"The Afterlife" at ArtCenter and "Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art"

For some, walking along Lincoln Road in the stifling summer can feel like an eternity in a furnace of unquenchable fire. With its flocks worshiping at the altar of mass consumption and parading surgically enhanced physiques, the only salvation might be a frosty beer at Zeke's Roadhouse.

But for organizers of "The Afterlife," a new exhibit at ArtCenter/South Florida, the lure of eternal rapture is a salve that unites us all — even amid the simmering hedonism of South Beach.

"For most people, regardless of their chosen religion, the goal is ultimately to land in a good spot for all eternity," says Byron Keith Byrd, one of the three artists participating in the intriguing show, which explores notions of the sweet hereafter using iconic religious symbols. "A belief in life after death is the one thing every religion has in common. Personally, I think it has to do with mankind's ego and a desire to see their loved ones again."

Byrd, Alex Heria, and Franklin Sinanan have created a cultural amalgam of contrasting works in diverse media to convey their notions of how faiths — ranging from Judaism to Catholicism, from Buddhism to Islam, even from Santería and vodou — view the great beyond. The works fluctuate from Byrd's cliché-riddled visual puns, to Heria's kitschy depictions of Jesus and the resurrection, to Sinanan's multiculti altar piece riffing on ancestor worship and mysterious spirit realms.

Inside the glass-walled space, Heria's Sweet Jesus anchors the exhibit and is reminiscent of a carnival sign that might be found welcoming true believers at the gates of Heaven. The mammoth installation spells out the words of its title in soaring letters covered in pink glitter. It is surrounded by red and white light bulbs connected to relay switches, casting the sign in a flickering glow that gives the piece a lurid halo effect.

Heria's work is the most polished of the uneven show. The ArtCenter alumnus, best known for his photography, pre­sents several sculptures he created using Swarovski crystals and plasticine statues of Jesus purchased at South Florida botanicas and dollar stores. Heria festoons the religious figurines with bling before placing them in ornate, gold-painted frames typically found in many Hispanic homes.

Heria says his mother, Angela, who passed away in January, often helped him apply the jewels to his Christ sculptures.

"She would tell me, 'Only the best for Jesus,' and lend me the crystals from her notions box," Heria recollects. "My mother would critique the sculptures that were sort of my little take on gay sarcasm and the underbelly of religion." He says before the exhibit opened, he dreamed of his mother calling him "long-distance from el mas aya," the afterlife.

Byrd's mixed-media works, meanwhile, also exude a sense of the gaudy in religion and veer toward the theatrical in their presentation. For example, Religious Trap is made from 312 spring-loaded mousetraps arranged to form a huge Christian cross. Another work, titled Bible Belt, is crafted from a belt nailed to a section of wood, while Thee Crutch is an underarm crutch wrapped in sections of the Hebrew Pentateuch and gold leaf.

Unlike Heria's work, which purposely plays up the kitsch factor of its dollar-store religious iconography, Byrd's stab at taking fundamentalist zealotry to task with irreverent one-liners borders on camp and ultimately falls flat.

Originally from Trinidad and living in Canada before his residency at ArtCenter, Sinanan explores the ritualistic nature of religion in A Life's Journey Altar. It's an eerie installation, chock-a-block with a pastiche of contrasting beliefs.

Sinanan, who refers to himself as an "outsider artist," has created an altar boasting blackened Styrofoam wig heads, African and Buddhist masks, vodou candles, plastic flowers, a wooden rosary, feathers, sundry liquor bottles and offerings, and a plastic slave ship. The discomfiting installation appears not unlike a cross between a Rob Zombie movie set and a Santería shrine.

"We as humans want the afterlife to be true," Byrd intoned on a recent weekday afternoon while installing his artworks on Lincoln Road. "It's life or death's greatest mystery, I think."

Unfortunately for visitors, the trio's work does little to peel back the veil on anything otherworldly. Sinanan's idiosyncratic altar is a prime case in point. The artist, who readily admits "not being too familiar" with the Afro-Caribbean religions he's referencing, juxtaposes imagery as if he were tossing wet noodles at a wall and hoping to see what sticks. The results, much like this show's overall concept, are half-baked at best.

Spectators seeking a more palpable sense of the ineffable should venture a few blocks north to the Bass Museum, where a modest solo show by New York-based artist Charles LeDray instantly transports viewers via powerful works of a profound, contemplative nature.

"Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art" marks the artist's first exhibition in Florida and comprises just four works that are both haunting and poetic. Displayed in the museum's second-floor galleries, the works are presented with a meticulous detail that bestows upon them an almost sacred quality, as if they were priceless relics or testimonials to a sense of sorrow or absence.

The gallery's walls have been painted floor-to-ceiling in a flannel-gray hue that heightens the sense of somberness. At the show's entrance, spectators are greeted by a Plexiglas case rising to chest level. Inside is a single shaft of wheat, traditionally thought to symbolize the idea of abundance or love and charity. Yet LeDray's Wheat, illuminated by a spectral pinhole of light cascading from the museum's rafters, is crafted from a human bone and is about the length of a femur.

Down a darkened corridor, visitors reach the next work, Cricket Cage, which is approximately the size of a Band-Aid tin. Also created from human bone and polished like ivory, it too is lighted like a precious artifact.

