All posts by piers

Piers Marchant is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. His work can be found at NBC, Guyspeed, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Dir. Marc Webb
Score: 5.9

Despite the popular uproar about Sony’s decision to re-boot their signature franchise a mere four years after the previous installment, I think the question needs to be reframed: It’s not whether or not a studio should bring back a film series before anyone had really missed it, it’s whether or not the reboot can significantly improve on the original.

After all, it’s not exactly as if the Sam Raimi-helmed Spider men were above reproach. Many found Raimi’s campily comic sensibilities well in keeping with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s single greatest comic creation, but I was not among them. Raimi’s films stuck to the facts for the most part (though they made allowances for Peter Parker’s love interest), hit the major plot points, but somehow the series felt devoid of the spark of originality. They weren’t unenjoyable, exactly — at least the first two; I think we can all agree the less said about Spider-Man 3, the better — but they were a bit wearying, and the series had at least one other fatal flaw: an absolute inability to conjure a villain worthy of Spider-Man’s attention. Instead of Red Skulls or Gods of Mischief, we had a series of flabby, well-meaning brilliant scientists who somehow lost their marbles along the way.

Marc Webb’s film, then, had the opportunity to give the franchise a swift kick, righting the wrongs and making us all forget Peter Parker ever had a James Brown dance number. Unfortunately, despite the film’s somewhat more serious tone, and a terrific lead performance from young Andrew Garfield, many of the same vexing issues from the first series persist.

To begin with, the positive differences: The essence of the main protagonist is a good deal closer to Stan Lee’s original character. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was always slightly above himself, as if constantly winking to the audience, which was far more in keeping with Raimi’s ham-fisted approach. By contrast, Garfield plays him much more straight, all shy glances and nervous tics, a massive amount of insecurity wrapped around a skinny, good-hearted kid. It’s unclear which one makes a better Spider-Man, but it’s obvious who’s the better Peter Parker.

The origin story has also been tweaked, not necessarily for the better, but one that’s slightly more in keeping with the rest of the production. Here, Parker sneaks into Oscorp, in the hopes of finding out more about his parents, who vanished shortly after depositing him with his grandparents in Queens one rainy night when he was a little boy. There, he happens to run into Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), his biggest high school crush, who is the lead intern for a brilliant, one-armed scientist named Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), Dr. Connors is continuing Peter’s father’s work in “Cross Species Genetics,” a theory that, if proven, could lead to virtually eradicating health issues across the board, even going so far as to re-growing lost limbs (see if you can tell where this is going).

On his initial visit to the laboratory — a gleaming glass-and-steel monolith with Oscorp branding everywhere you look, set in a towering Manhattan high-rise that looks like a giant, metallic claw scratching at the surface of the heavens (not ones for subtlety, those Oscorp architects) — Peter also gets bitten by the infamous radioactive spider, which ultimately gives him his various spider-powers, though the producers do take pains to make Spidey’s web production non-organic — the kid develops electronic web shooters he straps to his wrists.

In any event, Dr. Connors eventually injects himself with his own serum, which has the usual bad repercussions, and we’re on our way. Clearly, the film is still stuck on the scientist-as-sympathetic-villain bit, which is a notable disappointment. And that’s not the only place where the film drops the proverbial ball: By the end of the movie’s 136 minute running time, enough nonsensical plot holes and outright logic gaffes have permeated the proceedings to disavow some of the positive early efforts. Finally, and I admit this is obviously something of a personal preference, I’m not at all sure I want to live in a world where venerable, aged Aunt May (Sally Field) can be portrayed by Gidget.

 

Film Review: Mansome

Dir. Morgan Spurlock

Score: 5.7

The argument that men are somehow only now becoming self-obsessed narcissists has never held much water — what has the previous 10,000 years of human existence proven if not that the unchecked male ego is the most dangerous force on the planet? — but if you want to go ahead and make the case that the last twenty years have seen a rise of a particular kind of meticulous grooming obsession for the north American male, be my guest. Morgan Spurlock’s fluffy new documentary, which focuses on such significant subject matter as eyebrow shaping and professional beard competitions, attempts to cast a light on the new ways in which men are defining their physical beauty, but doesn’t really end up saying very much at all.

