Chloe Greenberg’s Sweetgrass (Weekly Links)

Gerwig/Ifans/Stiller: Greenberg

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Greenberg.

by Robert Horton

Before he got sidetracked into multiplex stardom, Ben Stiller earned a reputation for biting, satirical work that had a distinctly darkish tone: his sketch comedy show, his performance in “Permanent Midnight,” his directing of “The Cable Guy.”

So his role in the new movie “Greenberg” is not a change in his career, but a return. This small-scaled picture is the kind that sometimes gets called bittersweet, except in this case it’s mostly just bitter.

Fortunately — in no small part because of Stiller’s instinct for comedy — it’s also funny.

“Greenberg” is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose movies “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” established his ability to make you cringe and laugh at the same time. “Greenberg” is much in that vein, although the locale has shifted from East Coast to West. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, who’s come to L.A. to house-sit at his brother’s place for a few weeks. Roger’s had some sort of breakdown, and maybe taking care of the dog and relaxing by the pool will help him get it together.

A variety of pitfalls lie in his way: his attraction to his brother’s housekeeper (Greta Gerwig), for one, but also the old wounds carried around by his friends, who felt abandoned when he walked out on their band many years earlier.

Rhys Ifans is especially good as Roger’s closest friend, who puts up with his manchild buddy despite Roger’s thoughtlessness. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also co-wrote the film’s story, contributes a short but tart role as an ex-girlfriend with zero interest in revisiting old times.

But most of the movie takes place between Stiller and Gerwig. You might not have heard of her; this is Gerwig’s first mainstream picture, after appearing in a series of ultra-low-budget movies dubbed “mumblecore.” Gerwig was obviously a movie star from the moment she came onscreen in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” so Baumbach is shrewd in putting her here as a fresh new face. Seeing her naturalistic style next to Stiller’s practiced comic timing is a nicely unpredictable spectacle.

Stiller is terrific, by the way. Roger isn’t particularly likable, and Stiller has to find a way to keep us curious about him — which, with the help of Baumbach’s sharp script and eye for hazy California afternoons, he does.

Given what people said about “Margot,” which I thought was excellent, Baumbach’s acerbic, unsparing style is not for everybody. Fair enough. But this guy is a real “noticer” of human behavior, a job we allot to artists and writers. And sometimes that job ain’t pretty.

Sweetgrass. “Instantly joins the list of great Western images in movies.”

Hot Tub Time Machine. “Get to the next genitalia reference.”

Mother.

by Robert Horton

Maternal love, or at least maternal energy, has rarely been as pointed as it is in “Mother,” a bizarre new offering from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The movie’s a study in parental willpower.

The mother here does not seem to have a name; she’s just Mother, like Anthony Perkins’ mom in “Psycho.” Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) must constantly watch out for her grown son (Won Bin), who is not quite right in the head. (The casting apparently has more impact in Korea: Kim is known for her beloved maternal roles on Korean television, while Won is something of a Robert Pattinson-style heartthrob in Asia.)

She runs an extra-legal business in medicinal herbs and acupuncture — none of which can help her son, who keeps getting in trouble because of his simple-mindedness. At the center of the film is an incident in which a local girl is murdered, her body left hanging over the roof of a small building. The idiot son was seen talking to her shortly before her death and his inability to answer basic questions about the incident makes him the perfect suspect for the crime.

Which is where Mother goes into gear. The protective instincts are fully engaged and the film almost threatens to become a detective story, with Mother barreling around town trying to find out information.

The movie is pitched somewhere between David Lynch-like depths of perversity (this is a strange little town) and out-and-out comedy. Which I guess could describe a David Lynch movie, too.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the international monster-movie hit “The Host,” a decidedly original take on the subject of giant things that slither from rivers. Like that movie, “Mother” has a tendency to meander, browsing outside its plot and losing its forward motion at times.

If you’re taken by the film’s ferociously twisted main character, this might not matter too much. Bong is illustrating an exaggerated version of motherly devotion, and Kim Hye-ja’s Mother is so wildly determined in her quest that you’ll probably have to sign on just to see what she’s capable of doing next.

