Quick Takes – 04.30.12

The Three Stooges

Grade: C | 1st Viewing

What a bizarre little project this movie is. Admittedly, this impeccable attempt from Bobby and Peter Farrelly to recreate the pratfalls of vaudeville’s most famous comic trio accomplishes its goal with an almost religious zeal. To their credit, The Three Stooges is oftentimes a deeply impressive facsimile; the lead performances in particular – Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos and Will Sasso as Larry, Moe and Curly, respectively – are delivered with uncanny precision.

But it’s almost as if the Brothers realize such an approach limits the appeal of their movie strictly to Stooges devotees (of which I am NOT a part). As a result, they maroon the three in the present-day, rendering them a bunch of eye-poking, hammer-smacking anachronisms forced to deal with the likes of The Jersey Shore and Sofia Vergara. The movie might have been far more impressive had it simply committed to one of the two routes it wants to take, either giving us an Artist-style simulacrum or by giving it a more barbarous, self-aware edge à la The Brady Bunch Movie. But since it opts for both, the movie is reduced to a rather tedious affair (but thankfully not a torturous one, as that awful trailer suggested).

Mirror Mirror

Grade: D+ | 1st Viewing

This is only the first of Tarsem’s movies I’ve actually seen, but conventional wisdom suggests his typical movie is supposed to be thematically inert, yet visually stunning. I could see the same being said about this first of two Snow White stories Hollywood is giving us this year, but I would argue that the visual palette of Mirror Mirror is in fact as deathly bland as anything else (not) going on in the movie. Everything about the production design feels as if it was wrought from inside a snow-globe, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It attempts to be fanciful, but it all feels like the makings of a world that is very cold, hermetic and not-lived-in.

Given how this movie is ostensibly the story of the Evil Queen and the stranglehold she has both on her step-daughter and her late husband’s kingdom, I suppose you could argue that hermetic visual approach was the point. But such an argument only works if you forgive the movie its chief sin, which is to take Julia Roberts – the Evil Queen of Hollywood Divas – and write for her a part so devoid of wit and cleverness, that she is given no freedom to explore the bitchy potential she is ever so capable of.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing

There’s a lot to admire in the Duplass brother’s new movie, which follows a family of lost souls embarking in their own personal quests for significance. One, the eponymous Jeff, believes everything in his life is meant to serve some kind of abstract, unknown narrative far bigger than himself. His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is trying his best to salvage his lousy life and crumbling marriage by making lavish purchases and fooling himself into believing his life holds more importance than it actually does. Their mother (Susan Sarandon), a lovelorn widow, is made to deal with a secret admirer in the workplace.

I see the connections between these family members, and I see the larger framework the Duplass Brothers are working toward here. But for reasons I have a hard time realizing, Jeff feels strangely slight in its philosophy, despite so much of it working. Perhaps my issues have to do primarily with the movie’s ending, which works in the favor of practically every character we meet, ending the movie on an indulgently – perhaps inappropriately – upbeat note. The Duplass Brothers have made a character-driven comedy about serious issues, but were a little too timid to explore those issues more seriously. It’s a shame, considering how funny and interesting the movie’s characters can be.

The Kid with a Bike

Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing

This new film from the Dardenne Brothers reminds me quite a bit of last year’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as both films show a boy coming to grips with the tragedy of a fractured family (albeit for very different reasons). But The Kid With a Bike, unlike that Stephen Daldry movie, actually trusts the audience to forge an emotional relationship of some kind with its young protagonist, without feeling the need to tack on countless neurotic traits to ensure our ability to invest in his plight. The Dardenne Brothers take a much wiser and more effective route in getting us to identify with a boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is abandoned by his father: they allow that kid to act, you know, like an actual kid.

Cyril is alternatively angry, desperate, and forlorn throughout most of this movie, but he is overwhelmingly desperate for love and validation. The Dardennes explore these emotions with an almost effortless naturalism, keeping us at arm’s length to determine for ourselves what exactly might be going through Cyril’s head. The real heart of the movie, though, is in the loving yet turbulent friendship Cyril has with Samantha (Cécile De France), a kind lady who agrees takes him in. The Kid with a Bike may seem slight at first, but its rich characterizations prove it is anything but.

Turn Me On, Dammit!

Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing

I really cannot think of an American movie – at least not one made recently – quite like the Norwegian film Turn Me On, Dammit!, which had only been playing in New York City the day I saw it. I suppose Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s comedy about a 15-year-old girl named Alma getting shamed by her high school for her part in an awkward sexual encounter (fully initiated by the boy she likes) could be likened to Will Gluck’s Easy A. Even in that movie, though, I recall the dialogue around sexual pleasure being disproportionally male-centric. I don’t recall ever seeing such a frank – or funny – depiction of young female sexuality in a teen movie as I have in Turn Me on, Dammit!.

Not only is Alma (Helene Bergsholm) dealing with the sexual hypocrisy of her rural town, she is coming to terms with her own overwhelming sexual urges and fantasies, a concept few (if any) American filmmakers would even dare touch. Some may find this exploration of young, burgeoning sexuality to be morally repugnant, should they ever get a chance to see this movie. That would be a shame; the movie is not about sordid titillation, but about maintaining an honest dialogue about the way we react to – and attempt to suppress – sexual desire at its youngest and scariest stage. That the movie is also piercingly funny is just gravy.

The Turin Horse

Grade: A- | 1st Viewing

This is reportedly the last film to be made by director Belà Tarr, and for many who see The Turin Horse they will declare good riddance. It’s not (merely) that the movie is terribly bleak or that the characterization to be experienced is minimal; it’s that the terrible bleakness and minimal characterization goes on for 150 minutes. The movie was clearly testing the patience of those who attended my screening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (art-house snobs, incidentally, I thought were most predisposed to enjoying the movie). For many, the movie will say nothing and proceeds to say just that for two and a half hours.

I say this not to discourage people from watching The Turin Horse – which posits over the life of the whipped horse Friedrich Nietzsche apparently threw his arms around prior to his mental breakdown and the old man and the daughter who owned the horse. I am merely warning people what kind of a movie they are in for. If you feel your patience could endure an exercise like The Turin Horse, I dare say it would be fully worth your time. I know it was for me, as the movie kept me thinking (and boning up on Nietzschean philosophy) the rest of the night. One ambiguous scene in particular – the last scene of them riding their horse – continues to haunt me.

What movies did you see this weekend?

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