How to Draw a Bunny
Runs Fri., April 30–Thurs., May 6, at Little Theatre
When making a movie about an artist, there's an almost overwhelming temptation for the filmmakers to emulate that artist's technique. Sometimes the echo effect works: The pianist emerged through biographical impromptus in Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. In the case of fringe pop art figure Ray Johnson (1928–1995), however, the man was as elusive as his technique—doubly hard to follow. Most famed as a collagist and inventor of "mail art" (elaborate postcards and serial jokes binding together many correspondents in a chain), he never broke out like his more acclaimed peers. Moving to New York in the '50s after attending the famously experimental Black Mountain College, he toiled in obscurity while Johns, Rauschenberg, and Rosenquist broke out. He and Andy Warhol both illustrated paperbacks in the '60s to pay the bills; again, gallery owners and museum curators flocked in the other direction. Meanwhile, he continued as a one-man small-f factory of obsessive productivity—and continued to be overlooked. An insider and an outsider in the art world, he made insider-outsider art with little attempt to get it shown. ("He hated galleries, he hated museums," says one observer of the diffident Johnson.) Finally, he decamped for Long Island in 1968, further guaranteeing his obscurity until his Friday the 13th suicide made headlines.
With Bunny's use of old bits of home movies, vintage snapshots, contemporary interviews, a few '80s videos, and his letters read aloud (by a woman, oddly), Johnson's self-willed, self-created persona as the enigmatic artist is only compounded, not clarified. The movie makes a collage out of a collage, and that's a cop-out. Though pan-and-scan examples of his work are fascinating, they beg for the gallery walls. At the cinema, you can be clear about the mysterious or arty about the mundane, and Bunny badly misjudges its position vis-à-vis its subject—who is entitled to be aloof and who is supposed to explain. The movie initially apes the form of a murder- mystery investigation, proceeding from the corpse to the cradle and back again in a Kane-like fashion. And, like Kane, here is a man variously described as "a mystery," "a collage," "an enigma," and so forth. But there is no Rosebud.
It's a pity, because Bunny gives you a tantalizing taste of his miniaturist work, like Joseph Cornell boxes flattened out into two dimensions, then stamped with postage. In one of the few instances where Johnson actually speaks on his method (in a letter), he says of all his compulsive envelope stuffing, "I spent my entire life condensing, in a conceptual art fashion." And what of his nonworking life? Apparently there was very little of it; Johnson seems to have died gay, loveless, and alone. Johnson appears to have had many correspondents and acquaintances, but no friends. Someone calls him "indifferent" as a kind of praise. Bunny would have you believe his plunge from a bridge in Sag Harbor was some sort of conceptual art gesture. I think people kill themselves for other reasons than that—despair, perhaps, but not indifference. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Laws of Attraction
Opens Fri., April 30, at Pacific Place and others
Julianne Moore is brilliant at playing tragic heroines and nihilist divas in prestige films, but icy hauteur can only get you so far in Hollywood. "Jules! Jules!" her agent must have said, "You gotta be a Breck girl! You gotta do bad romantic comedy in 2,000 theaters! Get off that cold throne and kiss the masses' asses!" She puckers up for all she's worth as Audrey Woods, a lovelorn divorce attorney facing raffish opposing counsel Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan) in court and between the sheets. If you're like the warmhearted romantics in the preview audience I saw the flick with, Warm 106.5 listeners all (the most forgiving audience this side of Ashland), you may find the film cute. But if you have any brains at all, you'll call it mush.
Except for some excellent actors slumming, Attraction doesn't have much going for it. Audrey is professionally brilliant, self-doubting, emotionally defensive, and erotically AWOL, like a younger Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give. But the dialogue is only faux-sassy, and Brosnan's no Jack Nicholson. His character is a cardboard pushover, not an elusive scamp. As the two duel over the estate of a divorcing rock star (Underworld's Michael Sheen) and his fashion-designer wife (indie princess Parker Posey), he is steadfastly pro-marriage. All Moore has to do is thaw—a boring dramatic process.
Not as boring, however, as their courtroom antics. The screenwriters are so incompetent that instead of presenting scenes, they resort to alleging them: You get a bit of testimony, then a fade to the end of testimony, implying that smarter people capable of grasping legal logic wrote an unseen scene in between. The scenes get sketchier still when the cast decamps to the rock star's castle in Ireland, the only asset both parties demand in his divorce. He's a ninth-rate Austin Powers, and the wife is a waste of Posey's gifts. In fact, everyone here is wasted. Moore is more like face-scrunching weirdo Sandy Dennis than heart-melting eccentric Keaton. Brosnan is treated like granite—unfair, when one remembers his anti-Bondian comic verve in The Tailor of Panama. At least Frances Fisher is funny as Moore's age-defying, plastic-surgery-enhanced mother. Asked if she's really 56, she says, "Parts of me are." Every single part of this movie is artificial. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., April 30, at Meridian and others
Girls are mean. And some of the stuff they pull on one another is pretty funny—for about 40 minutes. For the first half of this teen comedy written by SNL's Tina Fey, I was slightly impressed. But backstabbing gets old fast—almost as fast as tired high-school freaks and geeks jokes. Is it Fey's fault—or director Mark Waters'—that Girls is a watered-down, predictable take on a genre that was done way better 15 years ago when Waters' brother, Daniel, wrote Heathers? It's their fault only for choosing to add to the already clogged cache of high-school movies—there's nothing fresh or funny left to do in the genre.
(For the record, here's your plot: Clueless straight-arrow student Lindsay Lohan gets plucked from the African bush where she was home-schooled by scientist parents and is dropped into a whole new kind of wild and dangerous territory—public high school. The popular crowd that initially shelters her turns out to be the most brutal group of beasts she's encountered. Naturally her innate niceness eventually prevails over the bitchy law of the jungle.)
