The reviews out for The Watch, the latest film written by the Superbad/Pineapple Express team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, have so far been pretty dismal. I wasn’t able to catch the local press screening, but even just watching the trailers, it feels apparent that some of the freewheeling charm of those films seems to be missing from this story of a bunch of dads who start a neighborhood watch program only to get more than they bargained for when they uncover an alien plot for world takeover. But even as much as this looks like it’ll be disappointing, I’m likely to see it, and the reason for that has nothing to do with the three familiar faces on the poster (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill). It’s that fourth guy, Richard Ayoade, likely unfamiliar to most US eyes, whom I’m counting on to make this a salvageable experience.
Whatever failings the movie might have, I can’t help but feel a little goodwill towards it for potentially raising the profile of Ayoade, a British comic actor/writer/director well known in the UK for The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, and who wrote and directed his debut feature, Submarine, last year. Ayoade is an actor with an extreme gift for deadpan and generating laughs while displaying the least possible amount of emotional affect, which is why his casting is particularly interesting here, given that Chris Tucker—pretty much Ayoade’s stylistic opposite—was originally considered for the role. So if you do catch The Watch this weekend, notice the new face in the foursome and let this be your gateway drug to seek out more of Ayoade’s work.
These days, if you’re headed to the theater to see a film that’s nearly three hours long, it probably features super-powered heroes in capes. But in 1988, the notion of the sprawling romantic epic (which I’ve argued was essentially killed off by Titanic) was still alive and well, and that year director Philip Kaufman tackled Milan Kundera’s complex existential novel about Czech society in and around the Prague Spring of 1968. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a doctor in Prague with two lovers, played by Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin, both of whom have other sexual affairs of their own. All of these personal dramas are set against the political upheaval of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the difficulties faced by the country’s intellectual and artistic classes in the face of oppression. This Sunday’s screening at the National Gallery will be preceded by a discussion with Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf, who recently wrote a book on Kaufman’s work; a signing will precede the discussion and screening.
Pity the poor Siegel family. They wanted nothing more than to build a new home for themselves, a humble roof to shelter their heads, but that house was left unfinished after the 2008 financial crisis, leaving them to see . . . well, to see how the other 99.99 percent live. David Siegel is the founder of Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company in the world, and Lauren Greenfield’s documentary watches as the billionaire and his much youger wife, Jackie, seek to build what would have become the largest single-family home in the world at 90,000 square feet. Just to give you a sense of scope, the house would have had a full-size baseball field inside it. But things start to unravel for Siegel and his company, as his business was built on cheap mortgages and subprime lending; the ship everyone else is sinking in is one he helped build. Greenfield’s documentary tries to observe as objectively as possible though, neither mocking nor particularly sympathizing the couple as things go south for them.
This documentary focuses on Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, who, after serving as artistic consultant for Beijing’s Olympic stadium for the 2008 Games, became a little less popular with the Chinese government due to his outspoken opinions and international fame. Director Alison Klayman follows Ai starting in 2009, capturing the wildly charismatic figure over the course of a couple of years, as he goes from visting the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes (and making unpopular statements about the government’s complicity in the deaths there due to shoddy building practices) to international art openings to eventually finally angering authorities enough that they arrest and hold him for nearly three months. When the film premiered in the Washington area last month during the Silverdocs festival, Washingtonian’s Sophie Gilbert called it an “insightful, weighty look at one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary art.”
A few years ago, director Mike Schneider gathered a crew of animators from all over the world to pay tribute to and reimagine one of the most celebrated horror films of the century: George Romero’s zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead. The concept was simple: Take the original film’s soundtrack and replace Romero’s images with animation of various styles. The result is a grab bag of animation that includes hand-drawn and CGI, puppetry and stop-motion, making a familiar and well-loved film into something entirely new and different.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Silent House
This remake of a little Uruguayan art-house horror film by the same name is built around what could have been a tired gimmick: it’s made to look like it takes place in real time, in a single camera shot. Audiences hated it when it was released back in the spring, and critics were pretty mixed on it, too. And while I thought it was inferior to the original, largely due to a typical American horror ending that feels the need to explain way too much, I still found plenty to recommend in it. First and foremost among those things is how the technique itself heightens the tension and fear in very different way from how a normal horror film would; I talk at more length about what the single-shot adds to the film in my piece on it over at the Atlantic. The other reason to see this film is Elizabeth Olsen, who made a huge splash at Sundance last year with the double shot of this film and the much more well-received Martha Marcy May Marlene. MMMM is unquestionably the far better film, but even in what could have been a generic scream queen role of a girl trapped in a remote house and being stalked by unknown entitities, Olsen brings a believable intensity that sells the movie even when the plot starts falling apart around her. Don’t expect greatness from this film, but watch it late at night in the dark and see if it doesn’t give you some genuine chills.
Special Features: A commentary track with directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.