LeDray, best known for his Lilliputian sculptures of mundane items, displays one of his major opuses in an adjacent room that's as dark as a Gothic cathedral in winter. Men's Suits is an astounding installation painstakingly created over a three-year span. It gives the impression of a thrift shop in a down-at-the-heels rust-belt town anywhere across America — except it's all rendered in a bizarrely tiny scale.

The work is divided into three distinct sections situated throughout the sprawling space. One area features an itsy-bitsy outfit on a mannequin and a round table with dozens of brightly colored neckties fanned out in a circular pattern. A second section features racks full of teeny sports coats and shirts, while a third re-creates a secondhand-clothing sorting area replete with minuscule laundry bins, wooden pallets, a ladder, an ironing board, hangers, and assorted gloves, belts, and T-shirts.

The miniature thrift shops go to the extreme to create a realistic vibe, including shoe-scuffed linoleum flooring and dingy, dust-covered drop ceilings with weak fluorescent lighting. Every garment and fixture is impeccably crafted. As one is forced to bend at the waist or kneel to take in the incredible details of LeDray's remarkable craftsmanship, it's impossible not to marvel at the complexity.

One also realizes the rare gift LeDray possesses to awaken the senses to a new awareness of our existence in the world.

"The Record" at MAM delves into vinyl's revolutionary history

If you can't have a revolution without an anthem, it's also true you can't have an anthem without a great recording.

Take the experience of legendary photographer Malick Sidibé of Mali, where the sacred songs of the countercultural uprising in the postcolonial capital Bamako were the vinyl recordings of James Brown and the Beatles. Sidibé's stunning black-and-white studio and nightclub portraits of beaming subjects posing with their favorite albums, snapped during the turbulent 1960s, offer more than a mark of status and hipness. They reflect the transformative power of the vinyl record on popular culture during a historical period of newfound freedoms.

Sidibé's photos are one high point of "The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl," a sensational new exhibit at the Miami Art Museum boasting close to a hundred works by 41 artists from around the world who have focused on records as their subject or medium.

Groundbreaking in stature, the sprawling show explores the record's cultural heft from the '60s to the present and includes a remarkable collection of sound work, sculpture, installation, drawing, painting, photography, video, and performance. The traveling exhibit was organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, the institution's curator of contemporary art.

As you might expect from the first museum exhibit aspiring to drop the needle to the groove, the sound components of diverse works bleed into one another across museum galleries to create a rambling aural pudding that churns up recollections of visiting an old-school record store.

"There is a growing nostalgia for the record album as an object," MAM curator Rene Morales says. "People enjoyed album cover art, text, liner notes, the album sleeves. It was a more material way of connection with the music and the artists who created it."

Distinctly international and intergenerational, "The Record" incorporates a wildly eclectic range of artistic styles and media and pairs established names with rising stars on the contemporary art scene. It also includes numerous artists, such as Jeroen Diepenmaat and Taiyo Kimura, who are making their debut in a U.S. museum.

Diepenmaat, who hails from the Netherlands, makes an immediate impression with his unusual approach to the subject matter. At the entrance of the exhibit, his offerings include two turntables upon which stuffed birds perch, their beaks lowered to the LP vinyl platters and employed as record needles. One of the albums is titled De Zang der Vogels (The Song of Birds), and as the tracks spin, the faint whisper of chirping resonates through the taxidermied crow's cranium.

Behind the Dutchman's opus, William Cordova's Greatest Hits (para Micaela Bastidas, Tom Wilson y Anna Mae Aquash), 2008 also staves the skull.

Cordova, who has deep roots in the Miami art scene, has created a soaring column of 3,000 reclaimed vinyl records in a visually powerful and totemic work that brings to mind an ancient Egyptian obelisk such as Cleopatra's Needle.

Isolated in its own room nearby, Xaviera Simmons's Thundersnow Road, North Carolina, 2010, commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art for this exhibit, leaves an equally lasting impression. The artist traveled across the Tar Heel State posing for a series of photographic self-portraits in which she holds a guitar in diverse rural locations.

Simmons's suite of poetically evocative pictures was sent to musicians and sound-based artists, who each created tracks inspired by her images. Their songs were then returned to Simmons, who had an album made from the music. The results are on display in a room with plywood-lined walls that resonate with the bliss of music created in the heartland, far from the big-city capitals of the modern music industry.

Some of the works in the exhibit provoke nostalgic reveries. Christian Marclay's Secret, 1988, might prompt memories of fumbling with a bra strap as a teenager while skipping school and listening to Barry White on a girlfriend's tiny plastic phonograph. Marclay's piece consists of a metal "Master" disk with a padlock, inspiring thoughts of a chastity belt. The disk is used to press music tracks into hot wax, but it's silenced forever by the security device.

"Today music has become increasingly abstract," Morales observes. "People download music from the Internet and listen to it on their MP3 players. One of the themes of the exhibit is the cohesive nature of the record."

One of the more visceral displays of a visual artist's connections with the album covers of her youth is the work of Alice Wagner, who has painstakingly re-created Josef Albers's album designs for the band Enoch Light during the late 1950s and early '60s. The Peruvian artist, whose parents highly prized Albers's album covers, has made her eye-popping versions out of wax and thread in a process that was labor-intensive and belies the simplicity of the clean, visually striking original abstract designs.

One of the few drawbacks of this show is that, not unlike any audiophile's favorite greatest-hits compilation, it is way too complex and nuanced to experience in one sweep.

