MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
The single most definitive shot in director/co-writer Jason Reitman's "Ee-e-eek! The Internet!" melodrama Men, Women & Children is one from the previews, in which Ansel Elgort trudges toward dozens of fellow high-schoolers, all of whom are so fixated on their phones that they can't see anything, or anyone, directly in front of them.
That shot is Reitman's latest in a nutshell. It's wonderfully lit and staged, and, with the traveling bubbles of texted conversation creating a gorgeous moving image, visually admirable. It's so oppressively pushy about its theme ("We don't see or hear anymore!") that it puts you in the film's opposite camp and makes you feel defensive toward social networking. And it's so self-consciously fraudulent, especially in a movie purporting to explore Life As It Is Now, that you don't buy it for a minute. (Because Reitman, here, can't ever leave well enough alone, that shot is repeated when hordes of shoppers amble through a shopping mall, texting the whole time. Imagine Crash with Don Cheadle separating a sea of consumers all shopping for Klan outfits and you'll get an idea of the subtlety.)
Men, Women & Children, with its kaleidoscopic, ensemble-driven narrative about modern dysfunction as a result of modern technology, is too actively terrible to be boring, which is a plus, and a few of its actors are quite good - the Children of the title especially. The Fault in Our Stars heartthrob Elgort is lovely and real as a lonely kid whose malaise (and online-gaming obsession!) led to him quitting the football team, and he's nearly matched by the soulful, dryly comic Kaitlyn Dever as his crush, a girl whose mom maintains electronic surveillance on her with nearly pathological devotion. And among the Men and Women, Judy Greer and Breaking Bad's Dean Norris share an honest, playful rapport, and are enjoyable even when not in the same scene.
But good Lord does Reitman sabotage a bunch of the others. (This is now Reitman's second movie, following Juno, in which J.K. Simmons is cast as a beleaguered dad dealing with his teen daughter's unexpected pregnancy. Whiplash can't possibly come soon enough.) Jennifer Garner, as the aforementioned stalker mom, is aggressively, damagingly cartoonish; Reitman having other characters laugh at her "concerned mother" routine doesn't make Garner's portrayal any less laughable. For the first time in my life, I wanted to look away from Rosemarie DeWitt whenever she appeared on-screen, considering that Reitman humiliates her newly-adulterous-spouse figure with her every hackneyed line and overtly obvious "I'm going to cheat on you now but pretend I'm doing something else, honey!" throwaway. Adam Sandler gives a perfectly respectable dramatic performance as DeWitt's equally dissatisfied, online-porn-cruising hubby - or would, at any rate, if his scenes weren't so frequently undercut by the judgmental voice-overs of Emma Thompson saying things like, "Don considered the online video T---- F------ C-- Queen."
Oh yeah. Did I not mention the Emma Thompson narration? Adapting Chad Kultgen's novel, one would think Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson would have had enough material with their relentlessly downbeat tales of an anorexic teen (the touching Elena Kampouris) addicted to weight-loss sites, and a mom pitifully unaware (or is she?!) that her daughter's Web site is serving as de facto kiddie porn, and a sex-hungry teen (a very good Travis Trope) who can't get an erection with an off-line girl, and so on. But no: We get Thompson, with her stentorian British diction, routinely reminding us how sorry and sad these (American) Internet-addled souls are, and as a director, Reitman appears to take his cue from these intrusive and unwelcome dressings-down. (For a film boasting so many actors who frequently play it funny, Men, Women & Children is astonishingly morose.)
Reitman's compositions are generally sly and graceful, and he pulls off a few quietly devastating moments, such as his camera's slow pull away from a doorknob as the damaged teen within loses her virginity to the wrong boy. More often, though, Reitman and his script hammer us with so much barely suppressed horror at the evils of the Internet that the director starts to seem like a reactionary pedant - one almost as insufferable as Jennifer Garner's "well-meaning" mother who chirps to her daughter, before the girl leaves the house, "Take your phone so I can track you." Unless I somehow missed it, not one even slightly beneficial (or just plain fun) perk of Internet accessibility is addressed in Men, Women & Children's two hours, and the subsequent depress-a-thon proves way less enjoyable than bitching about the movie's heavy-handedness and silliness to strangers online. (Which, I guess, I'm doing right now.) After his hysterically overwrought soap opera Labor Day, I presumed Jason Reitman had nowhere to go but up, and he has gone up with Men, Women & Children. I just wish that going from dreadful to just-slightly less dreadful were more of a progression.
