Queen to Play – 6

A trifle, although being French and filmed on Corsica, it was not without interest. The basic premise was absurd – an uneducated chambermaid goes from nothing to chess champion in a few months, and remains beautiful while staying up to practice all night and holding down two jobs during the day. Then there is the inscrutable character played by Kevin Kline, who has a mysterious past and an apparent fatal illness in his near future, neither of which is explained or resolved, and who, despite being American, reads Jack London in French. In fact, there are dozens of annoying touches that are never explained (as to why they are in the movie, other than they were presumably made more of in the book). But there is the French lifestyle, and the rocky coast of Corse.

Cedar Rapids – 7.9

“Cute,” was the word I heard most often from the decidedly older crowd leaving the Friday night $3 movies at the Hopkins Cinema, and that struck me as just about perfect. Like an Adam Sandler movie, it was sweet-spirited, with the bad guys not really being bad, just pompous. Sure, no one could be as naive as Tim Lippe, played adroitly by Ed Helms, but he was more the foil, the Pogo/Jerry Seinfeld around whom the more interesting characters revolved – none more wildly than John C. Reilly, who was beyond perfection as Dean Ziegler. Ann Heche and Isiah Whitlock were pretty good, too. The setting reminded me of Up in the Air, but where that hit a number of discordant notes, this was pitch-perfect throughout. And in every awkward scene, of which there were many, the director simply cut away before I started squirming.

The New World (2005) –

I feel I should approach this more as an opera, or a symphony, than a movie. Fugue and elegiac are the first words that come to mind, although I am not sure of their meaning. The wide screen at the Walker was filled with image after image taken from a Bierstadt painting, or in the case of the Indians, from a George Catlin. The music soared and swelled; it not only provided emotion for every scene, it could have been listened to with eyes closed. The story itself was not one to take seriously – any more than an opera’s. Battles were fought to the death, but eveyone seemed fairly alive five minutes later. With Indian eyes peering everywhere, the king’s favorite daughter had no trouble creeping off for illicit sex with a white hostage. And then with realistic scruffiness all around, her choice of a husband came down to Colin Farrell or Christian Bale.
Although based on historical incident -which worked heavily against the movie in its final 20 minutes – the plot bore an uncanny resemblance to Avatar, which separated it further from reality. Both films, of course, posed the same existential question: can Western man live in peace? If we come across an alien race, will we try to coexist, or will we see a new potential food source? Terrence Malick’s films, of which the newest, Tree of Life, has just won top honors at Cannes, are meditations so unlike other films that they should almost be considered “out-of-competition,” sui generis artworks to be experienced in a different frame of mind.

Bill Cunningham’s New York – 5

New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is shown to be a charmingly idiosyncratic individual, and it is amazing that he can put together two very different pages of the Sunday Style section each week, apparently without a digital camera or motorized transportation. The movie itself skirts with some larger issues but largely avoids them and ends up making the same small points over and over. At the end of this very short movie, I felt I could have edited out about 20 minutes, and other than now knowing who Bill Cunningham is I didn’t feel particularly enlightened, or entertained.

Meek’s Cutoff – 6

This was a truly “independent” film, in which none of the usual movie rules applied. For long stretches it was so “real” that it seemed lifeless. Except for Michelle Williams, recognizable even clothed head to foot, no effort was made to explain, or particularly distinguish, any of the characters. The Indian looked like someone from Milwaukee who overstayed his bronzing appointment, and the Wild West guide looked like a TV star who had pasted on a scruffy beard. Great care was taken to show how the oxen were coaxed across the river, but since there seemed no way the covered wagons could make it, that scene was simply omitted. Key plot ponts – such as the meaning of the title – were mumbled unintelligibly. Finally, when the story had been driven to a dramatic climax, we were given an ending – which I won’t give away – that left the entire Edina movie theater laughing in disbelief.

Bridesmaids – 6.5

I don’t know what all the fuss, all the critical commentary and browbeating, is about. This was nothing but a typical Judd Apatow gross-out comedy, albeit with women instead of men providing the humor, frequently lewd. Granted, the lovable loser role, instead of being played by a schlumpy Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill, was given to the lovely Kristin Wiig, who could look disheveled but never bad. Guys just would never go to a film starring an unattractive female, such as Maya Rudolph, who here played the bride, so there is that double standard, I suppose, but that’s hardly major social commentary. The point is, this film was just your normal string of set-up jokes, with a totally predictable romance on the side to provide a story arc. Some, particularly involving air marshals were a riot; some, particularly involving cute dogs, were not. But I felt a whole lot better walking out of the theater and driving home than I did going in; and isn’t that what entertainment is about?

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams – 8

A Werner Herzogian quest for the unusual and the unknowable, placing us inside a French cave with wall paintings from 32,000 years ago. Herzog’s dialogue is wonderfully breathless and the score is lusciously mystical, taking us out of the realms of archaeology and other science into the greater mysteries of human existence. Above all, one is stunned by the extraordinary accomplishment of the art – there is nothing “primitive” in the representations of prowling cave lions or the set of four horses, skillfully shaded and delineated. (Compare these, for instance, with American Indian paintings of horses 32 millenia later.) Questions abound: were these painted to assure a successful hunt? to ward off evil spirits? to celebrate life? If 99% of the bones found in the caves came from cave bears, why are there so few pictures of bears, and so many of rhinoceros, ibex, even elephant? Are there other caves to be found where the paintings aren’t quite so good? Was this moment in time a unique flowering of art, like the Golden Age of Greece, or Egypt’s Old Kingdom? If so, how lucky we were to have stumbled upon Chauvet, and now grateful that Herzog charmed the French to let us in the door.

Potiche – 7

A supremely silly, or supremely stylized – depending upon your tolerance for Francois Ozon – family comedy in which the characters say exactly what they are thinking, sans nuance or consideration, and no one gets too upset. Come to think of it, that’s a good definition of a sitcom, too. Here, the main attraction is Catherine Deneuve, who looks fabulous in each new outfit, and there are many. I suppose that if they were all speaking English it would seem like an extended episode of The Office, but since they were speaking French, I fell for it. It was good to see Gerard Depardieu again, but not his extra fifty pounds.