One might call it a kind of pathetic fallacy — a film about the vapidity of the male self-gaze ends up every bit as surface and superfluous as the subjects themselves — but it’s clear that Spurlock, one of our generation’s best-known documentarians (he directed Super Size MeThe Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and served as a host and producer for the 30 Days series), is tackling this subject with tongue inserted firmly in mustachioed cheek. To set the stage, the doc, which is broken up into subjects (“The Mustache,” “The Face,” and so on) uses Jason Bateman and Will Arnett going through a day of spa treatment and bantering back and forth about what it means to be a man as a kind of bridge to the individual segments, not unlike the kind of set-up you would find on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Through the course of the film, we meet professional beardsmen; an entrepreneur who has created a grooming product called “Fresh Balls”; a young clothing buyer in New York who apparently spends every waking moment considering how he looks and concocting ways to improve himself, and various celebrities, including Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd and Anthrax’ Scott Ian, among others, doing the VH-1-staple talking head bit, commenting more or less nonsensically about what it means to be a well-kept man in the 21st Century. You might call this experience amusing, but it’s much more something you might discover late at night absently clicking through channels than appointment viewing.

Film Review: The Five-Year Engagement

A rom-com bereft of the rom.

Dir. Nicholas Stoller
Score: 5.2

We don’t ask much of our big studio genre flicks: Horror movies should scare us at least a little; comedies should make us belly laugh once or twice; and romantic comedies should make us care enough about the two protagonists to want to see them get back together at the end. Unfortunately, Jason Segel’s new film — co-written with director Nicholas Stoller — fails at this most basic and crucial function. By the time the film builds to its emotional climax, you want to see the two former lovers stay the hell away from one another and move on.

We start out in San Francisco, where sous chef Tom (Segel) proposes to sociology grad student Violet (Emily Blount) on the roof deck of the fancy downtown restaurant where he works. Things quickly go downhill, however, when Violet is offered a chance to do a post-doc at Michigan, and takes Tom along with her, forcing him to give up a potentially career-making move into his own restaurant. There, the couple descend into various levels of discomfort with one another. Violet meets her boss, the wily Winton (Rhys Ifans), and a gaggle of other perfectly lovable post-docs, played by Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, and Kevin Hart, instantly bonding with her new academic peers. Meanwhile, bereft of the types of fine dining establishments he’s used to working in, Tom is forced to work as a sandwich maker at a Jewish deli, and starts growing his sideburns out like X-Men arch nemesis Sabretooth. He also takes to hunting, wearing a huge pink bunny suit (don’t ask) and totally suppressing how much he hates living there. As these things usually go, there are rising tensions, a break-up and then a possible sweet reconciliation, with a totally improbable wedding ceremony in the offing.

In other words, it’s your standard rom-com formula; only the two main characters never really seem to fit together. Despite their endless proclamations of love, as written, you simply never believe in their relationship. Part of this is because Tom changes so weirdly and drastically over the course of the film — the bunny suit is but one of his levels of madness — it makes no sense that she would choose to stick it out with him, but there’s also a similar, fundamental problem with virtually all the characters that populate the film. They might make for a good laugh line or two — comedic vets Brian Posehn and Chris Pratt get some solid moments in particular — but none of them seem to be from the same movie, exactly. The chemistry is all wrong, and I suspect the still-novice screenwriters had no means of fixing it other than to keep pushing everyone together and hoping it would somehow work out. It’s a shame, because there is more care put in to giving the characters full lives than you normally see in rom-coms, it’s just that few of these more full lives actually mesh with one another. No relationship is terribly believable, least of all the one between Tom and Violet. It’s a romantic comedy that would have been much better off going for bittersweet morsels than just another Hershey’s kiss.

Speakeasy: Ti West

The director of “The Innkeepers” talks horror.