THE BOOK OF LIFE
As the movie's advertising proudly acknowledges the involvement of producer Guillermo del Toro, and the Mexican "Day of the Dead" celebration Dia de los Muertos was to play heavily in its plot, I couldn't wait to see how del Toro and director/co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez were going to shake up traditional animated storytelling in their comic adventure The Book of Life. Then, within the film's first five minutes, there were two poop jokes, which were quickly followed by the sight of a chubby pink pig peeing on our hero's leg. So much for shake-up.
To be fair, the film is eye-catching. Once we arrive in the "Land of the Remembered" underworld halfway through the film, the on-screen explosions of color and movement are dazzling, and suggestive of a hyperactively festive, Bizarro World take on Pan's Labyrinth. And even the early scenes are uniquely rendered, with most characters resembling ambulatory wooden marionettes whose strings have been snipped. But to fully enjoy Gutierrez's (and del Toro's?) visual acumen here, you'll also have to slog through a dreary love triangle between warring best friends (voiced by Diego Luna and an amusing but oddly cast Channing Tatum) and their feisty gal pal (Zoe Saldana), and a series of antic yet uninspired action melees. Oh, and a bunch of generically awful songs. And the requisite, unsubtly delivered Believe in Yourself and Follow Your Dreams moralizing. And a Mexico of decades past in which characters shout "Not on my watch!" and "Let's do this!" I yawned all throughout The Book of Life but am proud to say I never slept, given the number of vocally restless and presumably bored kids at my screening - one of whom, sitting behind me, kept asking perfectly reasonable questions ("Why did that happen?!") that his mother, understandably, couldn't answer. One of them was "Who's that guy?", which was asked when Ice Cube showed up as the gregarious weirdo Candle Maker. Hmm. Channing Tatum and Ice Cube. If a reunion was afoot, did Jonah Hill not get his invite?
MEET THE MORMONS
Whatever else it attempts to be - inspirational saga, recruiting film, community bear hug - director Blair Treu's Meet the Mormons has to be one of the most chipper documentaries ever made. Narrated, on-screen and off-, by the über-peppy comedienne Jenna Kim Jones, this "myth-busting" introduction to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints isn't the least bit exhaustive or investigatory; there'll be no mention of Joseph Smith or golden plates or the planet Kolob here, gosh darn it. Instead, the movie aims to shatter our preconceived notions about the Mormon faith (as long as our preconceived notions are restricted to "All Mormons are white" and "All Mormons live in Utah"), and what results is an adamantly vanilla yet friendly and upbeat and surprisingly engaging offering with one absolutely exceptional story tucked inside.
After an enjoyably self-effacing prologue featuring film clips of pop culture's cheekiest Mormon jokes (including an all-time-classic from The Simpsons), the movie takes us on a global tour of Mormonism, spending time with a Nepalese family in Kathmandu, a pair of Costa Rican mixed-martial-artists, the head football coach for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and others. They all appear to be bright, funny, and devout, and the segment involving a Mormon family in Utah whose son is heading off for his two-year missionary stint overseas is deeply touching. But halfway through, we're introduced to Gail Halvorsen, a retired career officer with the U.S. Air Force, and for 10 minutes or so, Treu's outing becomes a historical documentary boasting a power even its filmmakers may not have anticipated. Known as "the Candy Bomber" during the 1948-9 Berlin airlift, Halvorsen was responsible for the era's "Little Vittles" operation that found American pilots dropping candy parachutes to children in the Berlin blockade, and his tale is so inherently fascinating and moving - and the 94-year-old Halvorsen himself so alert and engaging - that the man's Mormonism is barely even referenced. Meet the Mormons was much what I expected, if better than I expected. Yet Halvorsen's story lends it gravitas and significance, and actually makes you hungry for a documentary sequel devoted solely to him.
