Mini Reviews (November, December 2011)
When Harry Tries to Marry, A Separation, The Family Tree, Tomboy, Space Jam, Melancholia
When Harry Tries to Marry (November 5/11)
Though equipped with charming performances and a handful of compelling sequences, When Harry Tries to Marry ultimately comes off as an egregiously familiar romantic comedy that hews far too closely to the well-worn formula that one has come to associate with films of this ilk. The thin storyline follows Rahul Rai's Harry as he decides to embrace his Indian heritage by agreeing to an arranged marriage, with complications ensuing as Harry grows closer and closer to a pretty American classmate named Theresa (Stefanie Estes). Filmmaker Nayan Padrai, working from a script cowritten with Ralph Stein, has infused When Harry Tries to Marry with a sitcom-like feel that immediately sets the viewer on edge, with Padrai's less-than-authentic sensibilities most keenly reflected in the ongoing emphasis on comedic set pieces of a hopelessly broad (and decidedly unfunny) variety. The passable atmosphere, then, is due primarily to the efforts of stars Rai and Estes, as it's their charismatic work, as well as their genuine chemistry together, that keeps the viewer interested even through the movie's more overtly hackneyed stretches. And although Padrai has admittedly peppered the proceedings with a few heartfelt moments - eg Harry and Theresa spill their secrets to one another - When Harry Tries to Marry becomes progressively dominated by sequences and subplots of a needless, time-wasting nature (eg everything involving Harry's randy father). There's never any question as to how everything is going to turn out, and there's little doubt that Padrai increasingly runs out of valid excuses to keep Harry and Theresa apart - which ultimately does ensure that the upbeat conclusion isn't able to quite pack the emotional punch that the filmmaker has clearly intended.
A Separation (November 20/11)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation follows Iranian couple Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) as they reluctantly decide to divorce after he refuses to accompany her out of the country - with the split triggering a series of events that culminate in Nader's arrest for murder. There's little doubt that A Separation opens with a great deal of promise, as Farhadi kicks off the proceedings with an engrossing sequence in which Nader and Simin argue their case before an unseen judge - with the scene instantly drawing the viewer into the proceedings and effectively establishing the contentious dynamic between the two protagonists. From there, however, A Separation morphs into a languid kitchen-sink drama revolving primarily around the subdued exploits of the film's various characters - with the palpable authenticity of Farhadi's screenplay initially offsetting the decidedly less-than-captivating nature of many of these scenes. And while some of this stuff is undeniably quite interesting (eg a deeply religious woman calls her imam for permission to clean and bathe Nader's senile father), Farhadi offers up an increasingly melodramatic narrative that simply isn't as intriguing or engaging as he clearly believes it to be - with the growing emphasis on the minutia of Nader's case (eg what really happened, who said what, etc, etc) lending the proceedings a stagnant feel that proves disastrous. The progressively tedious atmosphere ultimately prevents the film's final scenes from making any real emotional impact, which does, in turn, cement A Separation's place as a well-made yet wholly uninvolving contemporary drama.
The Family Tree (November 22/11)
Though it boasts an admittedly impressive list of performers, The Family Tree, for the most part, comes off as a misguided and thoroughly obnoxious piece of work that wears out its welcome almost immediately. The narrative, which is bursting with needless subplots, essentially details the turmoil that ensues after Hope Davis' Bunnie Burnett loses her memory, with the event inevitably impacting her relationships with the various folks in her life - including her husband (Dermot Mulroney's Jack), her children (Max Thieriot's Eric and Britt Robertson's Kelly), and even her secret lover (Chi McBride's Simon). It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Vivi Friedman isn't looking to cultivate an atmosphere of gritty authenticity, as the director has infused the proceedings with a cartoonish and relentlessly quirky sensibility that instantly sets a very specific tone for everything that follows. The excessively broad vibe, which is reflected in, for example, the over-the-top performances and less-than-subtle plot developments, serves only to exacerbate the movie's pervasive lack of cohesiveness, with the increasingly random and pointless bent of Mark Lisson's screenplay - eg the ongoing exploits of two wacky criminals (Bow Wow's T-Boy and Jermaine Williams' Trey) - ensuring that The Family Tree runs out of steam long before the eye-rollingly frenetic climax rolls around. It's finally difficult to imagine just what Friedman initially set out to accomplish with this mess, and while the novelty of the eclectic cast sporadically does lift the film out of its doldrums, The Family Tree is simply (and ultimately) a misfire of almost epic proportions that's sure to frustrate and annoy even the most open-minded of viewers.
