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Film Reviews: Norbit, Hannibal Rising 

Including Norbit, Hannibal Rising,Traffic Signal, and the Ralph Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man

Wednesday, Feb 7 2007
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BLACK FRIDAY The underused Indian actor Kay Kay Menon is perfectly cast as a crisply correct detective keeping a tight lid on his seething anger in Black Friday, a rigorously naturalistic docudrama about a complex police investigation. The film is a methodical three-hour account of the mixture of luck, instinct and ruthlessness that allowed decorated investigator Rakesh Maria (Menon) and his crew to track down 168 conspirators in the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts in only a few weeks’ time. The 10 powerful explosions had targeted government and business landmarks and were acts of retaliation for a wave of anti-Muslim violence by Hindu nationalists a few months earlier. One edge the cops had was that the bombings had been arranged not by Muslim fundamentalists but by an outlaw faction they understood a bit better: Muslim gangsters. An established smuggler and money launderer with connections in Pakistan, the mobster Tiger Memon (Pavan Malhotra) was equipped to organize the attacks with professional efficiency. Writer-director Anurag Kashyap has made only one other movie, the critically admired crime drama Paanch (2003), but he has worked as a screenwriter for both Ram Gopal Varma (Satya) and Mani Rathnam (Yuva), and there is impressive craftsmanship in his set pieces, such as a foot chase through the Bombay slums that goes on and on until both the suspect and his pursuers are on the verge of collapse. But the movie would be all crisp surfaces without the internal combustion of Menon, as a man who  bears down on familiar procedures in order to avoid being overwhelmed by his emotions. (Naz 8) (David Chute)

BREAKING AND ENTERING A genteel Crash for concerned liberals, Anthony Minghella’s ambitious new movie, Breaking and Entering, taps into contemporary urban panic, a state of mind in which the hopeful 20th-century pieties of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” have thinned into a skin stretched tight over the gathering tensions of the postindustrial city. Bold in scope, Breaking and Entering nonetheless plays out too quiet and too loose for its own good. The movie is set in the heart of London’s King’s Cross, a transient neighborhood pocked with dingy projects and gentrified townhouses. When the offices of landscape architect Will Francis (Jude Law) are repeatedly burgled by teenagers, Will follows one of them, a Bosnian refugee, to the apartment he shares with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche). Before long, Will too becomes a thief, seeking relief from the rigors of his relationship with his Swedish girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) in an affair with Amira that implodes when she finds out that Will is using her to get to her son. The dialogue tapers off into dead ends as this most intimate of directors struggles to contain the multiple plots and swollen ensembles. Binoche is radiant as ever, but Amira is so minimally conceived that the actress’ skillful Bosnian accent overwhelms the character and we’re left thinking, hey, there’s Juliette Binoche, talking funny. Minghella invites us to buy these characters as fundamentally good folks whose worst flaw is that they can’t or won’t listen to each other — a bourgeois-liberal sentiment that fails to fully address the roots of the nervous reactivity that defines life in the multiracial modern city. Far from losing myself in this timid movie, I found myself wishing it would speak up. (ArcLight; Broadway 4) (Ella Taylor) See film feature

HANNIBAL RISING  Once upon a time, before Clarice and the fava beans, Hannibal Lecter was a wee Lithuanian lad orphaned during WWII and left in the wilds of Eastern Europe to fend for himself and his baby sister, Mischa . Until, that is, the day some gauche, gap-toothed army deserters showed up and turned Mischa into mincemeat. From there, this abysmal prequel to the Lecter trilogy —  series creator Thomas Harris wrote the novel and the screenplay — follows the adolescent psycho-in-training as he attends medical school in Pairs, engages in an oddly Oedipal courtship with his Japanese aunt (Gong Li, who also teaches Hannibal some kick-ass martial arts moves when he isn’t seducing her on her family’s ancestral altar) and, finally, embarks on a revenge odyssey so protracted as to make his namesake’s crossing of the Alps seem like a walk to the corner store. Hannibal Rising, which was directed by Peter Weber (The Girl with a Pearl Earring), plays that old game of trying to engender sympathy for the devil by making his victims so loathsome that you don’t begrudge them a hasty demise. The killings are numbingly brutal, though, with endless close-ups (and sound effects) of bloody bowels and flesh being ripped from bone. And as played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel (who seems to have learned his English from watching one too many Bela Lugosi movies), this Hannibal is a stick-in-the-mud altogether lacking in the wit, gourmet appetites and romantic flair required of any surrogate for Sir Anthony Hopkins. By the end of two full hours, it’s only Harris’ head you long to see on a plate. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

