Friends With Benefits – 3

This was about as real as a $3 bill. Aside from Jenna Elfman, I can think of no character or scene that could exist outside the hackneyed imagination of a fledgling Hollywood sitcom writer. And as for the buzz that Justin Timberlake can act, don’t believe that, either.

Page One – 6

Even Impressionist paintings have a subject, but this collection of vignettes about the New York Times went all over the place. Was this film about how the Times now covers the media? about the Times’s uneasy relationship with new media? about the troubling economics of print journalism? how a story – e.g., the rise of WikiLeaks or the fall of the Chicago Tribune – gets reported? or a profile of David Carr, with a sidebar on Tim Arango? As previously discussed (see Buck, below), a documentarian is at the mercy of events, and if nothing dramatic happens during your year of filming, the result can come out a little flat. If there were big events at the Times last year, the filmmakers missed them. The central points – the world of information is changing, traditional newspapers are struggling to make ends meet, and we need the Times’s reporting – are so well-worn and obvious that they can’t carry a movie without more focus and drama. The only surprise for me in the whole film was seeing our old friend Katherine Bouton leaving her job of many years. The only fun insight: seeing what the names familiar from bylines – like David Carr, David Remnick, Nicolas Lemann and Tim Arango – look and sound like.

The Trip – 7

One’s appreciation of this film surely depends on one’s interest in, or tolerance for, Steve Coogan. To his credit, he has taken the role of the successful loser, less funny than his sidekick Rob Brydon and more at sea in his personal life. Because of his conceit, however, we don’t enjoy the time spent alone with him nearly as much as when he is trading impressions with Brydon, who never chafes at being constantly and undeservedly put down. The plot is nothing, sort of a North Country update of My Dinner With Andre, but the jokes are very funny. Still, there was plenty of time to think of other things, like how Coogan resembled a cross between Chevy Chase and Rufus Winton, or how Brydon resembled Andrew Humphrey.

Buck – 5

When a documentary maker sets out to chronicle someone’s life, he or she never knows if something dramatic will occur that will make the finished documentary exciting, emotional, or at least interesting. In this case, the story of horse trainer Buck Branaman, nothing happened and the result is, frankly, boring. If watching horses in a ring was your turn-on, then maybe this would rise to a 7, but for me the only highlight came during the credits, when Buck’s adoptive mother told a joke.

Tree of Life – 5

There was no shortage of ambition, or pretension, in Terrence Malick’s fifth opus, which complements, for some reason, the evolution of the universe with the arc of one average man’s (Malick’s?) life in Waco, Texas. Young Jack has steely eyes, and his bildungsroman might have made a good story, although how he morphs into the artistic and sensitive Sean Penn is a bit of a mystery. But the other stuff, from amoeba to dinosaurs to a place that looks like heaven takes us away and slows down what is already the slowest American film I can think of. Nor is the movie helped by the presence of Brad Pitt, whose character looks ugly and acts worse. What do these major directors, like Tarantino and Malick, see in him that I miss completely?

13 Assassins – 7

A quintessential samurai movie (I forget the Japanese word for this genre), replete with the gathering of ronin, the revenge motive, the uncouth jester, and the bloody battle at the end. There is a hint, maybe more, of a larger message: what a waste this is, wouldn’t it be better if we devoted our energies to the good of the people instead of the petty politics of our nobles. But there is little else that wasn’t done in Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and countless similar flicks. Still, the formula was followed faithfully, and it is a good one.

Super 8 – 7.5

After wandering out of Bad Teacher, I dropped in to the adjoining theater to see why the local paper had given this movie four stars. Accordingly, I didn’t see the first twenty minutes, but I sort of think that any “explanation” I missed is beside the point. This was E.T. for the age of video games, and the action was there for action’s sake, not to develop a meaningful plot. What mattered, instead, were the people, specifically the five youngsters, who while making their own movie got caught up in the bigger movie around them –  a Blow-Up hommage, literally. There was more honest chemistry between Joel Courtney and the spectacular Elle Fanning than you see between most grown-ups who are bedding each other, and the interplay among the boys was as good as Diner. Best was the completed home movie, shown alongside the credits, in which the same young actors who were convincingly realistic in the main movie were just as convincing as untutored seventh-graders. If every scene in the kids’ movie was a cinematic cliche, the same could be said for the entire film. But what fun!

Bad Teacher – 1

A vile movie. If the moviemakers’ idea of fun is mocking public school teachers as fat, naive and overly conscientious and contrasting them with a glib, irresponsible gold-digging character played by glamorous Cameron Diaz, then my audience didn’t get it. After fifteen minutes of buffoonery producing nary a laugh, I quit the theater, not wishing to waste my afternoon (see Super 8, below). If it turned out that after my departure, Miss Squirrel becomes the movie’s hero and is rewarded with Justin Timberlake, I admit I would have to reevaluate my score.