Writer/Director Ti West has only made a handful of features in his young career, but they tend to garner him a lot of acclaim. The House of the Devil (2009), a loving ode to ’80s horror films, earned him high praise and set the stage for The Innkeepers, released earlier this year. The film concerns a pair of acerbic front desk workers at a haunted Connecticut hotel on the last weekend of its existence before being demolished and is suitably filled with humor, spirited homages to past horror films, and a good deal of its own anxiety-driven moments. Now, as the film is being released on DVD and Blu-ray, the director spoke with us on the nature of horror itself, proper casting in his films, and what elements you need in order to have a truly scary looking apparition.

I understand that you’re a fan of The Shining which is right up there for me too. What other horror movies are in your personal canon? The Shining is great, Rosemary’s Baby is great, Repulsion. I love Don’t Look Now. All of those I’m a pretty big fan of.

Why do you prefer the auteur approach particularly? 
I think horror has the reputation to become the lowest common denominator, or become exploitation. Anytime you can see a movie and say “that’s a so-and-so” movie, that’s appealing to me. I like when you can tell that’s a Spielberg movie or a Coen Brothers movie or a Terry Gilliam movie, and when those types of people approach the horror genre there is so much you can do. Horror is almost an experimental genre. There’s so much diversity, but unfortunately, everyone just does the same derivative things over and over again. When auteurs do it they find what’s great about the genre and use horror as a metaphor. There is a movie first and then horror second.

Why are there such few good horror movies out there? 
Not only are there very few, I run into a lot of people who tell me they don’t like horror movies, and I say ‘What about The Exorcist?’ and they say ‘That doesn’t count.’ People don’t realize they are horror movies. I think Black Swan was a horror movie that did really well and that was another situation where a really interesting filmmaker “vouched” for it, which elevated it in a way. And so did The Sixth SenseThe Silence of the Lambs, or The Others. I think my movies lend themselves to people who don’t like the horror genre. The response is always “but I don’t like horror movies.” There’s always that hurdle to say “dude, mine isn’t going to be the way you think it will be.

When people hear horror movie they immediately associate it with Friday the 13th style slasher films, which can be frustrating. 
Right and that is why I think the term thriller was invented to try and circumnavigate that.

In your own films are you basing them on any of your childhood fears, worries or anxieties or are you basing it more off of previous horror films? 
Not from other movies: I am far too insecure to take anything from other movies and not feel like I have stolen it. It is case by case specific but I like to think my movies are very personal. For instance, when I wrote House of the Devil I just got out of college and I was broke. I really didn’t know what I was going to do which was a very desperate feeling. So I wrote a movie about feeling that desperation which can lead to making poor decisions , so poor that you end up in some sort of satanic cult. I related it back to the panic feeling I used to have as a child in the ’80s when they said if you were alone at the park, a van with no windows comes along and they will pick you up and sacrifice you to the devil. That came from something that was implanted in my brain when I was younger, mixed with current issues. When we made House of the Devil, we stayed at this hotel, so while we were making this satanic horror movie, weirder things were happening at our hotel. So, when it came time that I wanted to make a ghost story I was like, we just lived one the year before, so why don’t I just make that movie.

This film is a really interesting mix of horror and comedy. Playing with the conventions of the genre. You keep it very light at first but then, suddenly, you throw a switch and things get really creepy. Were you at all worried you wouldn’t be able to successfully throw that switch? 
What makes horror work, what makes any art accessible, is the contrast. If you don’t have contrast then neither one really means anything. If you do both, it’s more impactful because you’re invested. If you don’t have an equal part NOT-horror, then no one cares. That was a big part of this movie, to make it relatable. When the characters you know so well suddenly get put in a horror movie, they’re not equipped to deal with it, and if you as an audience relate to them, then you are no longer able to deal with it. We’ve become so post-modern about movies. The audience likes to keep a step ahead of the movie, and that doesn’t work. When you break conventions, it allows me to be a step ahead of the audience, which is how it should be.

To that point, we have an ending that’s definitely unexpected. No spoilers, but I can’t imagine you would have been able to keep that ending if this were a big studio affair. 
That’s come up a lot. To me, you can’t have a ghost story without tragedy, that’s why the ghosts are there. They aren’t there because everything went well, they’re there because of unrest. So, to me, it didn’t make sense to avoid that kind of ending. I think if I did it in a studio they would let me keep the ending but cut the first two thirds in half.