Works such as Satch Hoyt's Celestial Vessel, crafted from old RCA Red Seal 45-rpm records, and Mark Soo's monumental 3-D C-prints titled That's That's Alright Mama Mama and depicting the legendary Sun Record Studios control room, are two cases in point. They both speak to how the mainstream music industry often exploited African-American talent, who were at the mercy of white producers in earlier times.

Ambitious and thought-provoking, "The Record" is ultimately too large to house at MAM, which is why the museum has partnered with other local cultural organizations to celebrate the love of vinyl during the exhibit's two-month run.

Don't miss this rousing ode to the wax platter, and check out MAM's website for an inspired list of engaging on- and off-site programs at locations across town, ranging from lectures on the history of record-making in Miami to live DJ performances and record swaps.

"Unnatural," at the Bass Museum of Art, Explores Man's Domination of Nature

The Bass
Photo by Zachary Balber

The first time Israeli art historian Tami Katz-Freiman came to Miami, she was captivated by the city's unique relationship with nature: trapped between the beauty of the Everglades and the Atlantic, yet huge, urban, and overdeveloped.

"I was astonished by the feeling of living in a 'façade,' a construction of paradise," Katz-Freiman recalls. "The gap between the natural and the artificial has been completely blurred."

The ethical dilemmas that arise from humanity's need to dominate its environment form the subtext of a new exhibit curated by Katz-Freiman at the Bass Museum of Art.

"Unnatural," a sweeping group show featuring nearly 30 international artists, explores how our sense of the wilderness as a real, pristine place is fading into memory. Because of overpopulation, dwindling resources, and poor stewardship — plus fast technological advances to fix our mistakes — Katz-Freiman was inspired by the idea that a day could come when the artificial replaced nature.

Katz-Freiman, who served as chief curator of Israel's Haifa Museum of Art from 2005 to 2010 before relocating to South Florida in 2010, spent two years researching and planning "Unnatural." The artists she chose come from varied backgrounds and are represented by a wide range of media, including video, photography, sculpture, and installation; the bulk of the roster hails from Israel.

The curator says the exhibit was inspired by her first impressions of the Magic City. "Miami served as a metaphor for a place in which nature has been processed to extraordinary degrees of synthetic cultivation," she says.

The artists' combined vision overwhelms the senses. At the entrance to the museum's sprawling second-floor galleries, several large-scale video installations conflate in a visual and aural assault that engulf viewers with contrasting, manipulated visions of the earth.

California's Hilja Keading gives operatic expression to our fear of encountering wild beasts via her stunning, four-channel HD video and sound installation called The Bonkers Devotional. The barefoot, blond artist, clad in a summer dress, appears in a bedroom with an 800-pound black bear wielding paws the size of a catcher's mitt. A two-channel video projects inside a room covered with camouflage netting, giving the space the feel of a hunter's blind.

Onscreen, the artist runs her fingers through the beast's prickly fur while the animal dozes; at one point, she lovingly interlaces her fingers with its claws. Outside the room, projected on its exterior walls, a copse of golden aspen trees is buffeted by autumn winds that seem to howl through the gallery as the bear and woman interact silently in their den. The impression of an impending mauling is overwhelming in a scene that's both eerily poignant and palpably tense.

Across from Keading's opus, Israeli artist Gilad Ratman ratchets up the creep factor with his two-channel HD video and sound installation, The 588 Project. His work brings to mind an industrial waste spill or Troma Entertainment's cult classic The Toxic Avenger.

Ratman's piece, projected on two corner walls, was inspired by a short video he stumbled upon online titled "Boogeyman," which introduced the artist to a community that calls itself "Deep Sinking." Boasting thousands of members, the strange group engages in a twisted from of porn that involves submerging themselves in mud or watching others wallow in it.

Ratman traveled to a mud farm in Arkansas to shoot his film, which shows models covered in the burbling pool of mud while breathing through plastic tubes. The crowns of their noggins occasionally split the surface, and the swamp figures are outlined in the chocolaty muck, bringing to mind the early stages of life emerging from the primordial soup, while also hinting at our yearnings to commune with nature.

Yet another powerful video work situated nearby is Sigalit Landau's DeadSee, which from a distance appears to show a small woman floating in a giant dirty martini.

In fact, the video depicts the nude Israeli artist floating on a spiral raft created from 500 watermelons connected by a cord, all bobbing on the buoyant, salt-rich waters of the Dead Sea. The artist clutches a cluster of fruit that has been split to expose red flesh. The coil of melons unspools outward, slowly and hypnotically, until the artist drifts from the picture's frame.

But perhaps no other work in "Unnatural" best reflects the critical and ethical issues over man's obsession with conquering and appropriating nature than the Moby Dick-size virtual behemoth on display at the rear of the exhibit.

Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan's piece, Sperm Whale, depicts a digitally created cachalot trapped behind plate glass.

"Imprisoned in an aquarium too small to accommodate its size, it symbolizes the enduring power of a vast and threatening nature," Katz-Freiman says, "even when it is fully subjected by man."

2012 Oscar predictions: How to win your office pool without really trying

Every year, you enter your office's Oscar pool and carefully select the major categories while haphazardly guessing the minor ones (Animated Short, Makeup). Every year, you lose. Why? Because you've got it backward: Oscar pools are always decided on the margins, where information is sketchier and outcomes are harder to predict. You need to think like a gambler, not a movie-lover. If you can pin down the categories where everyone else is clueless, you'll have a distinct advantage. That's where we come in. We've seen all the Oscar-nominated shorts. We've done all the research. (Wikipedia counts as research, right?) And here are our picks for six awards that could finally make you a winner.

