . . .
’em rot: (l-r) Fox and Brolin in Jonah Hex..
Country for Dead Men
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.
adulthood and beyond! Toy Story 3.
Against the Current
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
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.