Could that have worked? 
It would have been shorter and wouldn’t have worked. It is what it is. If you named a list of ten horror movies that are really good, you’d find a majority of them take their time to build character and you follow clues and there’s a mystery to it all. It’s not just about seeing people get slaughtered or something popping out of the closet every five minutes, that’s boring.

And to be truly scary, you’ve got to confound expectations. You can’t do a paint-by-numbers thing and expect an audience to truly be scared. 
Yeah, there was a point when all those Japanese remake movies happening, and The Ring was a really good remake, but then, ten of those Japanese remakes later, every time you saw a little girl with black hair, everyone collectively rolled their eyes. Like, you really think you’re going to scare me with this again? That’s silly. But I think Hollywood just has to run things into the ground.

As far as casting, I thought Sara Paxton was sort of a revelation: Incredibly charming and dorky and lovable, as well as beautiful, which isn’t easy to pull off. How hard was it to find someone with the right mix of those elements? 
It was a really tough role to cast because I think it was such a specific vibe that I wanted. You know, I’m only qualified to either make movies or be a bus boy, you know? I could have a minimum wage job, or direct movies. I don’t know how to do anything else. So I’m forever charmed by the love/hate of that. When you audition actors, a lot of them just have never really done that. Either they just moved to L.A. and their parents supported them or they were actors when they were kids, so a lot of people don’t know that vibe. It was hard to get the snarky sarcasm. Dry humor is much harder than what people expect. It was very hard to find the right balance. I met a lot of actresses but I wasn’t sure they got it. When I met Sara she was not at all what I expected, she’s way goofier in person, much more like this character in real life then she is other characters she’s played. She would play a cheerleader on some TV show or something like that, but that’s so not who she is, but you wouldn’t know that until you meet her. I think she understood the movie very well and I was able to exploit the quirkiness of her, manipulate it to make people fall for her.

She has a peculiar way of walking so she’s almost constantly off-balance slightly. 
Yeah, she’s a goofball.

Was that her natural gate, or something you guys developed for the role?
I think it’s a little bit of both, but she’s so not what you think. She’s a goofball and always bumping into stuff. I used to joke that she was like a muppet, and she would say it was her dream to be in a muppets movie. So, she’s a strange one. She’s been in so many movies where they hide this, and for me, it was all I wanted to see.

How much work went into the look of the ghost to actually make it appear to be scary as opposed to a CGI confection? 
It was a lot of work. I wanted to take a relatively familiar ghost story structure that everyone is familiar with but I wanted to put in modern, nerdy characters that don’t belong in that. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted for [the ghost] character, I had some references I showed to Brian Spears, the make-up/effects guy and he did the test. So it was pretty easy because I was pretty specific about what I wanted. With the ghost I just had a hunch that it would be scary to see because I made it realistic, which is sometimes just enough to become frightening. We didn’t push too hard with the ghost thing, which I thought would work.

Speakeasy: Fran Kranz

The co-star of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods spills his guts.

 

Sometimes your life takes a curious turn. In the case of the 28-year-old actor Fran Kranz, a graduate of the prestigious Yale program and a Shakespearean veteran, he might end up being best remembered for his role as a “stoner fool.” On Friday, his newest film, the Joss Whedon project, The Cabin in the Woods, opened to much fanfare and (well-deserved) hype. In it, Kranz plays Marty, a weed-enhanced co-ed who goes with some of his friends to the titular cabin for a weekend of fun, booze and sex, only to find a strangely manipulated situation that leaves him and his friends at the mercy of a gang of undead mutant zombies. Whedon, who co-wrote the script with director Drew Goddard, has created a new meta kind of horror film, both thrilling and hilarious, that stakes Kranz at the epicenter as the comic relief. Kranz spoke to us about working with Whedon, Marty’s one-of-a-kind collapsible travel mug bong, and why it is that fools and virgins are the only ones who ever have a chance of survival in slasher films.

