X-Men Origins: Wolverine starts the summer movie season off in respectable fashion. Elsewhere, The Limits of Control exudes cool, but not much else. And can a documentary about A Chorus Line be enjoyable if you've never seen the musical?
Like it or not, it's now summertime, at least in the minds of moviegoers and the studios that cater to them. Will we be lucky enough to get another Dark Knight or Wall-E? That's probably too much to ask – more likely we'll just get a bunch of films like Wolverine, which are totally adequate but completely forgettable.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Fox) Call it damning with faint praise, but X-Men movies don't have to do much to impress me because, frankly, they've never been that great from the start. Nice production values, compelling actors, big but impersonal action scenes – they're summer popcorn flicks without much depth to them. (For the record, I always found their mutants-as-persecuted-gays commentary to be pretty ham-fisted, though I admired the sentiment.) So the troubles that have visited this prequel weren't all that troubling to me. The end result is all you'd expect. Director Gavin Hood does a stylish job, Hugh Jackman (as he did with the other X-Men movies) captures the character's comic-book awesomeness while not winking too hard about the silliness of the endeavor, and Liev Schreiber is pretty fun as his mutant-brother nemesis, although I do have to ask what's so scary about a dude with long fingernails. In terms of critical insights, the best I can summon up is, holy cow, Jackman's bare chest is a thing of utter magnificence. (Is there such a thing as pec envy?) Wolverine goes down smoothly and easily, and though I knew it's merely a passable entertainment, I enjoyed it well enough. Look for more than that, and you're expecting a Christopher Nolan film or a fluke like Iron Man.
The Limits of Control (Focus Features) I try and try, but I don't get Jim Jarmusch – or maybe I get what's special about him but don't think it’s all that special. Existential cool is his films' chief selling point, but while that can make for fun viewing experiences, there are, well, limits to it. Those who swooned over Dead Man, his 1995 not-quite-a-Western, will adore The Limits of Control, his not-quite-a-thriller. It stars Isaach De Bankolé as an aloof ... uh, person – we don't quite know what he's doing on his trip to Spain, but all indications suggest it's something nefarious from the way he's slipped secret messages and the fact that when he returns to his hotel room one night, there's a naked woman on his bed cocking a pistol. The not-knowing is the pleasure – one of several – in the early stretches of Jarmusch's film as we follow De Bankolé as he wanders around and through Spain's stunning architecture and landscapes. But like Dead Man, the existential cool of The Limits of Control starts to give way to a dreary repetition – we start to sense the pattern of the film's elliptical rhythms and the spell gets broken. I have no doubt Jarmusch is a great guy, but sometimes his films seem like the hip dude you meet at a party who impresses you with his detached way until you realize that there’s not much else beneath the surface. The formal control of his new film keeps you engaged, but the lack of anything deeper to say cuts off the higher brain functions after a while. The Limits of Control is the sort of film that inspires really interesting reviews that are actually more thought-provoking than the film itself. And like Dead Man, what I most remember about The Limits of Control is its evocative music, this time courtesy of Boris, a Japanese quartet who are sometimes described as a doom-metal band. Very cool.
Every Little Step (Sony Pictures Classics) With Every Little Step, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, have now collaborated on three documentaries – one on Yao Ming, one on the battle over Ohio in the 2004 presidential election, and now this look at the history of A Chorus Line through the prism of the auditions to cast the 21st century Broadway revival. These two guys aren’t deep, but they have a gift for crowd-pleasing filmmaking that tries to tap into larger themes: sports, politics, art. I admit my ignorance of A Chorus Line up front – I’ve never seen the show in any form – but Every Little Step hooked me because (1) the songs are so ubiquitous that you know them, even if you think you don’t know them; and (2) the behind-the-scenes stories of the musical’s creation paired with the scenes of the arduous audition process are catnip for anybody who’s a sucker for creativity’s nuts-and-bolts inner workings. That’s not to say that Every Little Step isn’t like so many competitive reality-show programs and documentaries – much of the appeal is the question of “who’s gonna be the winner?” But the filmmakers don’t force artificial drama into the proceedings, the insights into how directors and casting agents make their selections are revealing, and, listen, I’m as much a sucker for these things as the next guy – and I did get interested in who was going to land the Chorus Line roles. I can live the rest of my days happily without ever hearing another actor talk about the “demands of the theater.” But I was willing to forgive the film’s “profound” moments for its many scenes of dancing, singing and acting – the moments where the “demands of the theater” turn into pure pleasure. Rudo y Cursi (Opening May 8 from Sony Pictures Classics) Sure, it doesn't have the heft of Y Tu Mama Tambien, but it's easy to forget that that film, though emotionally powerful, was deceptively carefree – a horn-dog sex film with political and social observations buried underneath. Rudo y Cursi ties together two familiar narratives – the sports movie and the rags-to-riches story – and puts them into a comedy about two warring brothers. The highest compliment I can give this very charming film is that actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal are pretty great at playing stupid – particularly Bernal, who's terrific as the pretty-boy brother whose rise to fame as a soccer player makes for lots of great mimbo moments. Writer-director Carlos Cuarón (Alfonso's brother who co-wrote Y Tu Mama Tambien) doesn't surprise us with this tale of sibling rivalry set against Mexico's manic love for soccer, but not unlike Y Tu Mama, there is more going on under the surface – he sneaks in a nice commentary on poverty and sports that makes for a nice complement to Sugar. Still, this movie isn’t trying to be a think piece, which was fine with me. And when it comes to cinematic bromance, I'll take Luna and Bernal over their many American counterparts.
Goodbye Solo (Roadside Attractions) Director Ramin Bahrani’s character drama is so delicate and well-made that I feel bad pointing out his weaknesses as a filmmaker – especially when it’s the same things that bothered me about his last movie, Chop Shop. But let’s talk about the positives first. Like with Chop Shop, Behrani has concocted a marvelously engaging main character here – making his film acting debut, Souléymane Sy Savané is terrific as Solo, a cab driver from Senegal who’s trying to put together some semblance of a life in North Carolina by talking as fast and being as charming as he can be. He crosses paths with William, a quiet older man who wants Solo to do something for him – something Solo’s not sure he can do for this man he’s come to like. Wonderfully underplayed by Red West, William is the opposite of Solo – beaten-down, withdrawn, his life behind him. The bad version of a movie like Goodbye Solo is where William learns important life lessons from Solo, the noble minority from a faraway land. Bahrani is much too smart for that, but the gentle rhythms of his film – as lovely as they are – don’t necessarily add up to much. Is that too much to ask? Shouldn't one just appreciate the quality of the film that we do have? I still prefer Goodbye Solo to roughly 80 percent of the movies out there, but I’m greedy – I think Bahrani can do even better. And I’m going to wait until that happens.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.