"How Do You Know," "TRON: Legacy," "Rabbit Hole," More

The first roundup of TRON: Legacy reviews — and it's a big one — dates back a couple of weeks and you'll find it right here. Initial takes on Rabbit Hole were gathered during the Toronto film festival, and they're here. We'll get to both again, but let's start this week's batch of critical takes on movies opening in theaters today with a film that just might be more interesting than the trailer suggests.

"As goofily distinctive as its title is forgettably generic, How Do You Know, written and directed by James L Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets), is an undeniable mess," concedes Mike D'Angelo in the Las Vegas Weekly. "For all its rough patches, however, the film boasts the one element sorely missing from most Hollywood rom-coms: a pulse. Granted, the setup is boilerplate: perky young woman (Reese Witherspoon) must choose between womanizing, commitment-phobic star athlete (Owen Wilson) and sweetly neurotic nebbish (Paul Rudd). Toss in a gender-reversed Say Anything... subplot involving a federal investigation of the company founded by Rudd's dad (Jack Nicholson), and Brooks has all of the genre's bases covered — quite apropos for a movie in which two of the three main characters are professional baseball players. And yet Brooks seems to be bizarrely, often thrillingly unaware of how rote his movie ought by rights to be."

"Ms Witherspoon comes with a hard, intimidating edge that most directors ignore," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Maybe she prefers light and lovely over dark and dangerous. But as she showed in Alexander Payne's 1999 comedy, Election, in which she played a ferocious high-school climber in a dazzling performance that has hung over her career like an unmet dare, she can be a beautiful menace." Wilson is "a live wire, and when he's onscreen the movie jumps. For the most part, though, it just sits there, idling in neutral, as lines are delivered and bodies listlessly moved." Still, Witherspoon "seems incapable of goofing her way through the movie. Mr Rudd and Mr Wilson have no such problem. Curiously, all three are outshone by a pair of character actors — Kathryn Hahn, who plays George's secretary, Annie, and Lenny Venito, as her boyfriend — who, in an overworked, overwritten hospital scene, show you what love looks like simply by, surprise, good acting."

"I can understand why some people I like and trust have declared it an unwatchable mess seasoned with therapeutic clichés," offers Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "With me, though, it's different. After watching, and halfheartedly praising, a bunch of painfully flawed romantic comedies this year — I shudder to recollect that I declared Going the Distance the summer's best rom-com, which is rather like picking your favorite case of shingles — I want to sing hosannas to the heavens for delivering one made by somebody who damn well knows what he's doing. Is How Do You Know schmaltzy and manipulative and not entirely convincing as a portrait drawn from real life? Sure — and it's also richly, goofily funny, loaded with terrific actors and delicious moments, and pretty much bursting at the seams with joy and affection. I cried. Twice."

More from Christopher Bell (Playlist), Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Sun-Times, 2 out of 4 stars), David Edelstein (New York), David Elliott (San Diego Reader), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2/5), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 2.5/4), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 7.5/10), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, C-), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 2/5), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Dana Stevens (Slate), Ella Taylor (Voice), Scott Tobias (NPR) and Armond White (New York Press). Dave Itkoff talks with Brooks for the NYT. For MSN Movies, James Rocchi interviews Witherspoon, Wilson and Rudd.





"Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole plops us down in the lives of Becca (Nicole Kidman, who also produced) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), fortyish bourgie marrieds rattling around an East Coast dream house," begins Karina Longworth in the Voice. "In the film's first scenes, the couple acts out a domestic 'normal' that's so obviously in quotes, we know something must be terribly wrong. Mitchell, the creator/director/star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the writer/director of the 2006 unknown-actors-having-real-sex-fest Shortbus, teases us through a few fake-outs... before revealing that the film's central trauma happened long before we got there: Becca and Howie's young son was killed in an accident, and months later, the couple is still trying to figure out how to go from 'normal' to normal." All in all, "the proceedings are so lifeless that you find yourself rooting for the narrative to fully tread into the disaster zones with which it flirts."

"The difficulty and riskiness of this enterprise cannot be doubted," offers AO Scott in the NYT. "Rabbit Hole could easily have been maudlin, grim or exploitative, and it is none of those things. It is sensitive, considerate, and, in the end, not entirely persuasive. There is something abstract about Becca and Howie: The details of their lives feel like sketched-in background material rather than the soil from which their day-to-day reality grows."