So apparently you’re a big foodie. How are you liking your stay in Philly so far?
Yeah, Philly is amazing. We got Paesano’s on the way. I went to Parc last night, Village Whiskey. In general I love Rouge, Tequila’s, and all the Stephen Starr restaurants. I love Pod. Back when my friends and I were in college, we’d take shots of Saki and hit the light thing and change the lighting in our Pod. We thought that was awesome. I think this is a great food town. Well, I think this is a great city in general.

I have some quick-hitter questions for you, if you’re ready. First, can you describe The Cabin in the Woods in one sentence?
Five kids go to a cabin in the woods for a weekend, and bad things happen to a lot of people.

Favorite horror film?
Jaws. Scares the crap out of me. I can’t get in a bathtub without thinking about sharks.

Which is your favorite version of Donnie Darko?The one where I get more lines. In the first one I say “Frank, man, you fucking killed her. What’d you do?” In the directors cut all I say is “Frank.” Sorry, Richard. I love Richard Kelly, but I’m going to go with the original.

Who is the Shakespearean character you most closely identify with?
Hotspur [from Henry IV, Part 1]. That’s one of my favorite roles I’ve ever played. Dying as Hotspur was the most painful thing in the world. It just crushed me. I never thought so when I did it in college and I wanted to play Hal, obviously. It seems like the flashier role. And the director was like no really read Hotspur and think about it. It ended up being one of my favorite characters of all time. He breaks my heart just thinking about him. He’s a bad ass. He is temperamental, but he loves his wife. He’s an amazing character. He has had his problems, and so have I.

One sentence to describe working with Joss Whedon?
He brings out the best in me.

Okay, now we get to the longer questions. There are lots of funny parts in the movie, but you are definitely the comic foil in the film, which feels like a lot of pressure in a way. Does that factor at all in your approach to the film?
Good question. Marty is that kind of fifth wheel, the stoner guy, the guy that you expect to die pretty quickly — top two deaths maybe 3rd if he is lucky. So in that sense that allowed me to go further with the comedy and make bigger choices. I saw him as the wild card, so I could be a little more cartoonish and over-the-top and sort of play into that “Shaggy” cartoon of it. I think I embraced that, which gave me allowance to be bigger. But, in general, to play being stoned and intoxicated is always fun because it gives you a little more freedom. You get to make choices that are a little sillier and you can have fun. I got to improvise and adlib and do things that people just wouldn’t do.

Still, you believe in the character. He starts out the fool, but later on, he becomes a lot more grounded.
He can be a guy you are rooting for. And I tried to you know have moments of that. He is suspicious of what’s going on. He’s the first to start seeing that things aren’t really what they appear to be. Something is not right. He is kinda of shaggy meets Scooby in that way. I think in that sense I do believe that the audience cares about him early. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I did a good job in playing both those elements of it: Have fun, be silly, be the guy that gets killed first, but also be a guy we love. It’s tough to see him go. I took it seriously. I don’t know if it necessarily was difficult because I think the script was so well written my job was pretty easy in a way. It is in the writing that he navigates that line of both being likeable and real but also very funny.

Since you worked with Whedon before, on “Dollhouse,” you have to have a good sense of how he operates on set. Is he loose and open to new ideas, or really set on the piece as written?
Well, first of all, Drew Goddard directed it, but Josh was on set everyday. Josh is very hands-on but Drew was our director and Josh was very respectful of that. They co-wrote it, so they obviously shared ideas but when it came to filming on set Drew was the guy. And he was the guy I went to because his passion for the movie was just so contagious. I’m a horror film fan and we kind of geeked out together before I even had the part, but honestly, the script was so well written that we didn’t do a lot of improvising. I was the only actor really that was encouraged to do that. Again, I think that was because Marty was the stoner, the slacker, the firth wheel, the comic relief so we did do a lot of just kind of let the camera roll on me. I had a lot of freedom, more action and silly stuff with the bong, smoking weed, they would just let me play. They were very good to me in that sense.

