Something about prisoners seems to pull artists from other mediums toward cinema. The combination of astringent subject matter and splooging style, maybe? Julian Schnabel, a celebrated painter, pondered paralyzed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in Hunger video-artist Steve McQueen contemplates incarcerated IRA martyr Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Both are about men using their bodies as a way out of imprisonment, and both are effects-crazy. Belfastís infamous Maze prison, the stage for the revolts held by Irish Republican prisoners in 1981, is introduced with a wall of noise silenced by an abrupt cut, an effect reprised later as guards hammer away at inmates in slow-mo. (McQueen even contrives a split-screen by using a wall to separate the nightstick orgy in the corridors from the soft-faced guard crying on the other side.) Thereís much lingering over bruised knuckles and puddles of piss, a man visits his mother in a nursing home just so that he can be shot in the head and the catatonic woman can sit with his blood on her face. Where is Sands in the midst of this "rigorous formalism"? Being dragged out of his cell, forcibly washed and sheared and made into an elongated Falconetti, complete with fluttering birds superimposed to signal a departing soul. For all its visceral bombardment, the picture flattens the spiritual-political trajectory of Sandsís hunger strike ("I will not stand by and do naught") with spurious transcendence and underlined symbolism. One gimmick works: A sustained, static 20-minute exchange between the protagonist and a tough padre (Liam Cunningham); with its taut, theatrical give-and-take and struggle between insurrectionary idealism and bruised pragmatism, it may indeed be, as Keith Uhlich put it, "the greatest one-act play ever filmed." After that, itís back to prettifying crater-like sores.
Though it looks like it was filmed through wax paper, Adventureland boasts at least one authentically impressionistic sequence that shames Hungerís stylistic pig-piling: A stoned kidís view of the girders beneath a Pittsburgh bridge during a nocturnal car ride, wordless but for Lou Reed on the radio ("Pale Blue Eyes"). Greg Mottolaís summer-that-changed-my-life dramedy traffics in many of my least favorite things -- boner and barf gags, Ď80s nostalgia, Bill Hader -- yet it has enough such moments to elevate the worn material. Jesse Eisenberg plays the filmmakerís stand-in, a recent college grad who ends up spending the summer of 1987 working the stands at the shitty titular amusement park when financial troubles at home annul his European tour. He soon realizes that his Renaissance studies degree isnít much help when a customer demands a "giant-ass panda" doll at knifepoint. Still, Kristen Stewart is one of his fellow carnies, so things canít be all bad -- what seemed like dopey sulking in Twilight has finally matured into poise, and she gives her wised-up, troubled character a spiky mix of turmoil and yearning. Eisenberg is also good as a rarified innocent experiencing the first pangs of adulthood, and Ryan Reynolds of all people is very good as the handyman who has an affair with Stewart, a married lothario with an almost furtive air of melancholy. A crotch-punching douche-bag in Ralph Macchio duds is thankfully the closest Adventureland comes to the Seth Rogenisms of Superbad: Its box-office success may have brought Mottola back to work after his 1996 debut The Daytrippers, but his own sensibility (observant, soulful, often achingly attuned to clashing emotions) seemed alien to that raucous film. Itís to his credit that, when Eisenberg near the end says "This summer was... rough," itís not a joke.
Speak of Seth Rogen, and the dude will come. Iíve never understood the appeal, though Observe and Report at least becomes marginally interesting by insisting on its starís unlikability. Similarly, Jody Hillís comedy becomes mildly interesting by insisting on its own unfunniness. Rogen plays the frankly psychotic security chief at a shopping mall, a rent-a-cop who thinks heís Clint Eastwood -- sewer-mouthed, prone to bipolar flares and casual racism, he demands a bigger playground than the food court to vent his rage. "At this point in my life, I feel I could destroy some motherfuckers," he says while applying for a police position; Ray Liotta as the cop is appalled, which I take is a joke for anybody who remembers Unlawful Entry. Freud would have had an Oktoberfest with the way this emasculated would-be tyrant becomes obsessed with a rampaging flasherís dipstick, or the way his mother (Celia Weston) and object of lust (Anna Faris) are sloppy-drunk mirror images. Bones are broken, teen skateboarders are beat up, shootings and clubbings are prevalent: The juvenile anger that kept poking its head through the supposedly lovable surface in Knocked Up and Pineapple Express is here given such free rein that subtext becomes subject. Still, if Rogenís delusions of grandeur ("Iíve been chosen to be the protector... or the destroyer") are meant to suggest Taxi Driver, then itís less as De Niroís Travis Bickle than as Albert Brooksí campaign worker in that same film attempting to evoke De Niro. That mightíve been a valid comic/disturbing premise if Hill, like Ben Stiller, didnít keep pussying out of the filmís danger zones (even a date-rape scenario is safely defused). The populist dilemma between "joining the Man" and "bucking the system" is brainlessly paraded when it should have been dived into. Observe and reject.
It takes a good film to get me interested in baseball, and Sugar is rather better than good. The titular protagonist (AlgenŪs Perez Soto), so nicknamed for his sweet knuckle curve (or so he says -- fellow players insist itís for his fondness for desserts), is a 19-year-old rookie coached at a Major League farm visited by American scouts in the Dominican Republic; the hopefuls sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" phonetically, "the States" across the ocean promise fame and escape. Accepted into a single-A team in Iowa, heís fÍted like a hero in his hometown: "Life gives you many opportunities. Baseball only gives you one," an old trainer reminds him. Transplanted to the Midwest, Sugar boards with an elderly couple, develops a crush on his evangelical foster sister, and gets acquainted with the realities of the American Dream. Many of the situations (the competition from other rookies, the crack-up under stadium lights) are sports-movie staples, but filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who have become more assured storytellers since their 2006 Indiewood favorite Half Nelson, examine them in terms of cultural dislocation and the machinery of sports and dreams. And as their humor grows, so do their style (a shoulder-level tracking shot through an arcade-lined hotel lobby evokes the Dardennes, and Scorsese, too) and their humane understanding of people snared by expectations and erecting divides despite their best intentions. Sugar has scarcely a manipulative or fake moment -- thereís no clever virtuoso like Ryan Gosling whooping it up from beneath a fastidiously naturalistic veneer, just the realities and anxieties of a new land merging in Perez Sotoís hopeful, haunted eyes.
Reviewed April 12, 2009.