THE SKELETON TWINS
While in the Chicago area three weekends ago, I caught the dramatic comedy The Skeleton Twins, which features former Saturday Night Live co-stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as formerly estranged siblings who are reunited after the brother's suicide attempt, which the sister learns about during her own suicide attempt. (Can't imagine why that skit never appeared on SNL.) I held off on reviewing the movie at the time, because while I enjoyed director Craig Johnson's effort quite a bit, I couldn't say it was worth a three-hour drive from the Quad Cities. But an hour-long drive to Iowa City's FilmScene venue, where the movie opened this past weekend, seems completely reasonable.
An up-and-downbeat indie in the mold of The Station Agent or Little Miss Sunshine, The Skeleton Twins has a rather contrived and fairly unconvincing screenplay by Johnson and Mark Heyman, one that's too dependent on coincidences and too enamored of its glib, only-in-the-movies banter. But your arguments about the script are easily nullified by the splendid, nearly telepathic chemistry of Hader and Wiig, whose years of sketch-comedy camaraderie and obvious affection for one another are felt in every glance and seemingly spontaneous interaction. (Unsurprisingly, their finest scenes together are the ones that feel improvised, such as their giggly reminiscence during a shared nitrous-oxide high and the sequence - deservedly showcased in the film's previews - in which the duo lip syncs to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.") Hader and Wiig, both of them supremely polished whether in comedic or dramatic mode, give The Skeleton Twins a lift that makes the movie unmissable for fans, and the added perks include fine work contributed by Luke Wilson (better than he's been in a decade), Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason, and Boyd Holbrook. This, by the way, is the third time I've praised Holbrook in print over the past five weeks, as the actor - spot-on here as an insinuating scuba instructor - was similarly excellent as a twitchy druggie in A Walk Among the Tombstones and an untrustworthy trailer-park creep in Gone Girl. Message to other young up-and-comers in Hollywood: Find out who Holbrook's representation is and visit that talent agency immediately. It'll likely be the one with the line around the block.
VENUS IN FUR
Roman Polanski's 2011 release Carnage, the film version of Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning comedy God of Carnage, is probably my favorite stage-to-screen adaptation of the millennium, and as a dazzlingly acted verbal comedy running only 75 minutes, it's a DVD I frequently plug in for enjoyable background noise when cleaning my apartment or paying bills or whatever. Consequently, I was delighted to learn that Polanski's follow-up feature was going to be an adaptation of another stage comedy I love: David Ives' similarly Tony-winning Venus in Fur. Polanski's movie was just made available on home video and Netflix streaming, and I'm happy to say that I remain delighted; the film is excellent. I'm also saddened to say that it probably won't be of much use to me as eventual background noise, because as much as I adored Polanski's latest, I'm not fluent in French.
Those not instinctively averse to subtitles, however, are encouraged to check out Polanski's French-language take on Ives' English-language play, a two-character study of shifting power dynamics, sexual gamesmanship, and alternately funny and frightening role reversals. Mathieu Amalric plays Thomas, a frustrated and perhaps misogynist playwright searching for his new work's female lead. Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's real-life wife) plays Vanda, an eccentric, gum-chomping actress who makes a tardy appearance at auditions and demands to be considered for the part - one that she seems preternaturally, even magically, prepared for. After that, for full enjoyment of Polanski's and Ives' blast of mystical realism, the less said the better. Just know that as Amalric and Seigner engage in their intoxicating, 90-minute tête-à-tête, the boundaries between stage life and actual life grow increasingly and joyously blurry, the wit sharpens with scalpel-like precision, and it all ends with a metaphysical "Gotcha!" (somewhat different from the play's) that's been haunting me, and making me giggle, for days. It's a little hard to believe that the director of such expansive works as Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown and The Pianist has now turned to intimate theatrical chamber pieces for inspiration. But as someone who loves intimate theatrical chamber pieces, I'm all on board with the change, and hope Polanski has more in store. If one of them is an English-language remake of Venus in Fur, all the better. My Carnage DVD is gonna wear itself out eventually.