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THE LAST SIN EATER Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is arguably the most iconic female villain in film history. The miscasting of Fletcher — still a forbidding screen presence — as a kindly grandmother is only one of many missteps that director Michael Landon Jr. makes in this tale of a guilt-racked 10-year-old in mid-19th-century Appalachia. Little Cadi (Liana Liberato) is convinced that she caused the death of her younger sister and obsessed with absolving her crime by finding the “sin eater” — a member of the community who allegedly grants redemption to the worldly. Liberato muddles through a heavy-handed Christian agenda and barely legible plot as the film follows Cadi through the woods on various sin-expunging missions, sometimes accompanied by an imaginary sprite or her pseudo–love interest Fagan. Toward the end of the film, Cadi and Fagan stumble on a “Man of God,” who teaches them, and the rest of the village, that there are no mortal sin eaters: Only Jesus can nosh on your transgressions. (Selected theaters) (Jessica Grose)

THE LIVES OF OTHERS The “others” in the title of this wildly overpraised, Oscar-nominated debut feature by the 33-year-old German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck are the artists and other dissidents persecuted by the East German Ministry for State Security (a.k.a. the Stasi) at the height of the Cold War. But The Lives of Others looks back on those days not with anger or resentment, but rather with dewy-eyed nostalgia. It could have been called Remember Those Stasi? They Weren’t So Bad After All. Set in 1984, that year of Orwellian portent, the movie tells of an officious Stasi captain, Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), who opens an investigation into the supposedly party-loyal playwright Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) only to find that Dreyman is being set up by the influential cultural minister who lusts after the playwright’s muse/girlfriend (Martina Gedeck). Donnersmarck then asks us to believe that this discovery, plus some time spent reading Brechtian poetry and listening to a piano composition titled Sonata for a Good Man, launches Wiesler into a profound crisis of conscience. The Lives of Others wants us to see that the Stasi were, like their Gestapo brethren, “just following orders.” You can call that naive optimism on Donnersmarck’s part, or historical revisionism of the sort duly lambasted by the recent film version of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. I, for one, found the whole thing incredibly creepy and tremble at the thought of what this young director does for an encore. Coming soon to a theater near you: Adolf Hitler: I Am Not an Animal! (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas) See film feature

THE MESSENGERS Oh boy — a shocker set against the terrifying backdrop of North Dakota sunflower farming! Get ready for the ultimate in Helianthus horror as a Chicago couple (Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller, no threat to Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor), their troubled teen daughter (Kristen Stewart) and their mute 3-year-old son stake their future on a haunted farmhouse, where apparitions bedevil the kids but leave the disbelieving parents alone. The second lousy horror movie in a month (after The Hitcher) to reference Hitchcock’s The Birds, the film is credited to Bangkok/Hong Kong filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang (The Eye), with reported reshoots by Eduardo Rodriguez (Curandero). But the end result looks heavily doctored: The Sam Raimi–produced feature is a badly acted, nonsensical patchwork of fake scares, crow attacks and wall-crawling CGI spooks, capped by a DVD extra of an ending that must have the real resolution gagged somewhere in a closet. At least, The Messengers can claim two dubious cinematic records: the fastest-growing field of sunflowers in movie history and the quickest recovery from a pitchfork impalement. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