I'd rather see Fey—a woman who, as the only female head writer in SNL history, has surely had to battle plenty of mean girls to reach the level of success she has—do a serious film on female competition, adolescent or adult, than make second-rate jokes about it in a mediocre comedy. Though she certainly doesn't glorify catty behavior in Girls, she doesn't offer a positive statement or solution, either. Granted, Fey's a gifted, funny satirist; she doesn't have to be socially accountable in her satire, but at least she should be funny—funnier than this. For that, at least, there's still "Weekend Update." (PG-13) KATIE MILLBAUER
Runs Fri., April 30–Tues., May 4, at Grand Illusion
Likely the world's most revered director— at least in the land of cinephilia— Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien plunges headlong into gaga youth culture with a movie that seems designed to complement a jumbo tapioca bubble tea. Mambo, which generally underwhelmed the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, is not without its milky pleasures. These are mainly visual. Essentially a rapt homage to Hong Kong starlet Shu Qi, Mambo is sensationally shot by Mark Li Ping-bin (Flowers of Shanghai, In the Mood for Love). The low-light electric palette is a continual source of wonder. A smoky club is transformed into a blue grotto dotted with patches of red; the backstage dressing room models Shu's face with seemingly impossible pink and yellow highlights.
Mambo basically concerns the unsatisfying relationships Vicky (Shu) maintains with two men: her youthful lover, a druggie layabout and sometime–DJ; and a somewhat older gangster. Her third-person voice-over narration from the perspective of 2011 sets up and sometimes contradicts each episode as we untangle her convoluted past. Where Hou's films are typically rooted in a particular time and place, Mambo lacks specificity— unless it's meant to be grounded in the endless techno-pop backbeat that provides the context for the various restaurants and discos.
Slim and fine-featured, Shu is pretty but vacant. As lightweight as she seems, this insipid heroine gives Mambo a vertiginous spin. This smitten movie has no anchor. In a sense, Mambo is a mildly prurient portrait of Shu moving, drinking, smoking, and changing clothes—it's analogous to one of Andy Warhol's Edie Sedgwick films, but without the existential drama. Who really cares what costume this poor girl will wear to all tomorrow's parties? (NR) J. HOBERMAN
Opens Fri., April 30, at Harvard Exit
Ladies, believe me, you do not want to wake up in bed next to Ewan McGregor. Or at least not this Ewan McGregor, though he appears buck naked in a few scenes. He plays an undeniably sexy writer who goes slumming in '50s Glasgow, accepting a live-aboard position on a filthy coal- hauling barge. He's called Joe in a picture where no character named Adam ever appears. The barge is called the Atlantic Eve, and Joe is just the kind of fellow to give in to temptation. His temptress, Ella, is played by the great Tilda Swinton, a Cambridge-educated actress and born aristocrat who's made a career playing ordinary American housewives (The Deep End) and pregnancy-fattened frumps (The War Zone). Ella is matron of her barge, married to drunken, impotent Les (Peter Mullan) and mother to a young son; naturally she and Joe begin a torrid affair along the canals of Scotland where the Eve ties up for the night. Naturally we have no sympathy for Les and every sympathy for Ella and Joe in their poor, stifled proletarian lives. Let them have furtive, hurried sex in the mud and rushes—don't these two deserve a few fleeting moments of happiness in an otherwise grim existence?
No. What begins as a casual and frankly carnal affair gradually unfolds via flashback to reveal Joe's original sin—not Ella's. Based on the 1954 novel by Scottish smack-addict writer Alexander Trocchi, Adam offers nothing in the way of redemption. You want to believe the best of Joe, that he's a wandering lost soul who'll be transformed by the love of a good woman. Instead, his character emulsifies quite differently—in direct contrast to the usual Hollywood formula. He becomes less sympathetic, not more, as the movie goes on. "You're nice," Ella tells Joe in postcoital reverie, having no idea what a bad writer the bloke is, what bad news he is, too.
Adam begins with a dead young woman (Emily Mortimer) plucked from the fetid river Clyde, then eddies backward, roughly, to relate how this near-naked corpse got there, and how it relates to Joe. In this sense, it's a crime tale told in reverse, though Joe isn't ambitious enough, or imaginative enough, to be a good criminal or detective-story writer. After he and Les pull the waterlogged body from the Clyde, Joe delivers the kind of kitchen-sink soliloquy, or eulogy, that roots the movie in its particular time and place. It's completely artificial and portentous—his only great act as an author, it seems, as the novel may have been for Trocchi. We know Joe is a hopelessly bad writer, because when he packs in that career, he resorts to the cliché of lobbing his Underwood into the river. Then Adam periodically cuts to it resting in the muck, in case we miss the symbolism. It's the kind of movie that employs snapshots and shaving mirrors as tokens of conscience—the latter even with an inscription: "Think of me when you look at yourself." There are also some long tunnels of the soul and even a leaky faucet to remind Joe of his past misdeeds.
The problem with adapting cult novels is that they don't always hold up to filming. It was McGregor's luck to star in the exceptional Trainspotting, and his clout probably got the somber Adam made so respectfully. The details are lovely enough as the nomadic barge—which can't help but remind one of a happier floating household in L'Atalante—glides through green Scottish countryside, mooring itself for a fair, pigging its way through locks, and offering Joe a fresh start that he doesn't deserve. Yet the excellent details and acting can't really transform this minimal moral tale of a man who sees nothing in his shaving mirror. When asked why he walked away from his old life, Joe replies, "I've shed my old skin." Adam's main accomplishment is to show how he's been wearing the same one from the start. (NC-17) B.R.M.