Since you mention the bong…
I swear to God I heard it cost $5000 dollars. It’s a prototype, which must be why it cost so much. It was a working stainless steel coffee thermal bong. It extended four feet; the handle was the stem and bowl, a pretty ingenious little contraption. I would think there has been one out there before but haven’t seen it. I’ve seen all kinds of paraphernalia but I’ve never seen one that epically works and then you could actually drink coffee out of. It’s two birds with one stone. It’s a very useful product. I wish I kept it, but I’m sure because it costs so much money and they worry about reshoots especially because we travel from studio to studio you gotta wonder where that bong is right now. The prop designer was brilliant. He was a really wonderful guy, and he would carry that thing around like it was his baby. He was really proud of it and also just very concerned about it because we only had the one.

So, why do virgins and fools survive these kinds of episodes?
I think that we like to look at virgins. So maybe we want to keep them around as long as possible. The fools are fun. So I do think between those two they are the more appealing or intriguing characters. But I don’t know.

 

Film Review: The Deep Blue Sea

Dir. Terence Davies
Score: 5.5

Lying in bed at night with her adulteress lover asleep beside her, a young and beautiful wife suddenly leans towards her lover’s back and licks his shoulder blade with the spontaneous delight of a small child savoring a surreptitious swipe at an ice cream cone. The woman, Hester (a loaded name if ever there were one) as played by Rachel Weisz, might offer up other scant tidbits from her childhood and background, but they are few. She comes to this particular romantic crossroads having giving us precious little in the way of understanding, which is just the way writer/director Terence Davies, working from a stage play by Terence Rattigan, wants it.

There is, after all, nothing more properly British than young and beautiful characters whose ideas of love and passion are thoroughly inexplicable. Hester is married to a well-thought of judge (Simon Russell Beale), an older man with a thoughtful streak and a serpent-tongued mother (Barbara Jefford), who makes no bones about her low opinion of Hester and her emotional intemperance (“Beware of passion,” the older woman intones gravely, “it always leads to something ugly”). Sure enough, through this same burning passion, Hester embarks on a destructive affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former WWII Royal Air Force pilot with an emotional imbalance of his own and a wicked temper, which ultimately leads her to want to end her life. In-between, we get glimpses of Hester’s life — the beginnings of her affair with Freddie, a moment with her husband, huddling down together in a tube station during the war, and so on — but never anything that connects us to her as an affecting protagonist. She is yet another woman embarking upon a self-destructive affair with a man who doesn’t understand her, end of story.

Indeed, the whole film seems to have been conceived as an actorly exercise in working from blank slates: All we know of Freddie is his bi-polar tendency to act like a spoiled child during a fight and then as a thoughtful and cautious man after it; all we know of the Judge is he cares deeply for his wife enough to try to convince her to take him back even after all she’s done to him, but little else; and Hester, herself, is the greatest enigma of all. We don’t know what prompted her to marry such an older, distinguished gentleman as the judge without having any passion for him, nor why she would choose to throw her life away on a reckless, immature man she acknowledges can’t possibly love her the way she does him. In this crucial regard, the film offers little in the way of suggestion, other than director Terrence Davies’ signature long, beautifully composed shots of sad, pale Brits in the full act of emotional bloodletting. As good as the principles are — and Weisz and Hiddleston share some remarkable scenes together — we cannot live on bread alone.

Film Review: Footnote

A Talmudic academic battles for his very soul.

Dir. Joseph Cedar
Score: 7.5

Joseph Cedar’s film opens with a crescendo-building string-and-horn score that has the exact feel of a Hitchcockian thriller — all unanswered questions and sweeping mystery — which at first seems out of place in what is essentially a domestic drama about the pride and vanity of academics, but it turns out to be surprisingly apt. It isn’t any kind of whodunit, exactly, but it does go on to reveal a good deal about the human condition at its most capricious and calculating.

The Israeli film stars Shlomo Bar-Aba as Professor Eliezer Shkolnik, an elderly and extremely bitter man, taken to ensconcing himself deep within his study surrounded by books and Talmudic texts, and putting on a pair of bulbous noise-cancelling headphones to block out the rest of the world around him. Eliezer is particularly sour because two decades before, as he was on the precipice of publishing his life’s work in comparing Talmudic texts, he was beaten to the punch by a colleague, Dr. Grossman (Micah Lewesohn), who discovered an ancient text and published his findings months before Eliezer would have. Eliezer’s son, meanwhile, the esteemed Professor Uriel Shkolnik, has had nothing but a series of accolades, awards and gladhanders, to his father’s increasing consternation. When Eliezer finally does get a call congratulating him for winning the prestigious Israel award for academic research, in a flash, he’s given the acceptance and validation he’s been silently pining for all these years. The only problem, as Uriel learns to his horror: The award was meant to go to him and not his father.