NORBIT Two Nutty Professor movies and Eddie Murphy still hasn’t gotten the split-personality shtick out of his system. Original nut Jerry Lewis would say that comedy is at least half rage, and Norbit, wherein Murphy plays a psychotic, gargantuan wife and the meek, battered husband of the title, is one mean movie. (Murphy’s third role is that of Mr. Wong, the tactless owner of a combination orphanage and Chinese restaurant.) Bigger than Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma, the violent, bitchy, absurdly abrasive Rasputia floods the bathtub, breaks the marital bed, empties the kiddie pool at a water park, literally squeezes into a purple MG, et cetera. In a movie where everything has its extreme opposite, Norbit’s childhood sweetie and true love is Kate (Thandie Newton), an upsettingly thin doll of a woman who may be powerless to prevent her and Norbit’s beloved orphanage from being turned by her scheming fiancé (Cuba Gooding Jr.) into a “titty bar” called Nipplopolis. (It’s PG-13! Bring the kids!) Aside from the bevy of fat jokes, there are fart jokes, talking-dog jokes, Cadillac license-plate jokes (e.g., “SELLNHOS”) and Baptist church jokes. It’s an astonishingly crass and vulgar film, crudely directed on a cut-rate budget by Brian Robbins, never more than almost funny or less than disturbing. (Citywide) (Rob Nelson)

PUCCINI FOR BEGINNERS One friend short of forming a lesbian repertory staging of Sex and the City, Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) doesn’t lack for a sounding board when she replaces one lover with two: Grace (Gretchen Mol), a straight girl with dreams of becoming a glass blower, and Philip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia professor with a habit of asking his women what they’re ordering at restaurants. A Woody Allen devotee, writer-director Maria Maggenti hawks an insular view of New York City (where, for example, poverty doesn’t exist) to illuminate the grotesque solipsism of her characters. The sensitivity of this artless production is such that every peripheral character, human and animal alike, is available only to flatter the egos of the story’s power dykes, who, given the dimensions of their living quarters, have some nerve accusing each other of being bourgeois. One good labia joke is not enough to disguise the fact that Maggenti, who suffocates her story with mentions of her favorite novels and dated references to every buzzword from Laura Mulvey’s feminist catalog, is simply buying time until Allegra’s two-timing is revealed. In short, a nightmare worse than Trust the Man. (Sunset 5; One Colorado) (Ed Gonzalez)

SAMOAN WEDDING In this slight but sweet-natured comedy from New Zealand (which arrives in theaters four days ahead of its DVD release), four 30-something bachelors, infamous in their close-knit Samoan community for ruining public events with their drunken foolishness, are ordered by a neighborhood minister to show up at an upcoming wedding with committed girlfriends — and a grown-up attitude — or else be barred from entry. Each man obediently sets out to woo a girl, although the task facing the irresponsible Sefa (Shimpal Lelisi) is to rewin the heart of his fed-up, newly pregnant girlfriend. The other three men include Michael (Robbie Magasiva), king of the one-night stand, and the studious Albert (Oscar Kightley), who’s so busy chasing unattainable babes that he doesn’t see that his co-worker is madly in love with him. As plot schemes go, this one, co-written by Kightley and James Griffin, with first-time director Chris Graham at the helm, is so formulaic that any sensible critic would bring out the knives. And yet, the all-Polynesian cast, many of whom developed this material as part of a theater troupe called “The Naked Samoans,” bring so much energy and glee to the telling that one can only smile and hope they all profit wildly from the American remake that’s reportedly in the works. (Music Hall) (Chuck Wilson)

