My pick for movie of the week is The Queen of Versailles, a likely (I'm callin' it in July) inclusion on my top 10 list for 2012. Seriously, this doc is revealing, timely, surprising, beautifully lensed (by photographer-turned-director Lauren Greenfield), and affords an insidery peek into the mysterious borderlands between extreme weath and excessive tackiness.
Hollywood would like you to see either an alien-invasion comedy with Ben Stiller or the fourth Step Up entry ... you could do worse, but you could do better. Frankly, I'd pencil in The Queen of Versailles for your Saturday night, and settle in tonight for the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, which comes complete with the amusement park-ish title "Isles of Wonder." All the buzz indicates that the extravaganza, directed by Danny Boyle (not known for his subtlety), will be one for the ages, or at least supply some juicy fodder for the meme generation.
Reviews of everything opening this week (spoiler: there's a lot) below the jump.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman's documentary about China's most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei's bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan's avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father's health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he's best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics' "Bird's Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China's political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject's luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) (Dennis Harvey)
The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield's obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He's so compulsive that he's never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family's stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she's like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Smith Rafael. (Dennis Harvey)
Red Lights Skeptics and budding myth busters, get ready. Maybe. Director-writer Rodrigo Cortés blends the stuff of thrillers and horror in this slippery take on psychics and their debunkers. Psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her weirdly loyal assistant Tom (Cillian Murphy) investigate paranormal phenomena — faith healers, trance mediums, ghost hunters, and psychics — in order to peer behind the curtain and expose all Ozs great and small. Spoon-bending blind ESP master Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) is their biggest prize: he’s come out of retirement after the death of his most dogged critic. Has Silver learned to kill with his mind? And can we expect a brain-blowing finale on the same level as The Fury (1978)? Despite all the high-powered acting talent in the room, Red Lights never quite convinces us of the urgency of its mission — it’s hard to swallow that the debunking of paranormal phenomenon rates as international news in an online-driven 24/7 multiniched news cycle — and feels like a curious ‘70s throwback with its Three Days of the Condor-style investigative nail-biter arc, while supplying little of the visceral, camp showman panache of a De Palma. (1:53) (Kimberly Chun)
Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who's suffering from the sophomore slump — he can’t seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He’s a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn’t do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one’s baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator’s imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s Big Sur-dwelling boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan’s show, whether she’s testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer’s strings. (1:44) (Kimberly Chun)
Sacrifice Power-mad General Tu'an (Wang Xueqi) engineers the slaughter of the entire Zhao clan — including the newborn son who's the last of the line. But the baby's been swapped with the child of the doctor, Cheng Ying (Ge You), who delivered him, and the deception train pretty much goes off the rails after that. Suffice to say the Zhao heir survives while Cheng Ying's wife and infant do not, and Tu'an is none the wiser. Revenge seems the only logical move, so Cheng Ying patiently waits years for the boy to grow up and learn martial arts from Tu'an, plotting that he'll reveal the truth when the (kinda bratty) child becomes capable of killing his beloved "godfather" — a.k.a. the guy who massacred his family (and the family of his adoptive father). If that sounds complicated, know that this epic from Chen Kaige (1993's Farewell My Concubine) has over two hours to get through all those plot mechanics. Also, it's gorgeously shot, mixing the classy trappings of a big-budget historical melodrama with thunderous battles and scenes of brutal violence. (2:10) SF Film Society Cinema. (Cheryl Eddy)
