* * * Beginners
After Mike Mills' mother died, right before production began on the graphic designer and music video director's first film, Thumbsucker, his 75-year-old father, after 45 years of marriage, announced that he was gay, acquired a boyfriend, and spent his last years in a flurry of activism. His father's commitment to his new life, even in the face of stage-four cancer, inspired the noncommittal Mills to settle down and get married (to Miranda July, that other West-Coast art-world-fêted multi-hyphenate). And it inspired this autobiographical film, in which Ewan McGregor plays a graphic designer named Oliver mourning his father (Christopher Plummer) and falling in love with an actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent) who never stays in one place very long.
The tale is told in flashbacks that question the reliability of memory, and slideshows of stock images that situate the flashbacks in their era: "This is what cars looked like," narrates McGregor, his hand seemingly on a clicker. "This is what pretty looked like in 1938." 1938 is the year his father realized he was gay and his mother found out she was Jewish, and they buried their shared secrets. He flips through his memory file to his childhood in the '70s, wondering how his mother (a brittle, galvanizing Mary Page Keller) could have married a man she knew to be gay. And then we are in 2003, for even the most recent section of the film is shrouded in memory.
Only Anna rings false. She is one of Sofia Coppola's itinerant hotel dwellers, but she is also Kate Winslet's messy-haired madcap in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; she and Oliver are playmates more than lovers, bound only by a shared sadness and fondness for used books. Mills says Anna is not based on his wife, which is perhaps why this section seems less fully realized. The rest has the gravity of truth: Mills' father really did rewrite the death of Jesus, and Mills does have a sideline as a tagger of gnomic epigrams like "You make me laugh but it's not funny." One could not hazard a more accurate pull-quote for this melancholy memory play.
* * 1/2 Bad Teacher
In the debate over how to raise test scores, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) offers a solution: hurl dodge balls at your students until they get the answers right. That's the only fresh idea in Bad Teacher, in which Elizabeth, a golddigger with the red scuffed off the soles of her Louboutins, needs the $5,700 bonus for the teacher whose students get the top score on the state test for the breast implants she believes will win a ring from substitute teacher and watch heir Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). "I'm like an 8, 8 ½," she complains to a portly colleague (Phyllis Smith of "The Office"). "You have no idea how difficult it is to compete against these Barbie-doll types."
Few actresses have Diaz's lack of vanity, and Elizabeth, with her bright red lipstick, gobs of stray mascara on her upper lids and heavy foundation settling into the lines radiating from her eyes, is a fright. How bad a teacher is she? She comes to class hungover and shows movies every day! She smokes pot in her car! She tosses garbage in the recycling bin! Which is to say that as bad goes, you probably had worse. Like the equally marriage-minded Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher only flirts with the idea of women behaving badly; when it comes down to it, the foul-mouthed Elizabeth is all talk, and wouldn't you know it, turns out not to be such a bad teacher after all.
If Bad Teacher lacks the go-for-broke recklessness of Bad Santa, it does offer sporadic laughs, particularly from Lucy Punch (Dinner for Schmucks) as Amy Squirrel, Elizabeth's rival for both high test scores and Scott's affections. ("Office" scribes Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg seem to have spent most of their energy thinking up wacky names.) That Scott isn't worth it is a good gag, but Timberlake never gets beyond the sketch-comedy outlines of his character. Jason Segel, playing Elizabeth's impecunious gym-teacher suitor, seems to have made up most of his lines on the spot. And when all else fails, Molly Shannon turns up as a parent (who wasn't at parents' night) inviting Elizabeth for Christmas dinner.
While Elizabeth discovers her true calling, there are many mysteries to ponder, such as why her seventh graders seem utterly unaware of their teacher's rockin' body (except at the school car wash), or why she did not previously know about the yearly bonus, or how she got hired in the first place. Diaz, so effective in Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes, deserves better, but don't we all?
* * * Trollhunter
Written and directed by André Øvredal. With Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Tomas Alf Larsen and Johanna Mørck. (PG-13)
A college news team gets more than they bargain for when they follow a suspected bear poacher into the woods in Trollhunter, which plays the gimmick of The Blair Witch Project and, more recently, Cloverfield, for laughs. Hans (Otto Jespersen), the formidable suspect, tries to ditch them, but the students are relentless. "Do you think Michael Moore gave up after the first try?" asks Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), the reporter, and soon he, the cameraman (Tomas Alf Larsen) and the sound recorder (Johanna Mørck) have won the trust of this exterminator for Norway's Troll Security Service, who dispatches giant, grotesque trolls who have lumbered outside their territory. His chief weapon is a supersized flashbulb, which makes them explode.
Writer-director André Øvredal, a commercial director making his feature debut, mixes imaginative details (trolls like to gnaw on tires), bureaucracy (there's a form to fill out after each kill) and Norwegian mythology (trolls hate Christians). In a scene that looks straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Hans dresses up like the Tin Man to collect a blood sample from an ailing troll. Jespersen, a top comic in Norway, plays it like Bill Murray, with deadpan weariness. All of the dialogue was improvised (well), the sudden edits feel exactly right, and the special effects are much better than you'd imagine (the darkness and the night-vision views help here). And that really is Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, seeming to cop to the existence of trolls in the press conference that ends the film — he's really talking about the Troll Field, a natural gas and oil field in the North Sea.
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