Mini Reviews (April 2011)
Rubber, Burlesque, Arthur, Way of the Puck
Rubber (April 4/11)
Unapologetically bizarre, Rubber follows a sentient tire as it rolls around the desert exploding animals and humans alike with its psychic mind powers - with the film's tongue-in-cheek sensibilities firmly set in place by the self-referential speech that kicks off the proceedings. (Stephen Spinella's Lieutenant Chad explains that all movies contain inexplicable elements - eg why is E.T. brown? - which effectively establishes the anything-goes atmosphere that follows.) Filmmaker Quentin Dupieux immediately segues into the tire's initial exploits - eg it comes to life, it learns how to move, etc - and there's little doubt that the viewer's patience is, as a result, severely tested in the movie's early stages. (Try as he might, Dupieux is simply not able to transform the tire into a wholeheartedly compelling protagonist.) It's only as Dupieux begins introducing the narrative's human characters that Rubber becomes a surprisingly watchable piece of work, as the writer/director suffuses the proceedings with a number of off-kilter figures - eg Roxane Mesquida's road-tripping Sheila, David Bowe's perpetually upset Hughes, etc - and subjects them to his screenplay's decidedly avant-garde tendencies (ie nobody seems especially surprised by the killer tire's arrival). Dupieux does a nice job of keeping things interesting by emphasizing twists of an increasingly off-the-wall variety (eg Spinella's character demands an end to the proceedings after many of the movie's spectators are killed), yet it's just as clear that Rubber inevitably starts to run out of steam somewhere around the one-hour mark (ie this premise can only go so far before sluggishness starts to kick in). Still, it's impossible to walk away from Rubber without respecting just what Dupieux has accomplished here - as the movie is, in the final analysis, one of the more entertainingly nonsensical efforts to come around in quite some time (ie contrast this with the nigh unwatchable 2008 comedy Visioneers).
Burlesque (April 9/11)
Christina Aguilera's big-screen debut, Burlesque follows small-town girl Ali (Aguilera) as she arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of making it as a singer - although, as she soon discovers, this isn't quite as easy as she might have hoped. It's clear right from the get-go that the hoary premise is hardly the most problematic element within Burlesque, as writer/director Steven Antin offers up an aggressively off-putting visual style - ie plenty of handheld camerawork - that's exacerbated by the almost comically seedy nature of the title establishment (which is, of course, where a good chunk of the movie transpires). There's little doubt, however, that the film does improve slightly as it progresses, with the increased emphasis on trashy subplots - ie Ali's rivalry with a bitchy fellow singer (Kristen Bell's Nikki) - lending the proceedings a guilty-pleasure sort of vibe that admittedly becomes more and more difficult to resist. Aguilera's personable turn as the central character certainly plays an integral role in cementing Burlesque's affable atmosphere, with the watchable vibe perpetuated by an eclectic (yet undeniably impressive) supporting cast that includes, among others, Cher, Stanley Tucci, and Peter Gallagher. It's only as the film passes the one-hour mark that one's interest begins to wane, as Antin, presumably in an effort at prolonging the running time, begins peppering the narrative with elements of a distinctly (and decidedly) needless variety (including the dreaded fake break-up). Ultimately, Burlesque wears out its welcome to an almost astonishing degree and it is, in the final analysis, crystal clear that the movie could've used a few more passes through the editing bay (ie a film like this has no business running longer than 80 or 90 minutes).
Arthur (April 10/11)
Based on the eponymous 1981 film, Arthur follows Russell Brand's title character as he reluctantly agrees to marry a society type (Jennifer Garner's Susan) after his mother threatens to cut off his access to hundreds of millions of dollars - with complications ensuing as Arthur finds himself falling for a plucky New Yorker named Naomi (Greta Gerwig). Director Jason Winer, working from Peter Baynham's screenplay, initially offers up a straight-forward remake that hews quite close to the original, as the emphasis is, at the outset, placed almost exclusively on Arthur's episodic adventures (eg Arthur attends an auction, Arthur goes for a ride in the Batmobile, etc, etc) - with Brand's enthusiastic, frequently hilarious performance playing a key role in sustaining the viewer's interest through the movie's more overtly sluggish stretches. It's interesting to note, however, that unlike the first film, Arthur eventually becomes a fairly (and surprisingly) conventional romantic comedy - as Winer devotes the bulk of the midsection to Arthur and Naomi's burgeoning relationship. The familiarity of the narrative - eg there are two fake break-ups - is alleviated by the genuine chemistry between Brand and Gerwig's respective characters, with the latter's extremely appealing work ensuring that the movie is ultimately at its best when focused on the pair's tentative coupling. And although the film does take just a little too long to reach its inevitable conclusion, Arthur is, by the time everything is said and done, a perfectly respectable remake that is too often foiled by its reliance on hackneyed elements (eg the decision to transform Garner's character into a stereotypical romcom villain).
Way of the Puck (April 15/11)
If nothing else, Way of the Puck definitively proves that some topics just aren't built for the full-length documentary treatment - as director Eric D. Anderson attempts to wring an 81 minute movie from the (decidedly limited) subject of air hockey. The film does, however, get off to a fairly promising start, with Anderson's emphasis on the game's history proving effective at initially capturing the viewer's interest - as the filmmaker offers up a series of inherently fascinating anecdotes and factoids related to the tabletop activity (eg an interviewee proudly proclaims that air hockey is the "fastest reaction sport on the planet.") It's clear even during this stretch that Way of the Puck has been geared primarily towards pre-existing fans of air hockey, with the novelty of the subject matter ultimately only able to carry the proceedings so far before tediousness starts to set in - as Anderson slowly-but-surely takes the film into increasingly esoteric areas (eg the efforts of one man to build a better air hockey table). There's consequently little doubt that Way of the Puck becomes more and more interminable as it passes the one-hour mark, which does ensure that the climactic tournament is simply unable to pack the visceral punch that Anderson has clearly intended. The end result is a well-made yet thoroughly uninvolving documentary that's unlikely to win over newcomers to the sport, though air-hockey devotees will, on the other hand, almost certainly walk away from the proceedings satisfied.