Shit Year Santa Cruz artist Cam Archer's 2006 debut feature Wild Tigers I Have Known was a texturally gorgeous but content-lite exercise that often seemed like an extended audition for the role of Next Gus Van Sant. (The real one was, in fact, its executive producer.) This sophomore effort strikes pretty much the same (im-) balance. Colleen West (Ellen Barkin) is a famous, now middle-aged actress who decides to retire — why, we don't know, particularly since she only seems more brittle, dissatisfied, and hollow upon retreating to an isolated home in a woodsy area. (She doesn't even seem to like nature.) There, she tolerates a sorta-friendship with an irritatingly chirpy neighbor (Melora Walters), endures a visit by the irritatingly uncomplicated, stable brother she was never close to (Rick Einstein), and recalls an unfulfilling affair with her much younger co-star in a play (Luke Grimes). She also imagines (?) appointments with a terse interrogator (Theresa Randle) offering some sort of futuristic experience-simulation service in an eerie all-white environ. While one questions whether there actually was one, per se, Archer's fragmentary script alternates these flashbacks, surreal interludes, and present-tense expressions of existential ennui ("I'm surrounded by a world of nothing," Colleen moans) into pretty formations. The film's black and white photography (by Aaron Platt), editing, production design, musical choices, etc. are all impeccably mannered. But our protagonist's bored self-absorbsion and self-pity, lacking any backgrounding psychology, is ultimately as vacuous a dead-end as it is when Vincent Gallo is baring his soul. Having a bitchy, platinum-haired Barkin do the job for Archer makes the effect a little campier, but no more resonant. That said, this movie would probably seem brilliant if watched on quaaludes. (1:35) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
Step Up Revolution The Step Up franchise makes a play for the Occupy brand, setting up its fourth installment’s Miami street crew, the Mob, as the warrior dance champions of the 99 percent — here represented by a vibrant lower-income neighborhood slated for redevelopment. Embodying the one percent is a hotel-chain mogul named Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher), armed with a wrecking ball and sowing the seeds of a soulless luxury monoculture. Our hero, Mob leader Sean (Ryan Guzman), and heroine, Anderson progeny and aspiring professional dancer Emily (Kathryn McCormick), meet beachside; engage in a sandy, awkward interlude of grinding possibly meant to showcase their dance skills; and proceed to spark a romance and a revolution that feel equally fake (brace yourself for the climactic corporate tie-in). The Mob’s periodic choreographed invasions of the city’s public and private spaces are the movie’s sole source of oxygen. The dialogue, variously mumbled and slurred and possibly read off cue cards, drifts aimlessly from tepid to trite as the protagonists attempt to demonstrate sexual chemistry by breathily trading off phrases like “What we do is dangerous!” and “Enough with performance art — it’s time to make protest art!” Occasionally you may remember that you have 3D glasses on your face and wonder why, but the larger philosophical question (if one may speak of philosophy in relation to the dance-movie genre) concerns the Step Up films’ embrace of postproduction sleights of hand that distance viewers from whatever astonishing feats of physicality are actually being achieved in front of the camera. (1:20) (Lynn Rapoport)
The Watch Directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer (famed for Saturday Night Live's popular digital shorts, including "Dick in a Box"), The Watch is, appropriately enough, probably the most dick-focused alien-invasion movie of all time. When a security guard is mangled to death at Costco, store manager and uber-suburbanite Evan (Ben Stiller, doing a damn good Steve Carell impersonation) organizes a posse to keep an eye on the neighborhood — despite the fact that the other members (Vince Vaughn as the overprotective dad with the bitchin' man cave; Jonah Hill as the creepy wannabe cop; and British comedian Richard Ayoade as the sweet pervert) would much rather drink beers and bro down. Much bumbling ensues, along with a thrown-together plot about unfriendly E.T.s. The Watch offers some laughs (yes, dick jokes are occasionally funny) but overall feels like a pretty minor effort considering its big-name cast. (1:38) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Well-Diggers Daughter Daniel Auteuil owes a debt of gratitude to Marcel Pagnol, courtesy of his breakthrough roles in the 1980s remakes of the writer and filmmaker’s Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He returns the favor with his debut directorial work, reworking the 1940s film and crafting a loving, old-school tribute to Pagnol. The world is poised on the edge of World War I; Auteuil plays salt-of-the-earth Pascal Amoretti. The poor widower does the town’s dirty work (oh, the dangerous symbolism of hole-digging) and cares for his six daughters — his favorite, the eldest and the most beautiful, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has caught the eye of his assistant, Felipe (Kad Merad). The happy home — and tidy arrangement — is shattered, however, when Patricia meets an inconveniently dashing pilot Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who sweeps her away, in the worst way possible for a girl of her day. “You’ve sinned, and I thought you were an angel,” says the stunned father when he hears his beloved offspring is pregnant. “Angels don’t live on earth,” she responds. “I’m like any other girl.” Faced with the inevitable, Auteuil and company shine a sweet but, importantly, not saccharine light — one that’s as golden warm as the celebrated sunshine of rural Provence — on the proceedings. And equipped with Pagnol’s eloquent prose, as channeled through his love of the working folk, he restores this tale’s gently throwback emotional power, making it moving once more for an audience worlds away. (1:45) (Kimberly Chun)