For a film concerning obscure academic squabbles and feuds, the story has all the trappings of the biblical parable: Parents envious of their children; petty men betraying their consciences in order to advance in their careers; and, ultimately, a sacrifice made with the best of intentions that turns instead into a bitter cataclysm. Despite its potentially dry subject matter, however, it is anything but flat. Cedar’s camera probes the surroundings, finding subtle details that signify a great deal to his characters — from an absently smoked cigarette to a dried-up drinking fountain nozzle. The storytelling is a study in precision and acuity (the short, wordless scene in the beginning of the film as father and son sit next to each other for the son’s newest award tells you almost everything you need to know about their relationship), never swaying from its character’s staunchly held perception.

But it also digs far deeper than you might suspect. What is on the surface a conflict of pride and vanity becomes by the end, nothing short of the very moment in which we turn away from our souls and become something entirely different from what we might have imagined for ourselves. No one emerges from this powerful drama unscathed, least of all the single-minded senior professor, whose life’s work comes down to a blindingly simple equation: Do we do what’s right or do we accept the same lie the rest of the world has been telling itself since the dawn of civilization?

 

Screen Grabs: July 8, 2011

This week, we look at three new summer comedies: one funny, one moronic, and one German.

Herewith, a brief round-up of this weekend’s opening flicks, and the conventional wisdom surrounding them. In descending order of rottentomatoes.com awesomeness.

Horrible Bosses

The Story: Three men with nightmarish work situations hatch a plan to eliminate each other’s bosses.
The Skinny: On paper, at least, you have three seriously funny leads in Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, and a director in Seth Gordon (King of Kong, “Community,” “Parks & Recreation”) who would seem to be a solid choice for a dark comedy. So, how’s it hold up? About average, from what Scott Ross at Popcorn Biz reports: “it’s a second-tier effort that’ll leave you amused, but won’t change your life.”
Full Review: Horrible Bosses
Now Playing: The Pearl
Complete the Experience: While we don’t recommend killing any of your bosses, you can certainly complain bitterly about them over a fine martini at The Ranstead Room.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

Vincent Wants to Sea
The Story: A man with Taurette’s Syndrome escapes from a clinic with an OCD patient and an anorexic to spread his mother’s ashes in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Skinny: Ralf Huettner’s comedy sounds suspiciously like a lot of other movies that have come before it. In fact, whenever we hear the words “road trip” associated with a film, it almost always bums us out. The City Paper’s Sam Adams would seem to agree with this assessment, writing ” There’s hugging and learning, but little insight or memorable detail.” And while we understand the title’s in translation from the German, still, yikes!
Full Review: Vincent Wants to Sea
Now Playing: Ritz at the Bourse
Complete the Experience: If a beach you want to explore, might we suggest the fine piece of coastline at LBI? Though we don’t recommend scattering ashes indiscriminately.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

Zookeeper
The Story: A zookeeper in desperate need of romantic advice receives help from many of the animals he has been caretaking.
The Skinny: A broad, idiotic comedy from Kevin James (with help from Adam Sandler) is nothing new, but the mirthlessness is almost total and complete in this lazy film. It doesn’t help matters if reports are true that one of the animal wrangler companies involved with the film were, in fact, abusing the animals under their care. Our best advice would be to wait until your next cross country trip and catch it on the flight. Just don’t pay for the headphones.
Full Review: Zookeeper
Now Playing: UA Riverview
Complete the Experience: You can, of course, take in the beauty and grandeur of Philly’s own Zoo, just don’t expect to get a running commentary from the bears.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14%

Screen Grabs: The films you should drop everything to see, and the ones you should avoid like the plague.