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Art Vs. Commerce 

Wide variety floods theaters in time for holiday weekend

For over a quarter of a century, summer has been the season of the two-ton behemoth at the box office, with studios cramming their biggest, brawniest blockbusters into the hot-weather months. But that 97-pound weakling known as the art house picture hasn't exactly withered up and blown away -- on the contrary, while independent titles can't hope to compete with the expensive extravaganzas that rule the roost, occasionally one will emerge from the niche market and earn a pretty penny for itself.

Here, covered alphabetically, are six new titles -- three mainstream, three alternative -- that between them manage to target the head, the heart, the funny bone, and, for those with a yen for either Brad Pitt or Cameron Diaz, other parts of the body as well. Obviously, the major studio product will dominate the box office Top 10 listings, but the other three pictures -- mere whispers, all -- ably demonstrate that Charlotte theater bookers are making sure that no filmgoing demographic gets left out of this month's movie merriment.

One's enjoyment of Charlie's Angels will likely determine that same viewer's tolerance of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This follow-up to that 2000 hit isn't so much a sequel as an extension -- if movies weren't so time- and cost-consuming, it'd be easy to picture a new Angels flick hitting the multiplexes on a weekly basis (in that respect, it emulates the 70s TV series on which it's based). Like its big-screen predecessor, this new T&Angels adventure features countless scenes that serve as nothing more than mini-vanity projects for its three lovely leads (Cameron Diaz as giggly party girl Natalie, Drew Barrymore as street-smart riot grrl Dylan, and Lucy Liu as sophisticated smart girl Alex), reams of smarmy double entendres that are sure to elicit as many groans as giggles, and several stunt-heavy, death-defying feats that are simply absurd beyond reason. But so what? Indefensible as it may be on a hoity-toity level, this works more often than not because of the infectious atmosphere generated by its leading ladies as well as returning director McG. I've never been a fan of Demi Moore, so her much ballyhooed "comeback" in this picture (as a former Angel gone bad) means nothing to me, and the unfortunate reliance on smutty humor brings it perilously close to Austin Powers territory. But several cameo appearances (including Demi's ex and one of the TV Angels) add to the fun, and let's face it: When our heroines are disguised as welders at one point, who doesn't want to hear Irene Cara's Flashdance... What A Feeling playing in the background?

As the father of a 12-year-old girl who's a big fan of Legally Blonde, I've seen all or parts of Reese Witherspoon's commercial breakthrough more times than I care to admit. Yet repeat viewings haven't tired me of Witherspoon's vivacious Elle Woods; instead, I've become fond (within stringent critical reason, of course) of both the film and the character at its pink center. Yet it's doubtful that excessive viewings of Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde will render the same verdict; on the contrary, once is certainly enough for this so-so sequel. Lazily copying the first film's template to a staggering degree, this excursion finds Elle, now a full-fledged lawyer, hoofing it to Washington, DC, to introduce a bill that would prevent animals from being used as cosmetic test subjects. There, she's taken under the wing of prominent Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), befriended by a hotel doorman (Bob Newhart) who might be the most politically savvy man in town, and forced to lock horns with Rudd's cynical chief of staff (the great Regina King, sadly wasted here). Part of the appeal of the original film was in watching Elle Woods grow from a shallow sorority girl into a self-aware woman genuinely surprised at the breadth of her own potential; here, the character has grown stagnant, and the herky-jerky script relies on recycled gags and pompous speeches to cover up this lamentable fact. There are a few bright spots along the way, but not enough to prevent this from being declared legally bland.

Start with Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, drain it of all adventure and period flavor, replace that with plenty of existential angst, serve it up in a coat of Gallic glaze, and the result would look something like Man On the Train, the sort of talky yet tantalizing film we've come to expect from master French filmmaker Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, The Girl On the Bridge). Yet here, the change of identity isn't physical as much as mental, with two strangers who meet, quickly become acquainted, and equally as quickly find themselves yearning for each other's lifestyle. Jean Rochefort plays Manesquier, an elderly teacher possessed with the gift of gab; Johnny Hallyday portrays Milan, a tight-lipped, small-time crook who arrives in Manesquier's quiet burg with the intention of robbing its bank. Circumstances thrust the men together, and it's not long before Manesquier grows fond of Milan's outlaw status while Milan becomes enamored with the slow, steady rhythms of Manesquier's sedate existence. The script by Claude Klotz showcases strong dialogue that seems to fly out of Hallyday's mouth while floating out of Rochefort's (credit the actors as much as the writer for any lingering text), yet at its heart is an unspoken, philosophical treatise on the manner in which our lives are laid out for us and whether it's truly possible to suddenly shift gears to take the road less traveled. A plot hiccup near the end breaks the movie's mood, but the picture rebounds with a dreamlike resolution that's as satisfying as most of what has preceded it.

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