Best Sound Editing

Nominees: Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

On a purely technical level, Transformers was probably the most impressive achievement in sound editing and design last year. But could you live with yourself if you were partly responsible for legitimizing the phrase "Oscar-winner Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? So who wins? If Hugo gets on a roll with Academy voters, it could sweep through this category as well, but here's an interesting statistic: Since 1995, when a war film has been nominated for sound editing, it has won every single time. Translation: Put it all on War Horse.

Best Sound Mixing

Nominees: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse

If War Horse wins Best Sound Editing, does that mean it's a lock for Sound Mixing too? Not necessarily. The same film has won both sound categories in only four of the past 11 years. Plus, though Sound Editing — the creation of noises and effects — typically goes to spectacles, Sound Mixing — the blending of those tracks into a cohesive soundscape — is more unpredictable. Oscar frontrunners, however, seem to fair well: The Hurt Locker won Sound Mixing on its way to six awards in 2010. In other words, The Artist would win if only it had any sound to mix. That fact — along with its supple balance of ticking clocks, roaring trains, and Sacha Baron Cohen's terrible accent — bodes well for the consensus Best Picture runnerup, Hugo.

Best Makeup

Nominees: Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Iron Lady

If there's a dark horse in this category, it's Albert Nobbs for Glenn Close's reverse Doubtfire. Meryl Streep's prosthetics in The Iron Lady, though, are exactly the kinds of cosmetics that traditionally win Oscars — impressive in an overt, flashy way. But is it more overt and flashy than Close's transformation from woman to man? Yes. I'm trying to find a delicate way to say it's harder to make Meryl Streep look really old than it is to make Glenn Close look like a dude. So far, no luck. The Iron Lady by a hair.

Best Documentary Short

Nominees: The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, God Is the Bigger Elvis, Incident in New Baghdad, Saving Face, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Ah, Oscar season. That special time of year when we trivialize legitimately important social issues by guessing which one will provoke the biggest reaction from an arbitrary group of people who live in Los Angeles. This should be a neck-and-neck race between Saving Face — about the plight of abused Pakistani women — and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, about the plight of grieving Japanese-tsunami victims. Both films are powerful, both offset harrowing footage of tragedy via inspirational messages about the enduring power of the human spirit, but a slight edge goes to Saving Face. Its story of wives destroyed by husbands who threw acid in their faces (and, in many cases, got away with it) should resonate particularly strongly in Hollywood, where visible facial scarring is a fate worse than death.

Best Animated Short

Nominees: Dimanche (Sunday), The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, La Luna, A Morning Stroll, Wild Life

Do you like quirky, animated films with no dialogue and weird characters doing nonsensical things? Then congratulations! The Best Animated Short category this year is for you. Improbably, animation juggernaut Pixar hasn't won this category in a decade, but 2012 looks to be the year to break the streak: Its work on the charming La Luna is on an entirely different aesthetic level than any of the competition. If the story is somewhat lacking, the character design is absolutely brilliant, right down to the way the protagonist, a boy being taught how to care for the moon, is drawn with pupils so big they turn the whites of his eyes into crescents.

Best Live-Action Short

Nominees: Pentecost, Raju, The Shore, Time Freak, Tuba Atlantic

In a category dominated by one-joke comedies, two films appear to have the combination of heft, heart, and humor that elevates contenders in the feature categories: Tuba Atlantic — about a dying Norwegian man's contentious relationship with the teenage girl sent to care for him during his final days — and The Shore, about an Irish man reconnecting with the best friend he left behind when he headed to America during "the Troubles." This should be a close race, but The Shore has a stronger pedigree (it was directed by Hotel Rwanda filmmaker Terry George) and a showier lead performance (from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Ciarán Hinds).

The Rest:

Picture, The Artist; Actor, Jean Dujardin (The Artist); Actress, Viola Davis (The Help); Supporting Actor, Christopher Plummer (Beginners); Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer (The Help); Director, Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist); Documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory; Original Screenplay, Midnight in Paris; Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants; Animated Feature, Rango; Art Direction, Hugo; Cinematography, The Tree of Life; Costume Design, Hugo; Editing, The Artist; Foreign-Language Film, A Separation; Original Score, The Artist; Original Song, The Muppets; Visual Effects, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

In a movie season worshipped for its CGI-boosted, spiritually bankrupt juvenilia, it's heartening to know that filmmakers still create summer entertainment for grownups. Not that those buckets of popcorn are going to empty themselves, but who needs to be reminded of yet another comic-book reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man), unasked-for remake (Total Recall), or Adam Sandler comedy (That's My Boy)? Here are 12 to watch for in the sweltering months ahead. All opening dates are subject to change, and it's anybody's guess when some of these gems will find their way to South Florida.

Moonrise Kingdom, May 25

Vintage record players! Letter writing! Slow-motion sequences and Euro-pop! Director Wes Anderson's vibrantly meticulous, nostalgia-inducing aesthetic finally gets the '60s period piece it deserves in this small-town dramedy adventure. Two 12-year-olds, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, fall in love and run off into the New England wilderness, much to the chagrin of his scout troop leader (Edward Norton), her folks (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), and local sheriff Bruce Willis.