Tomboy (December 2/11)
Tomboy is, without a doubt, the sort of film that one admires and respects more than one wholeheartedly enjoys, as the movie has been saddled with an aggressively deliberate pace that holds the viewer at arm's length virtually from start to finish. It's a shame, really, as filmmaker Céline Sciamma does a superb job of cultivating and maintaining a vibe of palpable authenticity, with the aggressively spare storyline, which follows a young girl (Zoé Héran's Laure) as she moves to a new neighborhood and begins passing herself off as a boy, elevated on an ongoing basis by the impressively (and uniformly) naturalistic performances. (Héran's star-making work, in particular, stands as a consistent highlight within the otherwise underwhelming proceedings.) Despite its myriad of positive attributes, however, Tomboy is simply never able to become the engrossing coming-of-age story that Sciamma's has clearly intended - with the persistent emphasis on Laure's excessively subdued day-to-day exploits (eg Laure bathes with her little sister, Laure plays a game with a group of local kids, etc, etc) preventing the viewer from embracing the central character's plight. The creeping inclusion of decidedly dramatic elements - ie the inevitable discovery of Laure's secret - in the film's third act does help offset the otherwise uninvolving atmosphere, but this is clearly a case of too-little-too-late and it is, finally, impossible to label Tomboy as anything more than a well-intentioned yet hopelessly inert piece of work.
A silly, forgettable comedy, Space Jam follows the Looney Tunes gang as they're forced to compete against beefed-up aliens in a high-stakes game of basketball - with the toons' efforts at defeating their skilled opponents eventually assisted by no less than Michael Jordan. The film, directed by Joe Pytka, boasts a relentlessly over-the-top feel that's presumably meant to echo the Merrie Melodies shorts of yore, yet, as is clear almost immediately, Space Jam simply doesn't possess any of the charm or entertainment value of its antecedental cartoons - which is especially disappointing given the presence of so many familiar faces within the movie's animated supporting cast. Jordan's less-than-competent performance isn't quite as problematic as Pytka's relentlessly slick visual sensibility, as the majority of the movie plays like a music video or a shoe commercial - with Bill Murray's lamentably small role as himself unquestionably standing as one of the film's few positive attributes. By the time the tedious, basketball-oriented third act rolls around, Space Jam has clearly established itself as a missed opportunity of distressingly epic proportions and it is, as a result, virtually impossible to envision even casual fans of the Looney Tunes characters finding much to embrace here.
Melancholia (December 27/11)
An extremely minor improvement over Lars von Trier's previous picture, 2009's nigh unwatchable Antichrist, Melancholia details the turmoil that ensues after a previously undiscovered planet embarks on a collision course with Earth - with the event initially taking a backseat to a lavish wedding reception for a depressive figure named Justine (Kirsten Dunst). There's little doubt that Melancholia gets off to a thoroughly promising start, as von Trier opens the proceedings with a series of (admittedly breathtaking) slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde prelude. It's a stirring prologue that is, as one might've expected, hardly indicative of the low-key and increasingly tedious kitchen-sink drama that follows; rather than explore the consequences of the inherently compelling end-of-the-world scenario, von Trier instead offers up a staggeringly inconsequential opening hour revolving entirely around the dysfunctional happenings within the aforementioned reception (eg Justine's boss demands a tagline for an expensive advertising campaign, Justine's brother-in-law grows more and more upset over her behavior, etc). And while the uniformly strong performances and periodic inclusion of compelling elements ensure that this stretch remains watchable (if far from engrossing) for a while, there inevitably reaches a point at which the viewer begins to crave a more substantive atmosphere - with the aggressive lack of narrative momentum preventing one from working up any interest in or sympathy for the protagonist's ongoing exploits. The lackluster nature of the film's first half is ultimately preferable to the absolutely disastrous second half, as von Trier devotes the majority of Melancholia's final hour to the interminable wait for the imminent collision - with the aggressive uneventfulness of these scenes transforming the movie into a seriously oppressive piece of work. It's a shame, really, as the film's final shot is certainly quite memorable and impressive, yet von Trier's typically unfocused sensibilities ensure that it - and everything preceding it - is simply unable to pack the emotional punch that he's clearly striving for.