Thursday, February 18, 2010

Short takes on the weekend's movies

The Oscar shorts program that unspools at the Chez Artiste this weekend is a typically mixed bag in which the animated features surpass the live-action shorts in interest and creativity. Of the live-action selections, the two most powerful are Kavi, a story of a boy whose father's debts force him into a life of servitude, and The Door, a short about the human repercussions of Chernobyl. If I had to vote for a short in the animated category, I'd be a bit of a loss, but I'd probably settle on Logorama, a zany send-up of corporate ties in Hollywood, action movies and product placement. The shorts program is a worthy endeavor for two reasons. It will give you a solid basis on which to make Oscar picks. Second – and more important – it reminds you of how much can be accomplished within a relatively short amount of screen time. In Kavi, which lasts 19 minutes, at least three characters are clearly defined and an entire world of impoverishment and suffering is depicted. I'm not sure it wouldn't be beneficial for some established directors to make short films once in a while; it might help them remember important things about the economy of expression.


No cheers for Parker Posey, Elen Barkin and Demi Moore.
Mitchell Lichtenstein's first movie, Teeth, was a cult hit that launched at a Sundance Film Festival of several years back. In dealing with the vagina dentata myth, Lichtenstein – son of painter Roy Lichtenstein – served up a mixture of gore and satire that proved funny in a wincing sort of way. Lichtenstein returns to the screen with Happy Tears, a movie about two sisters (Parker Posey and Demi Moore) attempting to cope with their increasingly demented father (Rip Torn). Complicating matters is Dad's crackhead girlfriend, a deglamorized Ellen Barkin. Dad tries to pass Barkin's character off as his nurse, but the ruse doesn't work any more than the movie. Moore – also deglamorized for the occasion -- portrays the more level-headed of the two sisters, and Posey does an all-too-typical Posey turn: She's the snide, out-of-touch sister. Happy Tears' mixes bizarre comedy and serious drama proves mostly indigestible.


I'd been looking forward to director Jon Amiel's Creation, the story of the torments undergone by Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) as he struggled to finish On the Origin of the Species. Had Amiel done nothing other than direct the British TV version of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, it would have secured him a place in my pantheon of favorites. Generosity leads me to consider Creation a forgivable misstep that suffers focuses on Darwin's domestic life. Based on a biography by Randal Keynes, the movie follows Darwin's emotional progress as he attempts to come to grips with the death of his oldest daughter Annie (Martha West). He's also dealing with the staunch faith of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a woman whose God-centered world will be shaken to the core by the theory of evolution. Bettany gives a touching performance, showing Darwin to be a tender if troubled father, but expected something more rigorous. Amiel bravely tries to turn an intellectual story into an emotional one, but the attempt proves only partially successful.

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