More from Chris Barsanti (PopMatters, 5/10), Jesse Cataldo (Slant, 2.5/4), David Edelstein (New York), David Fear (TONY, 3/5), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist), Keith Phipps (AV Club, A-), Nick Schager (C), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Armond White (NYP) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8/10). Interviews with Mitchell: Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Aaron Hillis (GreenCine Daily, audio, 10'07"), Jenni Miller (Cinematical), Gabe Toro (Playlist) and Chuck Wilson (LA Weekly). Interviews with Kidman: David Poland (video, 28'26") and Jen Yamato (Movieline). And Melena Ryzik talks with both for the NYT.





"The original Tron may not have aged well over the past 28 years, but it still deserves props for breaking cinematic ground," writes Jason Baxter in the Stranger. "In an unprecedented achievement, 16 minutes of Tron were generated solely by something called a 'computer' (circa 1982, I'm told the term was 'steam-powered mechanized abacus'), and the film, according to Stanford film scholar and world-class pontificator Scott Bukatman, still constitutes 'the most sustained cinematic attempt at mapping cyberspace.' Tron: Legacy, the new high-budget, high-gloss sequel, is not without its own innovations. It marks the first time a $150-million-plus tent pole was green-lit based solely on the response to test footage screened at the San Diego Comic-Con.... Whereas Tron '82 had designs by French surrealist comic artist Moebius, this film opts for the safer, less groovy touch of Neville Page, who worked on Avatar and famously designed the Cloverfield monster. It's an aesthetic decision in keeping with the film's overall post–Dark Knight dourness ('Why so serious?').... Sure, Tron: Legacy is more exciting than watching clothes-folding, but it nevertheless falls flat, undermined by its own terminal earnestness and dearth of imagination."

"Tron: Legacy gives us a dud stud named Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn, the hero of this petrified sequel to 1982's Tron," sighs Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe. "None of what he sees impresses. The feeling is mutual.... Wonderland intrigued Alice. Dorothy was in awe of Oz. Jake Sully so learned to love Pandora that he came to rule it. Sam is content to become an action figure, slinging discs of light at anonymous opponents for the thrill of computer-generated crowds. He's looking for his father, Kevin Flynn, and discovers that not only has Flynn's hacker-program avatar turned evil and taken over this digital world (it's called the Grid) but that Jeff Bridges plays both men. The latter is heavy and grizzled, the former is fit and digitally reupholstered like Tom Hanks's train conductor in The Polar Express. It's Crazy Heart Bridges versus Starman.... This sequel is as obsessed with the decor of 2001 as Inception was, but really Sam is now in Star Wars. Everyone on the Grid wears Stormtrooper white or Darth Vader black. And that headgear? Luke, I am your father's helmet. Once Bridges starts gliding around in baggy spa whites and oracular robes with halo-glow insets, spewing koans of sub-Lebowski dudeness ('The only way to win is not to play!'), you wonder how Obi-Wan Kenobi came to be reborn as Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. The 'legacy' of the title appears to be that of George Lucas. Which, of course, should be the last thing an admirer of Tron wants to see: Bill Gates taking over Apple."

More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Josef Braun, Manohla Dargis (NYT), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), J Hoberman (Voice), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2.5/5), Evan Narcisse (IFC), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 3/5), Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph, 2/4), Hank Sartin (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 3/5), Betsy Sharkey (LAT), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (AV Club, D+) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 5/10). Brooks Barnes profiles director Joseph Kosinski for the NYT and Alex Billington talks with him at FirstShowing. So, too, does Mike Ryan for Movieline. NAS CAPAS collects magazine covers and FirstShowing has some nifty posters.

 

BRIEFLY


"Returning to the thrilling days of yesteryear, namely the benighted reign of George W Bush, the late George Hickenlooper's Casino Jack — not to be confused with the doc Casino Jack and the United States of Money — is an improbably blithe cautionary tale, recounting the rise and fall of DC superlobbyist Jack Abramoff." And for the Voice's J Hoberman, the film is "flat, obvious." The AV Club's Scott Tobias: "It's like a lugubrious TV-movie version of Oliver Stone's W.: agonizingly paced, indifferently filmed, and choked with dialogue straight from press conferences and newspaper articles." More from Chris Barsanti (PopMatters, 6/10), David Fear (TONY, 2/5), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2/4), AO Scott (NYT), Matt Singer (IFC), Justin Stewart (L), James van Maanen, Armond White (NYP) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6/10). Interviews with Kevin Spacey: Melena Ryzik (NYT) and Kevin Sessum (Daily Beast).

Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily on Yogi Bear: "Watching some of the greatest, most sophisticated technology in the world to date used to expertly render a bear's ass bouncing in 3D is sort of like observing someone use an iPhone to play solitaire: as an indicator of how far we've come, it's both impressive and depressing." More from Simon Abrams (Slant, 1/4), Melissa Anderson (Voice), Mike Hale (NYT), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 1/5), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 5.5/10), Ray Pride (Newcity Film) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, D).

 

IN NEW YORK


"Soulless, joyless and depressingly graceless, Alien Girl plays like an early Guy Ritchie knockoff without the jokes or Cockney accents," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Instead we get slurred Russian, delivered by a variety of goons, gangsters and Gypsies, all one-dimensional place markers in a plot with not an ounce of originality or humanity." More from Simon Abrams (NYP), Nick Schager (Voice) and Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2.5/4). Twitch has three clips. At the Village East.

"Satan Hates You poses as a religious allegory where two troubled outcasts eventually accept 'Jesus into their hearts,' but it's really meant as a low-budget shock comedy about addiction and personal responsibility," writes Chuck Bowen at Slant, adding that it "recalls Bobcat Goldthwait's partially awful, partially accomplished Shakes the Clown in its mixture of flakiness, amateurishness, and occasionally unexpected honesty." More from Simon Abrams (Voice), Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) and Leslie Stonebraker (NYP). At the reRun Gastropub Theater.

 

REVIVALS


Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) is at the Curzon Mayfair and Renoir Cinema in London. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian: "There is a startling contrast between the drawing-room comedy of the interior scenes and Renoir's superbly dynamic documentary-style realism in the Paris streets outside: crowded, bustling, cosmopolitan. Almost 80 years on, it still has a superb energy." More from the New Yorker's Richard Brody.





Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) returns to New York's IFC Center, and back in 2007, Fernando F Croce wrote in Slant: "Without overlooking its lapses into populist bathos, it's necessary to rescue It's a Wonderful Life from its spot at the centerpiece of untouchable American 'classics.' As with The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind (surely some kind of troika of sacred screen monsters), uncritical reverence both inflates the film's magnitude and robs it of its most interesting elements. Despite the fin de siècle gentility given its small-town setting, this is decisively a postwar work, never more visible than in the balance of hope and despair achieved by James Stewart as George Bailey. This was his first role in five years since enlisting in the Air Force, and Capra introduces his character with a freeze-frame that all but summarizes the actor's gawky persona, yet the rest of the picture gradually introduces the underlying anxiety — the subtle hysteria of a homespun performer who's seen horrors — that Anthony Mann would later bring to the fore in his great cycle of 50s westerns."

Update, 12/18: Rediscovering Frank Capra, a complete retrospective, opens at the BFI Southbank in London today, and for Michael Newton, writing in the Guardian, "returning to Capra's classic, I found myself astonished. I had never grasped the sexiness of that moment when Stewart and Donna Reed share the same phone, each conscious only of the other's closeness. Stewart was reluctant to film the scene, fretful about his ability to kiss passionately after years away from acting while fighting in the war. That resistance imbues the performance, his desire not to kiss as great as the impulse to do so. I had not comprehended the film's poise, its Dickensian breadth, its uncanny moments, the impress of a fable behind our 'cotton-wool living,' or its capacity to touch a kind of joy. Few other films grant us its sense of a whole life, there both in its pettiness and its epiphanies."

And Criterion's posted another terrific "Friday Repertory Roundup."

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2 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Daniel Kasman

    That top picture explains most of the reviews about Brooks’ film.

  • Mac

    Yeah, dig the nuanced lighting scheme.

    Because they want to make sure that you SEE everything.

    Look at the lights reflected in Rudd’s Hush Puppies. Who was the cinematographer? Does he work at Guantanamo?

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