Prometheus, June 8

This mega-expensive, futuristic IMAX thriller from director Ridley Scott forges an epic new mythos about our intergalactic origins. Following an ancient star map, a quite face-huggable space crew (including captain Idris Elba, archaeologist Noomi Rapace, android Michael Fassbender, and corporate thug Charlize Theron) investigates an extraterrestrial civilization on a distant, terrifying planet.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, June 22

Here's an unlikely alternative for those who take the Mayans' predictions seriously: a rom-com! While humanity awaits doomsday by way of an inbound asteroid, a freshly dumped Steve Carell makes an unlikely connection with his neighbor Keira Knightley. Go for it, girl — it's not like you have to worry about commitment issues.

To Rome With Love, June 22

Woody Allen's followup to Midnight in Paris — easily his best and biggest hit in more than a decade — continues his recent trend of filming in travelogue-friendly European locales (see also: Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Along with the 76-year-old Allen, this year's Windsor-font-emblazoned ensemble includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, and indie darling Greta Gerwig.

Magic Mike, June 29

Based in part on Channing Tatum's experience as a 19-year-old dancer, the film stars the barrel-chested G.I. Joe as the eponymous leading man, with Alex Pettyfer as his protégé and Matthew McConaughey as a skeezy club owner.

Take This Waltz, June 29

Happily married to a cookbook-writing goofball (Seth Rogen, never better), Michelle Williams is unprepared for the heat she feels around rickshaw-driving neighbor Luke Kirby. Their unrequited eroticism sizzles like the Toronto summer, but this affectionate drama isn't so much about infidelity as it is about life's thorny impossibilities.

Savages, July 6

There's no historical profiling or arch sociopolitical conscience in the latest from Oliver Stone. Based on Don Winslow's best seller, Savages stars Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as Laguna Beach pot dealers forced to square off against a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), a cartel leader (Salma Hayek!), and her enforcer (Benicio Del Toro).

Ted, July 13

Boston slacker Mark Wahlberg might be able to salvage his relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Mila Kunis if he can get his best friend since childhood to move out. Oh, and his friend happens to be a computer-animated, foulmouthed, bong-smoking, sexually harassing teddy bear (voiced by first-time director Seth McFarlane himself). Patrick Warburton, Giovanni Ribisi, and Joel McHale costar in this high-concept comedy.

The Dark Knight Rises, July 20

Really, who won't be watching the final act of director Christopher Nolan's caped-crusader trilogy, arguably the high-water mark of superhero cinema? Gravelly-voiced Christian Bale returns as haunted billionaire Bruce Wayne and his winged alter ego, now facing two foes of fanboy legend: Anne Hathaway's slinky Catwoman and Tom Hardy's gas-masked juggernaut Bane, who infamously broke Batman's back in the comics. Get off the Internet to avoid further spoilers.

Killer Joe, July 27

In debt to a drug kingpin, Emile Hirsch hires a sociopathic Dallas cop (Matthew McConaughey, already earning career-high praise) to whack his mother for the life insurance money. The film has already been labeled both a sleazy noir-thriller and an eccentric, pitch-black comedy. Either way, you know by its NC-17 rating that this bloody hicksploitation freakout ain't gonna take it easy on its players.

The Watch, July 27

This profane comedy concerns a quartet of Costco employees and drinking buddies (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade) who form a crime watch to escape their humdrum suburban existence. Oh yeah, and then they accidentally uncover an alien-invasion plot that only they can thwart to save all of humanity.

The Campaign, August 10

The mud-slinging political comedy we deserve in this circus of an election year, this broad farce stars Will Ferrell as a long-sitting congressman from North Carolina whose CEO rivals dig up their own, untrained Manchurian candidate (a mustachioed Zach Galifianakis) from the local tourism center.

21 Jump Street now a buddy comedy

The television show 21 Jump Street, about cops who go undercover as high-schoolers, debuted on Fox in 1987 — one year after the network premiered — and ran until 1991, launching the career of Johnny Depp (who cameos here, along with his former castmate Holly Robinson Peete). As a sign of the irrefutable progress made since the fear-mongering, anti-hedonist Reagan-Bush era, the mixed-bag, big-screen 21 Jump Street mocks that program's lethal earnestness with retrograde raunch, packing in more references to dicks and dick-sucking than 20 Manhunt profiles.

The series' coed, mixed-race quartet (sometimes quintet) of baby-faced police officers — who'd often appear in postepisode PSAs about AIDS or drug abuse — has been retooled as a white-dude buddy action-comedy that announces its cynicism from the beginning. After Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), rookie cops who knew each other in high school in the mid '00s, botch an arrest, their supervisor (Nick Offerman) reassigns them to a new detail, headquartered at an abandoned church at the address of the title, and described as a project from the '80s now being revamped: "All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect nobody to notice." (Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose first helming effort was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, will continue their pop-culture composting in their next high-concept project, Lego: The Piece of Resistance.)

Its own superfluousness readily acknowledged (a similar preemptive strategy was used in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas last fall), 21 Jump Street tries — and sometimes succeeds — to get laughs from Schmidt and Jenko's redo of senior year as 25-year-olds. Dispatched to infiltrate a high-school drug ring by Jump Street's Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, whose eruptive delivery — "There's... rumors... in the... Twitter-sphere..." — is hilarious, even if the panicky peen obsession extending to character names isn't), Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as transfer students and brothers. But, mixing up their aliases, Schmidt, a member of the Juggling Society and all-around pariah during his real high-school years, is, in 2012, a drama-club star whose self-deprecation makes him tight with today's cool kids; Jenko, a thick former varsity footballer, must now fake his way through AP chemistry.