Chloe. “A cerebral exercise.”

How to Train Your Dragon. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Think of it as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Viking Years.” The new movie “How to Train Your Dragon” proves that being an undersized lad was no easier back in the days of horn helmets and fur vests than it is today.

“Dragon” is based on a kiddie book, but the story has been changed to fit the needs of a 3D animated extravaganza. Given the pizzazz of this fun picture, the changes were probably apt.

We are in some pre-historic Nordic place, where Vikings have thick Scottish brogues and even thicker chests. The exception is young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a scrawny lad unlikely to follow in the warrior footsteps of his manly-man father (Gerard Butler).

Ah, but can Hiccup surprise everybody by discovering the secret behind the frequent dragon attacks, even to the point of befriending the most feared dragon of all?

Of course he can, especially if the movie is toting a message about the virtues of kindness and generosity over fear and endless warfare. The movie reaches back to the tale of Androcles removing a thorn from a lion’s paw, and the advantages that might result from such an act.

Although “Dragon” will show in 3D in many theaters, it doesn’t Mickey Mouse the technique; not all that many spears and fire-breathing dragon come flying at your face. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who also did “Lilo & Stitch,” emphasize character over effect. Not that there’s any shortage of effects: when the movie wants to swoop and crash and conjure up a few hundred dragons, it does so on a positively “Avatar”-esque scale.

But mostly we hang out with Hiccup and his new dragon pal, or follow Hiccup as he goes to dragon-slaying school with his tomboy rival Astrid (America Ferrara) and other guys who seem much more like future Vikings than Hiccup. And even though this comes from the DreamWorks folks (the “Shrek” studio), there are virtually no pop-culture jokes or topical references, for which I give thanks. In fact, the film gets a nice balance between smart-funny and big-hearted, and it passes the big test of kid-oriented films, which is that it will entertain adults as much as small fry.

The only remaining question is why the Vikings speak with Scottish accents. Keep in mind that it worked for an ogre named Shrek, and if the historical basis seems flimsy, well, you probably don’t even believe in dragons.

The Art of the Steal. “Raises questions that go far beyond the world of art.”

Plus an interview with Dean DeBlois, co-director of Dragon.

And I talk with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about Akira Kurosawa: here. The movie bit begins at 14 minutes in.

Movie Diary 3/9/2010

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). The camera shakes, and so does national integrity, in an Iraq War thriller that does a disconcerting amount of fictional telescoping. (full review 3/12)

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010). I wonder whether Baumbach works backward from his endings, because he sure knows how to put the pieces in order at the fade-out. Ben Stiller as a burnout staying in his brother’s empty house for six weeks, a situation that could serve as an Eric Rohmer premise; Stiller has an especially good moment surveying a crowd of 20-year-olds in his shell-shocked vicinity. (full review 3/26)

She’s Out of My League (Jim Field Smith, 2010). Junior would-be Apatow action, with Jay Baruchel graduating to lead nerd. Not entirely without yoks. (full review 3/12)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2009). An Oscar loser, but cogent in laying out Ellsberg’s history; some choice excerpts from the Nixon tapes, which astonish even when you’ve heard them before. (full review 3/12)

The Jazz Baronness (Hannah Rothschild, 2009). Totally absorbing account of the woman who tended Thelonious Monk in the last couple of decades of his life, told by her great-niece (or something); both ladies are of the Rothschild clan. Not sure why, but Monk is a fine subject for film – see Straight, No Chaser. (shows in Seattle Jewish Film Festival 3/15)

Human Failure (Michael Verhoeven, 2008). Holocaust documentary with a specific angle: what exactly happened to all the stuff – just the sheer ocean of stuff – that belonged to the Europeans Jews who were murdered, driven away, or simply ripped off. Some remarkable stories, and (like the accounting in Shoah), a sickening litany of efficient German records-keeping of these crimes. (shows in SJFF 3/18)

Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story (Scott Goldstein, 2008). Tribute to Las Vegas Sun publisher Greenspun, who was hanging around for all kinds of interesting moments: Joe McCarthy, Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, even a slice of Watergate. (shows in SJFF, 3/14)