THE SITUATION If only because it’s the first dramatic feature in a sea of documentaries about the war in Iraq, there’s a lot riding on Philip Haas’ brainy, sincere, exasperating movie, shot in Morocco and set mostly in Baghdad and the town of Samarra, permanently on the boil with conflicts between moderates and extremists, insurgents and Iraqi police, and American troops and everyone else. The Situation opens with a fact-based provocation — two Iraqi youths, out after curfew, are thrown off a bridge by American troops — and proceeds to nothing less than an attempt to lend a legitimate voice to just about every party to the conflict. Haas’ instinctive feel for nuance sits jarringly at odds with a self-serving screenplay by Slate correspondent Wendell Steavenson, who injects a semiautobiographical, entirely superfluous love triangle between Anna (Connie Nielsen, looking slightly stoned), an American reporter with a gift for befriending the locals; her sometime boyfriend Dan (a very good Damien Lewis), an intelligence officer full of abstractions about how to end the war; and Zaid (Mido Hamada), a sensitive Iraqi photographer who dreams of seeing snow. Haas, who made the tepid, literate dramas The Music of Chance and Angels & Insects, has no experience with action pictures, and his wobbly use of hand-held cameras only aggravates the confusion. Which may be as it should be — except that this is not a documentary. As ambitious in scope as it is interpretively timid, The Situation delivers the requisite incendiary climax, but collapses in on itself with daft speeches about the elusiveness of truth in something called “the fourth dimension of time.” (ArcLight; One Colorado; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

TRAFFIC SIGNAL A skillfully woven multicharacter drama, Traffic Signal is a methodical depiction of a stratified alternative society cobbled together by the group of Bombay street people who congregate around the towering signal post in the center of a busy four-way intersection. Everyone who subsists there, from the fake beggars to the strutting con artists to the prostitutes (male and female) who take over after dark, seems to have a role to play, and so this microcosmic society looks surprisingly self-sufficient — until, inevitably, its “internal contradictions” are exposed. The director and co-screenwriter, Madhur Bhandarkar, has become one of the leading lights of off-Bollywood “parallel cinema” for his films that anatomize various clearly defined subcultures: taxi-dancer nightclubs in Chandni Bar (2001), gossip rags in Page 3 (2005), corrupt multinationals in Corporate (2006). Although his staging is often flat-footed and graceless, Bhandarkar has impeccably correct politics, and the intricate, switchback construction of his stories can be engrossing. Traffic Signal is his most enjoyable film so far, largely because its uninhibitedly profane characters are more fun to watch than a bunch of buttoned-down bourgeois backstabbers. Bhandarkar also allows himself a few more moments than usual of heart-tugging, crowd-pleasing melodrama. Silsila, the “manager” of this intersection — the guy who collects protection money and arranges lucrative traffic jams — is played by former child actor Kunal Khemu, who at 13 was Aamir Khan’s aspiring tough-guy sidekick in Raja Hindustani (1996). With his flashing eyes and artfully shaggy hair, Silsila is obviously a romanticized movie version of a sidewalk scam artist, plunked down in a cluttered neo-realist environment. But when his eyes meet those of a willowy, wide-eyed peddler named Rani (Neetu Chandra) and his gift of gab suddenly deserts him, you may not care. Pushed a few steps further, this love story in the midst of squalor could have made a fine Puccini opera. (Naz 8) (David Chute)

PICK AN UNREASONABLE MAN Too vicarish and monomaniacal for mainstream politics, Ralph Nader is a gadfly for the ages whose greatest strengths as an outsider yapping at the heels of big business and big government — he’s honest and upright to a fault, tenacious as a terrier, and unshakable in his vision — also proved to be his greatest weaknesses when he stepped back into the Beltway. If we have Nader to thank for consumer protections, from seat belts (his relentless pursuit of General Motors makes Michael Moore look like an amateur) to the news that hot dogs are “missiles of death,” we’re also still picking up the pieces from his two quixotic presidential runs. Though bookended by indignant Democrats (including an amusingly apoplectic Todd Gitlin) pissed off by what they see as Nader’s frivolous candidacy, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan’s warmly hagiographic documentary (an oddly solemn one, coming from two standup comedians) circles all too gingerly around the question of whether Nader was a spoiler who siphoned off votes from Al Gore. Still, they give us an entertaining tour of this endearing, infuriating absolutist’s life and legacy, guided by talking heads more pro than con, prominent among them the former Nader’s Raiders who split over their leader’s disastrous insistence that there was no difference worth talking about between Democrats and Republicans, yet retain enormous affection for his wit, integrity and incorruptible sense of mission. You be the judge of whether Pat Buchanan’s enthusiasm for Nader is merely the solidarity of one reject for another, or an alarming measure of the closeness of right- and left-wing populism in America. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

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