The lead actors' own chemistry works in part thanks to their disparate body types. Although radically smaller than he used to be, Hill still has an endomorph's awkward carriage — an ungainliness balanced by Tatum's ripped physique and taurine strength. Their chub-cop/cut-cop juxtaposition is funniest when they're suited up in prom-night white tuxes and during a blowout they host at Schmidt's parents' house, now the officers' base. (This ten-minute tribute to adolescent debauchery tops the recently released, execrable Project X, coscripted by Michael Bacall, who also wrote 21 Jump Street.)

But though these mismatched cops bounce well off each other, Tatum, in his first comedic lead role, is the better performer, both more riotous and affecting. The actor, who was such a good sport during his hosting gig on Saturday Night Live last month (which required him to make fun of his male-stripper past), mines the pathos in his meathead role, the once-popular jock now plagued with insecurities seven years after graduation. "Is this playlist too dancey?" the slab of muscle frets to Schmidt during the party. Hill, on the other hand, relies on the same kind of comedic tics that have defined him since 2007's Superbad (another kind of teenage-impersonation movie made when the actor was 23): the nervous, verbose overexplaining of the underconfident smart aleck. The outrageous nonsense delivered meekly gets laughs on occasion (particularly when Schmidt must make excuses for his partner during a parking-lot cold-cocking their first day undercover), but Hill never leaves his comfort zone.

The movie also stays firmly within the schizoid parameters of recent American comedy, contradicting its own initial above-it-all contemptuousness — toward the source material, toward itself — by becoming a sticky bro love-in. "Make fun of people who care," is the advice Jenko gives Schmidt as they prepare to go to high school a second time. The jock soon discovers that the disdain that served him well seven years ago no longer applies in an era of eco-conscious teens. 21 Jump Street also drops the sneering after 30 minutes, ending with one cop declaring to the other, "I fuckin' cherish you."

A Cat in Paris Is a French Feline Fail

O Cinema Wynwood
Courtesy of O Cinema

In yet another summer movie season packed with 3-D superhero spectacles and slickly regurgitated sequels to kiddie flicks such as Madagascar and Ice Age, a film like A Cat in Paris sounds, in theory, like a simple, elegant antidote to CGI overload. The animation team of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol presents an aesthetic that feels like an old-school storybook, with a pared-down plot that winds across the quaint rooftops of Paris.

But even though A Cat in Paris delivers on its promise of simple entertainment, it doesn't quite live up to the sophistication you'd expect from a movie that trades so heavily in French aesthetic.

The film centers around Zoe, a young girl who has stopped speaking after her father, a police officer, was killed in pursuit of Victor Costa, an evil, art-obsessed mobster. (Only in Paris.) Her mom Jeanne, the city's police superintendent, is a single-mother stereotype. She's torn between her child and her job, which in this case is to arrest Costa, thereby avenging her husband. Zoe's only friend appears to be her black cat — le chat noir, naturally — which spends its days snuggling with Zoe and antagonizing her nanny.

By night, however, le chat tiptoes out of Zoe's bedroom window and into the nearby home of kindly cat burglar Nico. Together, they move ninja-like across Paris's rooftops and into museums and private homes, foiling security guards, encountering sleepwalkers, and setting up a series of predictable near-misses.

One night, Zoe follows her cat on its nightly prowl and winds up in the clutches of Costa. Nico inexplicably sets out to save the girl, alert her mother, and generally use his prowling powers for good. Much climbing of walls, prancing across skylines, and dangling from stone gargoyles ensues.

A happy, shiny Pixar piece this is not. And in some ways, that's a nice change of pace. Felicioli and Gagnol's animation looks like a storybook come to life, with grainy pencil strokes moving fluidly across the screen. The filmmakers' goal isn't to imitate real life, but to simultaneously reduce it to sketchbook form and expand the possibilities of that pared-down world. Nico, for example, moves like a ghost, floating across rooftops and curling his body around corners. His catlike movement is his defining characteristic and most interesting quality. When he leaps across impossible gaps between buildings, it's a sign there's more to him than petty larceny.

But that's where A Cat in Paris's improvements over blockbuster CGI end. Its animation may be unique, but its characters and plot offer predictable stereotypes. Zoe, a little girl who spends much of the film pouting in silence, is far from an ideal heroine; as she's passed between Nico and Costa, the story treats her as a prize, more like the jewelry and artwork the thieves steal than a sympathetic character. Jeanne, despite her role as the leader of Paris's police force, also appears to have very little power; she's tormented by visions of Costa strangling her, and at one point a witness she questions refuses to answer her and responds only to her male colleague.

The men of the film are the real power players, but they're as loosely sketched as the animation. All we know about Nico is that he's a thief who has a thing for cats and little girls. Why does he steal? What does he do with his contraband? Who knows? Costa, on the other hand, is a caricature of a mobster, traveling with a pack of underlings who've lifted all their material from the Three Stooges. There's even a scene straight out of Goodfellas between Costa and one of his dimwitted accomplices; instead of "You think I'm funny?" it's "You think I eat quiche?" Because it's French, get it?

If this expertly animated film were solely intended for young audiences, its hokey jokes and predictable plot wouldn't matter so much. (The treatment of its female characters as damsels in distress would still be questionable at best.) But given characters smoking cigarettes and shooting guns at each other, parents on this side of the Atlantic might hesitate to bring their kids in for this particular ride, especially when there's so little entertainment value in it for the adults themselves. Part of Pixar's success stems from its appeal to both adults and their children, and A Cat in Paris misses the grown-up market entirely.

