Home movies: A Cat in Paris, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Invisible War, Her Master’s Voice, Madea’s Witness Protection, Magic Mike, The Mark, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Take This Waltz

October 25, 2012

Some recent DVD releases:

A Cat in Paris (Not rated, 70 minutes) — While I loved the hand-drawn animation and the oh-so-adult way the French have of refusing to sentimentalize childhood, A Cat in Paris is no My Dog Tulip — which is to say it’s not a cartoon aimed at grown-ups — and potential viewers should be aware that this is the very antithesis of flashy productions like Madagascar 3. (Which I happened to watch immediately before viewing this.) Still, the team of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol has produced a sure-footed, deliberately small film about a bereaved little girl, her apparently amoral cat, her police detective mother and a sympathetic second-story man who, over the course of an evening, bring a notorious French crime boss to justice. While the English voice cast includes Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston and Matthew Modine, we preferred the French version with English subtitles. (But then, we’re preparing for a trip to Paris.) Grade: 86

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (R, 105 minutes) — During the initial screenings of this film a few months back, a film critic friend posted on Twitter that it was the “worst movie ever.” It’s not quite that, though to say that it has a tone problem is a serious understatement. As silly as the premise is, at times the cast seems to be playing it all completely straight. And that’s the best part of it — the stabs at satire are painful. Still, some people insist there’s fun to be found here. Those people are very different than me. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov with Benjamin Walker as Lincoln. Grade: 67

The Invisible War (Not rated, 93 minutes) — Academy Award-nominated documentarian Kirby Dick (This Film is Not Yet Rated, Outrage) makes a compelling case that the military is, as a retired Army general says, “a target-rich environment” for sexual predators. The Invisible War is a difficult film to watch and one that should be harder to ignore.

More a piece of advocacy than journalism, it is designed to provoke outrage at what it contends is the institutionalized victim-blaming and shaming directed by the military establishment at those who dare report their complaints. While 20 percent of women in the armed forces report being sexually assaulted, the Department of Defense estimates that sexual assault against women in the military is underreported by some 86 percent. (There’s reason to suspect the underreporting rate among male servicemen is even higher.)

As potential entertainment, the film has limited value — it offers us a parade of disillusioned young people (mostly, but not all, women) who joined the military for a variety of what most would consider the right reasons, only to be doubly and trebly abused, first by a brother-in-arms, and then by a system more invested in appearing honorable than acting honorably. Yet the film is most effective when it eschews the emotionalism for the damning concessions of the Department of Defense. The larger picture, one that’s supported by government statistics, is horrific and unacceptable: Fully 15 percent of new military recruits reported, anonymously, having committed or attempted a sexual assault in civilian life. And, as various experts testify, sexual predators are unlikely to be caught, and they tend to repeat their offenses over and over.

And if you’re raped while on duty, the only proper way to voice your complaint has traditionally been through your commanding officer. And, according to Defense Department statistics, there’s a 1-in-3 chance your commanding officer will be friendly with the alleged perpetrator, and there’s a 15 percent chance that your commanding officer will be the alleged perpetrator.)
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw this film in April, and two days later he changed that dubious reporting policy. That was an easy call. It will be much tougher to change the culture. Grade: 88

Her Master’s Voice (Not rated, 64 minutes) — A strange, odd and affecting film about comedian/ventriloquist Nina Conti (daughter of the actor Tom Conti) who decides, after the death of her friend and mentor Ken Campbell, to honor his legacy by traveling to Vent Haven, a Kentucky museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism, to deposit his “bereaved” puppets. She leaves London with several of Campbell’s puppets, and through them voices her distress and angst through the mouths of a monkey, an owl, a bulldog and a little old lady who resembles Gertrude Stein. Her Master’s Voice is a meditation on discovering — or creating — one’s self through art. It’s also very funny. Grade: 89

Madea’s Witness Protection (PG-13, 114 minutes) — The latest from Tyler Perry will likely win him no new fans, but neither he nor his studio, Lionsgate, seems to care very much. Veteran comedic actor Eugene Levy gets dragged into this one, which is essentially a drawn-out, sloppily written sit-com episode. Grade: 73

Magic Mike (R, 110 minutes) — Best read as another semi-“experimental” genre film from Steven Soderbergh and part of the evolution of Channing Tatum, who one of these days just might convince us he’s more than a welcome presence. This is semi-famously based on his real-life experience as a male stripper. Soderbergh is too smart for moralizing, and deeper meanings — this is just a good, old-fashioned beefcake movie. Matthew McConaughey also stars. Grade: 86

The Mark (Not rated, 98 minutes) — An interesting faith-based sci-fi action thriller that features Craig Sheffer (beefier than when we last glimpsed him) as a disillusioned veteran charged with transporting the world’s only biometric computer chip — a technology with “the power to change the world” that has been implanted in his arm — from Bangkok to the G20 Summit in Berlin. While en route, a gang of mercenaries attempt to hijack his plane and steal the technology. But greater forces are at work here: The Tribulation is at hand, true believers are being raptured and the chip seems to be something more important than the next iteration of the iPhone. While, as with most projects of this scale, production values and acting skills are uneven, this won’t bore you. James Chankin directs. Grade: 82

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (R, 101 minutes) — With an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, Dodge (Steve Carell) has to deal with abandonment by his freaked-out wife. He hooks up with a goofy neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley) and the pair spend their final days on a bucket-list road trip. While the film doesn’t quite reconcile its impressively cool, almost nihilistic vibe with Carell’s characteristically sincere performance, and a third-act twist is rather too convenient, the film never quite gives in to expectations. Not a triumph, but better than you might expect. Grade: 84

Take This Waltz (R, 116 minutes) — I love (and respect) Michelle Williams and Sarah Polley as filmmakers, yet I’m puzzled as to how obviously intelligent people capable of genuinely great work could collaborate on a project so wrongheaded and tone deaf as this.

There are a couple of nice sequences — the first go-around on a Tilt-A-Whirl set to The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” is pure exhilarating movie magic — and Williams is too fine an actor to hit false notes, even when they are underlined in the script. And director Polley obviously loves Toronto — it’s never been more beautiful or distinct as it is here. The more charitable way to read Take This Waltz is as a love letter to a city that rarely gets to play itself in the movies.

But the writing is smug and horrible, a story about nasty twenty-somethings who assume the world should care about them because they’re attractive and aspire to arty lifestyles. And there’s an unintentionally funny sequence, a “sex montage” set in the unbelievably expensive-looking loft apartment where Margot and Daniel eventually set up housekeeping, that is so arch and ridiculous that I’m surprised it hasn’t been turned into an Internet meme (but then this is indie cinema).
Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe it’s enjoyable enough on a superficial level — maybe it says more about me than the film that I loathe it so. But it seems like a kind of Eat Pray Love! for the bohemian set, a smug and self-adoring little movie that mistakes dullness for seriousness, and valorizes self-indulgence. That there are women like Margot in the world is true enough, but it seems unfair that an actor as naturally empathetic as Williams should be cast to play her. The character is repellent, but Williams almost sucks us in. Grade: 72

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