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Mini Reviews (April 2011)

Rubber, Burlesque, Arthur, Way of the Puck, Water for Elephants, Dogtooth

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).

out of

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).

out of

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).

out of

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.

out of

Water for Elephants (April 22/11)

Based on the book by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants follows Depression-era veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) as he impulsively decides to join a traveling circus - with problems ensuing as Jacob begins to fall for the wife (Reese Witherspoon's Marlena) of owner/animal trainer August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). There's little doubt that Water for Elephants gets off to an exceedingly promising start, as filmmaker Francis Lawrence, working from Richard LaGravenese's screennplay, opens the proceedings with a modern-day sequence revolving around an older Jacob's (Hal Holbrook) arrival at a contemporary circus. It's a stirring sequence that's heightened by Holbrook's engaging, downright poignant performance, with the film's compulsively watchable atmosphere perpetuated by the initial scenes set within the past - as Lawrence does a nice job of infusing such moments with a melodramatic and suitably old-fashioned feel that proves impossible to resist. It's only as the novelty of the movie's off-kilter locale wears off that its deficiencies start to become clear, with the three leads' ill-fated efforts at stepping into the shoes of their respective characters certainly standing as the most obvious example of this. (Waltz fares especially poorly, as the actor delivers an unreasonably broad turn that sucks the energy out of the movie on an all-too-frequent basis.) The episodic nature of LaGravenese's screenplay ensures that Water for Elephants is subsequently only enthralling in spurts, with the number of talky, pointless sequences generally (and increasingly) outweighing moments of an organic and wholeheartedly gripping variety (eg August takes out his considerable rage on an elephant). The absence of chemistry between Jacob and Marlena cements Water for Elephants' place as a fairly misbegotten adaptation, which is a shame, really, given the strength of the source material and the talent both in front of and behind the camera.

out of

Dogtooth (April 25/11)

A miserable, consistently worthless piece of work, Dogtooth follows three adult siblings - all of whom have been confined to their parents' home for the entirety of their lives - as they engage in a series of progressively off-the-wall activities and adventures. Filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos has infused Dogtooth with an oppressively deliberate pace that immediately alienates the viewer, with the less-than-enthralling atmosphere compounded by Lanthimos' refusal (or inability) to offer up even the most basic of cinematic elements. The ensuing lack of plot and character development ensures that the movie, for the most part, boasts the feel of an especially incompetent compilation of irrelevant sketches, as Lanthimos places an ongoing emphasis on the protagonists' hopelessly pointless day-to-day exploits (eg the son has sex with his father's coworker, the daughter hits herself in the face with a dumbbell, etc, etc). There's little doubt that the movie's total absence of momentum quickly transforms it into an epically interminable experience, while the frustrating absence of context - eg why are the parents doing this to their kids - indicates that Lanthimos has no loftier goal than to shock the viewer. By the time the laughably abrupt, utterly meaningless conclusion rolls around, Dogtooth has certainly established itself as one of the most unpleasant and pervasively wrongheaded art-house flicks to come around in quite some time - with the movie's success among critics and awards groups alike nothing short of inexplicable.

out of

© David Nusair