It's hard to imagine children clamoring for more of le chat, either. Today's youngsters expect the dazzling light shows of Pixar and its competitors. Without those, an engaging plot, or a young character to idolize, kids won't enjoy the film any more than their parents.

A Dangerous Method: Keira Knightley dominates

A Dangerous Method, the title of David Cronenberg's viscerally cerebral new film, is something of an understatement. As cataclysmic as it is, this historically scrupulous science-fiction romance concerning the discovery of the unconscious mind might have been titled War of the Worlds or The Beast From 5,000 Fathoms.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play, Cronenberg's film is at once a lucid movie of ideas, a compelling narrative, and a splendidly acted love story — a sort of lopsided triangle involving Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the near-forgotten patient-turned-disciple who confounded both men en route to her own tragic destiny.

A Dangerous Method teleports the viewer back to the birth of psychoanalysis, when Freud was still a troubling rumor, Jung was becoming Jung, and ambivalence was a newly minted term. Cronenberg has characterized his own method as "a process of resurrection," and the movie proceeds through a series of jolts, opening like an electrified gothic novel with freaked-out, wild-eyed Spielrein hurtling by coach through the placid Swiss countryside. Her destination is the Burghölzi Clinic, where young Dr. Jung is experimenting with Dr. Freud's newfangled talking cure. Hysteria seems too mild a word for her teeth-gnashing, air-clawing behavior.

An unlikely choice for the role, Knightley leads with her chin, weighs down her words with a slight Russian accent, incinerates her delicate beauty with a radioactive stare, and throws a contortionist fit to rival Patty Duke's Helen Keller. It works: Her fiercely expressionist banshee act dominates the movie's first ten minutes and haunts it thereafter. This teenaged Russian Jewess might be the possessed heroine of Ansky's not-yet-written Dybbuk or Lilith herself. Naturally, Jung — a pastor's son with a thing for Jewish women as well as the so-called Jewish science — is intrigued. Liberated by therapy from her symptoms, Spielrein proves clever, intuitive, and forward. She not only blurts out what's on her mind, which includes aspiring to become a psychoanalyst, but also eventually takes the initiative in propositioning her married doctor. Later, when their affair founders, she will contact his mentor Freud to propose herself as a patient.

Mad passion in antiseptic Switzerland! Cronenberg sticks close to the historical record as documented by letters and journals, while offering his own interpretation of the facts. Given the specimens, much of the movie seems to unfold in a pristine petri dish. The protean Fassbender plays a proper Jung, steely yet agonized; Mortensen's self-amused, paranoid Freud is a more unusual piece of work. Mind ablaze, he sees repression everywhere. The mystical Jung believes that nothing happens by accident; for Freud, all accidents have meaning. If Jung's deceptive gentility is matched by the movie's hyper Masterpiece Theatre mise en scène — with near-constant "classical" music and crisp, gliding cinematography — it's Freud's startling connections that rhyme with Cronenberg's eruptive editing, cutting from Spielrein's bloody deflowering to the Jung family's new lakeside house, or from Freud scolding his anointed "son and heir" for straying from "the firm ground of sexual theory" to Jung gratifying Spielrein's desire with a vigorous spanking.

Caught between two geniuses, Spielrein is the movie's true subject. Toward the end, Freud congratulates her on her theories of sex and death instincts, which he here understands as the recognition that desire is an inherent threat to the individual ego. Then, sensing her unresolved attachment to the ultra-civilized Jung (and with a subliminal snatch of Wagner on the soundtrack), he warns her against putting her faith in Aryans. "We're Jews, Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be." Of course, Jung has some intimations of his own. As the movie ends, he dreams that Lake Geneva is filled with corpses and red with Europe's blood.

Jung's nightmare prophesied Spielrein's doom. His cozy realization that, although she might have been the love of his life, "sometimes you have to do something unforgivable to go on living" is followed by a written postscript giving a spare account of his fate and hers: The doctor lived a long life by his Alpine lake; the patient returned home to Rostov to practice psychoanalysis and was summarily murdered, along with her daughters and hundreds of other Jews herded by the Nazis into a local synagogue.

Presenting its protagonist's end with a stunning absence of sentimentality, A Dangerous Method turns back on itself. Spielrein was trapped from birth and obliterated in more ways than one. Less a footnote to history than its embodiment, she now seems a quintessential European who successfully mastered her own demons only to be consumed by the full force of 20th-century irrationality.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings at the PlayGround Theatre Through May 25

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In a destitute village near the Caribbean Sea, a young brother and sister discover a creature that has plummeted from the sky. Believing the mysterious stranger is a fallen angel who needs their help, the siblings overcome their fear and set off to help their new friend get back into the sky. But as soon as the adults find out about the inexplicable being, they devise ways to use him for monetary gain, as a sideshow freak that people from around the world would pay to see. Adapted from Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez's 1955 short story, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is a magical and touching fable that exposes man's desperation and greed while shining a light on the purity of children's faith, curiosity, imagination, and, ultimately, friendship. Presented with the PlayGround Theatre's spectacular costumes, vivid sound effects, and dazzling visuals, the play is a wonder for the entire family.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at Miami Beach Cinematheque and O Cinema

Miami Beach Cinematheque

Chinese artist, activist, and antagonist Ai Weiwei became a worldwide cause celebre in April 2011 when he was arrested by authorities at the Beijing Airport, detained in an undisclosed location for nearly three months, and released after allegedly confessing to tax evasion. The Sundance-feted documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry concludes shortly after Ai's release; the outspoken artist, for whom interviews with international journalists had essentially been a creative medium like photography or performance, is seen returning home cowed, dismissing the hordes of reporters waiting for him. Without ever articulating a political argument, first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman presents ample evidence that the tax evasion rap is a cover, tracking how Ai, the son of poet Ai Qing (who was first exiled and then canonized) and a codesigner of the Olympic Bird's Nest, became China's best-known artist outside of China — while simultaneously becoming the Chinese government's worst PR nightmare.

