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Movie reviews: Get Low, Life During Wartime 

Also: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno and more

Thursday, Jul 29 2010
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DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS In Steve Carell's first few episodes of the American version of The Office, the series hewed closely to the template created by the series' British mastermind, Ricky Gervais. But in the United States, audiences didn't take to so bleak a comic vision, and soon, the tone of the series evolved from harsh satire to affectionate, gentle comedy. Ratings success ensued. That's a lesson well learned by the filmmakers behind Carell's new movie, Dinner for Schmucks, an American reworking of the 1998 French comedy Le Dîner de Cons. Francis Veber's original was fundamentally on the side of the idiots. Not so Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, which takes the snobbish, cruel editor of the original and turns him into Paul Rudd's Tim, the nicest young man you're ever likely to meet. Meanwhile, bowl-cut, Windbreaker-wearing Barry (Carell) is not just an unctuous bumbler but is, in fact, borderline mentally disabled. That is the only conclusion I can reach after watching credulous Barry gleefully smash bottles of wine against the walls of Tim's apartment. Dinner for Schmucks is funny, sure. How can it not be, with good comic actors like Carell and Rudd — plus Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement, Kristen Schaal and Ron Livingston? And rest assured, no American comedy is going to call itself Dinner for Schmucks without showing us the actual dinner for schmucks, which is, naturally, this movie's comic apogee. There's a blind fencer, and a ventriloquist who's married to a slutty dummy, and a guy who French-kisses his vulture. They're all idiots, or possibly mentally ill. Paramount Pictures and director Jay Roach would like to invite you to a dinner they're hosting, at which you are welcome to laugh at them. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)

THE DRY LAND The dry land that we actually see in The Dry Land is the Texas dirt that James (Ryan O'Nan) comes home to. Strictly speaking, James has returned alive, but his wary squint seems stuck on the Iraqi desert he has just left. Disoriented and selectively amnesiac, he can't pick up the cues to the past he left or reintegrate to small-town life, which director Ryan Piers Williams gets down convincingly with his Anglo-Tejano West Texas of spread-out, fragmented families. His wife (America Ferrera) notices her man isn't quite the same around the time she wakes up in a choke hold. As plot developments diligently refill James' cup of sorrow — who thinks a welcome-home job at a slaughterhouse is a good idea? — he skips town, trying to fill in blacked-out memories with a returned battle buddy (a road-worn Wilmer Valderrama) and by visiting an incapacitated friend at Walter Reed Hospital, a reunion scene that turns on a dime from tentative sentimentality to almost black-comic obscenity. Such really unexpected moments are outnumbered by programmatic ones, but The Dry Land does slip inside the inescapable, closed-circle logic of despair, and O'Nan's shy, precarious performance keeps you with him to the edge of the abyss. (Nick Pinkerton) (AMC Broadway, Sunset 5)

GO  GET LOW It's 1938, and Tennessee hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who has been in self-imposed exile for 40 years, decides to throw himself a funeral while he's still alive to hear the speeches. He enlists Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, wonderful), the nearby town's funeral director, to make plans and post ads inviting people from all over to attend. For this imperfect but rewarding film, screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, fictionalizing a true story, have given Felix a guilty secret that he's ready to unburden himself of, at long last, during the funeral. Despite a third-act stumble in which first-time director Aaron Schneider undercuts Duvall's wrenchingly confessional monologue with awkward staging and choppy editing, Get Low is a pleasure to watch. Sissy Spacek plays Mattie, Felix's old girlfriend, whose forgiveness he needs the most. Duvall and Spacek have three key scenes together, including one that finds Felix and Mattie walking together down a wooded road. Nothing much happens; they talk and laugh, and their bodies sway back and forth toward each other, like young lovers courting. After a time, he offers her his arm and she takes it, with a firm, happy clutch — two characters, two actors, at ease and in joy, delighting in each other's magic. (Chuck Wilson) (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark)

click to enlarge Life During Wartime
  • Life During Wartime

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HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is a posthumous psychodrama that, according to film archivist and co-director Serge Bromberg, grew out of a chance encounter in a stalled elevator with Clouzot's widow. Bromberg persuaded her to give him access to a particular holy grail: the surviving 15 hours of rushes and test footage from French director Clouzot's abandoned would-be masterpiece, Inferno. Starring Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider, Inferno was meant to portray jealousy as a form of mental illness, but the real head case was its director. Clouzot was unable to finish the movie; as both the survivors interviewed and the surviving footage makes clear, the attempt drove him half-mad. Inferno was an ambitious production. Clouzot prepared elaborately color-coded charts tracking his hero's paranoid state. There were three separate camera crews. Columbia Pictures provided an "unlimited budget," much of which was spent on visual experiments involving superimpositions, dappled light patterns, fun-house mirror distortions and color inversion meant to convey a deranged consciousness. But rather than communicating his protagonist's madness, Clouzot appears to be documenting his own. Who knows how these fantastic shots of Schneider lying naked in the path of an onrushing locomotive or covered with glitter and smoking a cigarette in reverse would have played in the finished film? Who cares? For all the irrationality that fueled Clouzot's project, it's reasonable to assume that the finished Inferno would never have been any better than this arrangement of its shards. (J. Hoberman)

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