If the name Shecky Greene does not ring a bell, you might not be the target audience for this new documentary. But there was once a time when someone with this unlikely name roamed the Earth, and this film chronicles the prehistoric, pre-TV age in which such comedians flourished. The doc proposes New York’s Catskill Mountains as the cradle of a couple of generations of comedy, and it is hard to argue with the assertion. A vast parade of stand-up comics, mostly Jewish, passed through the vacation resorts of the Borscht Belt, as the circuit was called. During the mid-20th century, the Catskills hummed with holiday-makers seeking escape from New York, in search of all-you-can-eat buffets and the latest variation on the mother-in-law joke.
What makes Prince Avalanche a summer movie? Maybe it’s the aimlessness of its wandering story line, even more than the literal backdrop for the thing: two guys on a summer job sprucing up a lonely road in West Texas. A recent fire has burned the surrounding countryside, which gives the setting a pleasant, haven’t-quite-seen-this-before-in-a-movie quality.
The guys are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and they really don’t get on. Alvin wears a mustache of self-satisfaction, as befits a man with a secure collection of platitudes and a condescending air to match. Lance is the brother of Alvin’s girlfriend (Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton, heard only on the phone), and Alvin tries manfully to impose his standards of behavior on his younger cohort. They putter along the blasted landscape, painting new yellow lines on the road and arguing about what constitutes mature behavior.
It’s to director David Gordon Green’s credit that the eventual revelation that Alvin’s life is not as together as he’d like to think is treated not as gotcha irony but as a natural piece of confused masculine existence.
Everybody bumps into an existential block now and again. They just don’t generally experience the literal THUNK encountered by the protagonist of The Wall. The unnamed character, played by Martina Gedeck, wakes up in her friends’ Alpine hunting cabin, only to discover the friends still absent from a hike the previous day. Accompanied by their dog, she walks along a pretty lakeside road and abruptly face-plants into a transparent, all-encompassing force field. She can’t go farther.
Don’t expect a sci-fi explanation for her roadblock. What we have here instead is pure, abject isolation, as Gedeck discovers her enclosed world includes a large swath of nature, a bevy of animals, but no other humans—and no way out. After her initial adjustment, she learns how to manage her food supply, hunt for deer, and shed her fierce I-ness in favor of a newly conscious connection to the world. If that description makes the movie’s theme sound as transparent as the all-encompassing wall, fair enough—but the execution is suitably lyrical.
Don’t make a masterpiece. Or at least don’t set out to make a masterpiece. That’s one of the lessons of this compulsively watchable documentary about celebrated animator Richard Williams and how he never finished his designated magnum opus.
Williams is a Canadian, now 80, who ran a profitable animation studio in London for decades. Expert at turning out brilliant short films and TV commercials, Williams began on his real work—the labor of love that all the other stuff was paying for—in the early ’60s. His original concept for the feature involved tales of the folkloric Middle Eastern character Nasrudin; and although the concept veered away from that character, the colorful Arabian Nights theme persisted throughout the decades. Yes, decades: The project lost backers, missed deadlines, underwent rewrites, and outlived some of its original animators.
Elysium hangs in orbit, a giant spinning space station of deluxe McMansions and WASPy country clubs; it’s a brief supersonic ride from the filthy, overpopulated Earth of 2154.
Elysium looks like the most boring place imaginable. But every home has a healing machine (like the auto-surgery modules in Prometheus), which is handy if one has absorbed a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, such is the dilemma of Max (Matt Damon), a worker-drone on Earth who must find a way to get to Elysium and fix his decaying body.
Already you can see the outlines of Blomkamp’s allegory, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots (such a remarkably consistent vision in futuristic fiction, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through Metropolis and Avatar). If this lacks the startling originality of Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, which shredded the imagery of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa through a savage and funny alien-invasion scenario, the Elysium setup is still workable enough to qualify as satisfying old-school science fiction.
Jennifer Aniston gives every indication, onscreen and off, of being a hardworking and good-natured person; alas, her utter niceness has led to a dire series of post-Friends vehicles, films in which her capricious comic timing is squandered on very watered-down material.
Every now and then one of these movies tries to add some “edge,” which must be welcome to an actress stuck in the America’s Sweetheart loop. With the notable exception of The Good Girl, these attempts only remind us how nice Aniston is and how far short she falls of such knotted-up characters. Case in point: We’re the Millers, a predictably raunchy comedy with a farfetched but not impossible premise: Drug dealer David (Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis) must make good a debt to his slick supplier (Ed Helms) by bringing a huge load of marijuana across the border from Mexico. David’s idea: Hire three strangers to pretend to be his nauseatingly clean-cut family, the better to escape detection while driving through customs in a motor home.
My childhood hero Namu was the second killer whale kept in captivity (he came to the Seattle waterfront on my birthday in 1965), and we owe him a lot. The world understood almost nothing about these fantastic creatures until Namu proved how bright, social, and instinctively friendly killer whales are. That was good. The problem was, everybody saw how the trainable and lovable animals could be used to make money. And that has led to a decades-long controversy that ought to have been settled by now.
Blackfish should be the final word on the subject, even if it probably won’t be. This relentless documentary circles around the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a supremely experienced SeaWorld trainer who was killed in a performing tank by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound whale. But that death is the starting point for a film that makes a couple of general thrusts: Killer whales should not be kept in captivity, and the sea parks that own them have done a suspiciously incomplete job of informing their trainers and the public about how they operate their businesses.