The American Klayman moved to China in 2006, essentially at random — she didn't even speak Mandarin. "I wish I could say, you know, 'Oh, I had a good idea that China was the future' or something like that, but I really just wanted to go abroad somewhere new and learn a new language and try to do journalism," she says. She met Ai Weiwei in 2008 through her roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was curating a show of Ai's photographs from the decade he lived in New York. While making a documentary to supplement the photography exhibit, Klayman realized she'd stumbled on a character rich enough to sustain a feature-length movie. "To watch him make an artwork or make a sandwich, I felt like it would be something that would open up people's thinking about contemporary China," she says.

Around that time, Ai was preparing for two major international shows (at the Tate Modern and São Paulo Biennale). He had also planted two distinct thorns in the Chinese establishment's side. After conceptualizing the event's iconic stadium, he boycotted the Beijing Olympics, charging China with manufacturing "a fake smile for foreigners" while using the games to oppress the Chinese people. After the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, Ai persistently investigated — and questioned the official party line on — student causalities through multiple media, including art installations, video documentaries, and Twitter. Then, in 2009, Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify on behalf of fellow earthquake muckraker Tan Zuoren, only to be assaulted by police and prevented from taking the stand. That incident didn't shut him up. Ai continued to tweet and make work about China's lack of transparency in general and its attempts to shut him up in particular.

Opposition was not exactly new territory for him. Klayman traces the evolution of his aesthetic and conceptual interests from deceptively one-note provocations (such as 1996's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which documents exactly what it claims to, and the photo series Study in Perspective, in which Ai holds up his middle finger in the foreground of snapshots of landmarks like the White House and Tiananmen Square) to more elegant and densely layered recent work like Sunflower Seeds, a field of 100 million hand-painted ceramic replicas stirring up all manner of associations about labor, value, and individuality in Ai's rapidly changing homeland.

A valuable primer on how an artist becomes an enemy of the (closed) state in which he works, Never Sorry is unexpectedly substantive as a character study. Klayman champions Ai while politely revealing he's not a saint and that, in fact, his gluttonous human appetites (for food, for women) border on self-destructive. This makes for a more vibrant portrait of a life and ups the emotional stakes of the film, particularly as Klayman makes it clear that life, art, and activism are not distinct practices for Ai — it's all one body of work. "It all comes from the same motivation," she says. "Everything is about communication."

The film demonstrates that Ai is a celebrity among young, Twitter-savvy Chinese, who raise their middle fingers in his signature gesture while posing for photos with him. But his impact within China has been greatly diluted by censorship of his blog and a blackout on coverage of his activities in the domestic media. Klayman says his documentaries about the government's failure to protect and inform its citizens during and after the 2008 earthquake are somewhat analogous to Spike Lee's epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina — "if Spike Lee wasn't allowed to have his movies in theaters or on television and so he had to distribute them underground," Klayman says. "Most people, if you stopped them on the street, will not know Ai Weiwei by face or by name."

There's a startling disconnect between the reverence in which Ai is held internationally and the everyday reality of his life in China, particularly since the end of the period the film covers. ArtReview magazine in 2011 famously declared Ai the most powerful person in the art world, but today, more than a year after Ai's release from his mysterious detention, the status of his freedom is murkier than ever, Klayman says.

"This entire year we've been looking toward June 22, the year anniversary of his release," she explains. "There were these yearlong bail conditions where they essentially had him on a leash. There was a bargain, like, 'Look, you have these restrictions, but we're gonna lift them in a year, so behave yourself.' He sort of did — he's been on social media, he has done interviews, especially when it's about the various injustices that he continues to experience. But he has been more subdued."

Then, Klayman says, "June 22 came and went, and they gave him a piece of paper that said, 'Congratulations, your bail conditions are up.' But he still does not have his passport back. And he's living under this cloud of uncertainty."

A week after my conversation with Klayman, news broke that Ai had lost his appeal in the tax evasion case, which was based on allegations Klayman called "unsubstantiated." A $2.4-million fine was upheld, which Ai said he would continue to appeal.

In the film, Ai likens himself to a chess player, "waiting for my opponent to make the next move." Given China's continued aggressive play against him, at what point might the artist forfeit the game? What if he were to get his passport back — is he committed to staying in China, or would he leave for good while he could?

"I hope that he still has that choice. I feel like there's uncertainty about his ability to leave or his ability to come back," Klayman says carefully. "But I think his goal is to remain based in Beijing as a Chinese citizen." She notes that Ai's critiques of China have a potency and a relevance coming from a resident that they might lose were he to become an expatriate.

"But," she acknowledges, "it may get impossible for him to create and to be himself in a total way."

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