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Review: Melinda and Melinda

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“Comedy = tragedy + time,” declared the pompous TV producer played by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s last (dare I say final?) masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Sixteen years later, Allen himself appears to have settled on a new, even more specious formula: comedy = tragedy + feeble one-liners. Melinda and Melinda opens with a convivial debate between two New York playwrights, one (Larry Pine) a dour Arthur Miller type, the other (Wallace Shawn) an impish satirist. Handed the rawest of materials — a sketchy anecdote about a distraught young woman interrupting a dinner party — the two proceed to spin conflicting scenarios, with each narrative informed by its author’s limited worldview. In one, Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a self-destructive glamour girl with a melodramatically violent past, vies with her best friend (Chloë Sevigny) for the attentions of a suave pianist (Chiwetel Ejiofor); in the other, we’re treated to the goofy romantic travails of Melinda (Mitchell again), a flighty, marginally less self-destructive woman with no access to styling gel.

    Those hoping against hope for an Allen comeback will find Melinda and Melinda almost painfully frustrating. Scene by scene, this is easily Allen’s most compelling work in years, less glaringly anachronistic than usual and free of the slapdash torpor that seemed to have settled upon him in old age. What’s more, the central conceit, while far from blazingly original, plays to his strengths as a writer, which have always tended toward formalistic gimmickry. Which makes it all the more odd and infuriating that Melinda’s dual, dueling narratives turn out to be nearly identical — neither comic nor tragic, merely genteel. Indeed, the tone, the visual scheme and Mitchell’s performance are so consistent throughout that it often requires a conscious effort to figure out which story you’re in, or even to recall that more than one story exists. Only the presence of Will Ferrell, making a herculean and partially successful effort to deliver Allen’s trademark neurotic zingers without impersonating their source, marks his half of the movie as Comic. Apologists will no doubt claim that this is the point, but setting out to demonstrate that tragedy and farce are fundamentally inextricable doesn’t entail watering them down until they’re interchangeable. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Schizo
When the American writer Tom Bissell vented in his 2003 memoir about the death of the Aral Sea — a once-mighty lake in Central Asia now akin to a ruined kiddie pool straddling Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — his U.S. readers grasped what they were getting: a dose of environmentalist rage. With the U.S. release of her feature film Schizo, debut director Guka Omarova, a Kazakh living in Holland, gives American audiences a morality tale about her homeland that is more opaque than Bissell’s save-the-earth salvo, but also more gripping.

    Set after 1991, when Kazakhstan seceded from a moribund Soviet state, Schizo documents the coming of age of an ethnic Kazakh caught between his developing sense of decency and the adult corruption around him. A laconic fifteen-year-old considered slow, Mustafa (Olzhas Nussuppaev) is dubbed Schizo by his classmates. Expelled from school after a fight, he’s evaluated by a hypochondriacal Russian doctor more interested in gauging his own blood pressure than in diagnosing the teen’s putative mental state.

    Released to his feckless mother and her thug boyfriend, Schizo is forced to recruit unemployed men for illegal boxing matches that offer them a chance to win prizes — and give howling spectators the pleasure of placing bets — but can also lead to their deaths. Schizo’s march toward virtue begins when he delivers a fallen boxer’s pay to the man’s tiny son (Kanagat Nurtay) and girlfriend (Olga Landina), with whom he starts an affair.

    While the story is moving, Omarova tends to rely on visuals, like shacks splayed across a barren land, abandoned oil rigs and a rotting Russian tank, to do her narrative work. While the images underscore the dismal lives of her characters, they treat a brutish present but rarely the “Why?” of history. Unless her audiences are well-versed in facts about Kazakhstan — a nation whose stint of democracy ended in autocratic rule and whose problems include an estimated twenty-six percent poverty rate; soil ruined by weapons-development programs; and a privatized petroleum industry controlled by its premier — they will be hamstrung by what’s missing from an otherwise eloquent film. They will ask, as did the American journalist sitting next to me at a recent screening, “Do you understand what’s happening?” (I did, but only because I did the requisite research first.) — Susan Comninos
Review: Mondovino
If you are one of those people who thought that the Virginia Madsen/Paul Giamatti porch scene in Sideways was tortuous, then you’ll want to skip Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter’s epic, affectionate documentary about the wine industry. From Bordeaux to the Napa Valley, from Brazil to Monkton, Maryland, home of legendary wine critic Robert Parker, Nossiter travels the globe to examine American influence and the impact of globalization on wine and wine culture. Along the way his subjects rhapsodize about wine and its meaning, each more eloquently, passionately and personally than the next.

    As one would expect from a filmmaker who has been called the Michael Moore of the wine industry, Nossiter portrays American influence and globalization as an insidious force destroying a millennia-old tradition of handcrafted artisanal wines. In Mondovino we watch the flashy and arrogant wine consultant Michel Rolland flitting around the globe offering the same advice to winemakers everywhere (“micro-oxygenate!”), regardless of terroir (the unique characteristics of the landscape that give a wine its personality and flavor). We see the Mondavi family — the Microsoft of the wine world — trying to buy up small family domains and turn them into huge vineyards. Over the course of 135 leisurely-edited minutes, Nossiter makes a convincing argument that there is at least accidental, if not intentional, collusion between influential American wine critics, the Mondavi brothers and Michel Rolland. And he is probably right.

    But it’s he human stories, not the politics that make Mondovino compelling. From Robert Parker’s quintessentially American impulse to democratize an elitist wine culture to the Frescobaldi family of Florence, who have partnered with Mondavi in order to keep their eight-hundred-year-old family business alive, we see the direct connection between the personal and the political, the human face behind globalization. And we see that there might be some truth to the adage that every wine reflects the personality of the person who made it. — Andy Horwitz
Date DVD #24: Incredibles
 There’s always some barely-repressed sexuality in animated films. From Bugs the cross-dresser to Pepe Le Pew and countless dirty online shorts, it’s clear that guys who spend most of their time in a room drawing pictures often channel their lonely, frustrated urges into their work. Namely: Elastigirl.

    Elastigirl is a babe. I know she’s a sweet, married mother, and I’m not normally into MILFs, but ever since The Incredibles hit theaters, I’ve been unable to deny the sexual appeal of a woman who could wrap her arms and legs around a man an infinite number of times. She has that suburban sultry thing down pat: the Holly Hunter rasp (even better than NPR goddess Sarah Vowell’s whiny voiceover debut as the Wednesday Addams-esque daughter) and a tight, sexy costume. (Director Brad Bird even gives us a butt shot, in which she checks our her rubbery rear in the mirror). And it’s not a bad movie, either. It might even have been nominated for Best Picture — if they’d only added an overdose or a euthanasia scene.

    Aside from the predictably astonishing animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar, the film dramatizes one of my favorite relationships in a 2004 movie. Most cartoons typically resort to some Ward-and-June-Cleaver thing — but Bird’s too smart to fall for that or leave it behind. Instead, the scene at the dinner table in which every family member uses their special powers to increasing, hectic effect, is the best domestic comedy bit since Eddie Murphy played all the Klumps in The Nutty Professor. Sure, they’re a fairly perfect family, but they’re not imperious or self-righteous in the way most perfect couples tend to be. Which is why this DVD is perfect for a date during which you’re both on the edge of getting serious but are worried that if you get too serious, you might stop having fun. Believe me, Elastigirl knows how to have fun. — Logan Hill



 
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