If minimalism was an economic necessity for filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani—she had a few thousand dollars to spend on her first feature—it also fits her purpose. Her documentary is a narrow-gauge look at a sliver of real life in small-town Georgia in the former USSR. Gurchiani visits a rural community in the Caucasus and puts out a call to young people who might want to appear on camera. The very first fellow we see onscreen is much older than that demographic, an early indication that curiosity about being in a movie trumps all other considerations. He admits he has never done a film, but has always thought he might be good for, say, Jean-Claude Van Damme sorts of roles; he’s got some of those moves. Can he do the midair splits, asks the offscreen director? In the past, yes, answers our modest-looking villager, who looks more like a figure from a 19th-century lithograph than from a chopsocky action picture. He’d have to start practicing again.
The plane is in the air, and the coach passengers have been sedated for the duration of the flight. This is a wacky Pedro Almodóvar touch—especially the way the flight crew accepts this as standard procedure—and it fits the movie’s overall feeling of not quite existing within the known universe. (Actually, putting passengers to sleep during a long flight is not a terrible idea, even if the plane isn’t experiencing mechanical difficulties.) But this trip has gone wrong. The flight crew is panicked over the stuck landing gear and worried about keeping the first-class passengers distracted. On both points, there’s a great deal of tequila involved.
I’m So Excited has been touted as a return to Almodóvar’s zany early work such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and in some ways that’s true. It’s crammed with explicit sex jokes, suggested sex acts, and a brazen attitude toward hedonism at 30,000 feet. The members of the crew are tangled in illicit relationships; the conscious passengers are a roster of eccentrics and rogues. We lack only a guitar-playing nun and a teen needing a kidney transplant.
In an otherwise conventional approach to her biopic, director Margarethe von Trotta makes an exception for one key aspect of the story. It’s a crucial decision. Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is already an esteemed professor and public intellectual when she talks The New Yorker into hiring her to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. This is where von Trotta makes the exception: Eichmann is not played by an actor, but represented by the extensive newsreel footage of the trial. A small thing, but critical: An actor might have brought some distinction, some charisma, to the role of the Nazi war criminal.
That could have worked against Arendt’s famous observation about Eichmann’s very ordinariness. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the particular horror of the Nazis’ tidy organization of genocide. Instead of the aberrant monsters of the final solution, she proposed a population of bland bureaucrats with blood on their hands. This bold assertion, and the sometimes angry fallout that came after, is at the core of Hannah Arendt. The subject’s a good fit for von Trotta, whose career has frequently taken a political slant; here she casts a merciless eye on how the political is inevitably personal.
If you don’t know the name, you know the line. That is to say, you’ve surely seen the effortless drawing style of Tomi Ungerer—prolific children’s-book author of the 1950s and ’60s—whose life gets an enlightening treatment in this documentary. It doesn’t venture into the dark recesses of Crumb-land, but Ungerer has a story and a career outside the normal job description for “children’s-book author.” Far enough outside, in fact, to be exiled from that world for almost 30 years.
Instead of making the underperforming White House Down, perhaps director Roland Emmerich—the master of disaster behind 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow—should’ve stuck with his usual instinct for large-scale destruction. He should’ve made a movie about bees.
More Than Honey demonstrates why the subject is ripe for apocalyptic treatment. Banish all thoughts of The Swarm, the ’70s Michael Caine flop about killer bees taking over; the real threat is not that bees will attack us, but abandon us. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, humankind would die off after four years—and while the attribution might be apocryphal, the observation points out how the agricultural grid is dependent on those tiny, buzzing ministers of fertility.
It doesn’t take long for The Unspeakable Act to go there. We’ve barely been ushered into the Kimball family unit, a normal-looking Brooklyn clan, when teenage daughter Jackie (Tallie Medel) casually introduces the subject that she elsewhere describes as “the I-word.” Jackie is troubled—distraught, actually—that her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) has his first steady girlfriend and is leaving for Princeton soon. In the plainest way possible, she tells us about how difficult is it to be in love with a member of one’s own family.
That’s right. The I-word is incest, but the idea that this taboo subject can be treated only sensationalistically is quickly dispelled by writer/director Dan Sallitt’s approach. This quiet microbudget film sails along as smoothly and easily as Jackie’s bicycle glides through Brooklyn in the opening shots.
The 1980 Maniac is one of those periodic exploitation concepts that pay off handsomely: low budget, killer title, horrified reviews that can be used to drum up interest, and good timing (the malaise era was at its death-gasp nadir). The thing made a huge profit.
A remake can’t capture that nervy, subversive vibe—there’s no surprise left. That’s partly why the recent reboots of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre felt misjudged; the budgets were too high, the acting too competent, the properties already too enshrined in pop culture. This Maniac remake is grungier than those efforts, so I suppose it has that going for it. But without the original barrel-scraping atmosphere, even beachcombers of bucket-of-blood horror might be tested by its single-note idea and approach.
We don’t learn exactly how a fussy English bachelor gets a job as a soundman on an Italian horror movie in ’70s Rome. That’s his profession, and the evidence suggests he knows his craft. But this gig is wrong on so many levels. The longer Berberian Sound Studio goes on, the less it matters how this ill-advised assignment came about. Because this experience unfolds more as a dream than a credible story. And the dream is a nightmare.
That’s the way it goes for Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild chap whose warm, loving letters from home are written not by a wife, but—as we discover when he reaches the bottom of the page—by his mother. Of course. Utterly at sea among the floridly warm-blooded Italians in this post-production studio, he’s just as uncomfortable with the content of the film he’s dubbing. It’s a giallo, as the Italians call their style of horror, and the sadistic material onscreen is discomfiting. Though, being British, Gilderoy remains as detached as possible while actresses record their terrifying screams for his microphones.