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Film Reviews: Choking Man, Fred Claus, P2, Steal a Pencil for Me 

Wednesday, Nov 7 2007
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CHOKING MAN Remember that classic 1985 music video for a-ha’s “Take On Me” — the one where that girl in the diner falls into an animated charcoal drawing? Since then, its director, Steve Barron, has had an eclectic career — he helmed the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and produced While You Were Sleeping — but with Choking Man, his first independent film, he returns to his earliest preoccupations: cartoons and girls in restaurants. Choking Man takes place at a Queens diner randomly owned by none other than Mandy Patinkin, affecting a Greek accent. Jorge (Octavio Gomez Berrios), a sullen, greasy Ecuadorian dishwasher, is a modern-day invisible man who gives himself over to extravagant animated fantasies, but speaks no more than 30 words through the course of the movie. Meanwhile, his charming co-worker Amy (Eugenia Yuan) is being courted by the boorish Jerry (Aaron Paul), which pleases him not a bit. Choking Man has a tepid plotline, some stilted dialogue and way too many pointless shots of the subway rumbling overhead. But the tender and spirited performances of its diverse cast elevate Barron’s portrait of contemporary Queens life. (Sunset 5) (Julia Wallace)

 FRED CLAUS If you must haul the kids to yet another annual (per)version of A Christmas Carol, you could do a lot worse than this cheeky, modestly edgy caper from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and screenwriter Dan Fogelman. Our topic today, dear wised-up children, is sibling rivalry, and the bah-humbug guy we love to hate is Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn), older and surlier brother to the morally flawless but dangerously obese St. Nick (Paul Giamatti). Toned down from his customary clamor to a simmering rage, Vaughn ably holds the center as the all-around screwup who can’t even hang on to his lively squeeze, a Meter Rita played in a key of strenuous cockney by the inescapably upper-crust Rachel Weisz. The movie really takes off when Nick summons Fred to help out in his workshop, an entrancing world digitally enhanced to look handcrafted, with famous-face elves (Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins) artfully reduced to dwarf size. There’s rhythm, it turns out, in Vaughn’s ungainly body, and having taught a lovelorn elf to boogie, it remains only for Fred to recover his best self by joining a hilarious jealous-sibling support group manned by the likes of Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin, and by rescuing the workshop from the clutches of a steely efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) with childhood issues of his own. Deftly blending disrespect and good nature, Fred Claus is a gas. One burning hermeneutic question, though: When Santa’s sleigh crashes through a Coca-Cola billboard, should we think product placement or Marxist critique? (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

THE LIFE OF REILLY The late Charles Nelson Reilly directed five Broadway plays, won a Tony for acting, was nominated for three Emmys, and knew full well that his legacy would be as a flamboyant double-entendre machine from ’70s game shows. Shot before he died in May at the age of 76, this warm and hilarious adaptation of Reilly’s acclaimed one-man show, Save It for the Stage, is almost entirely without reference to Match Game. Rambling, blithe, nostalgic and out for revenge, Reilly presents a witty anecdotal timeline of his life, and the bittersweet milestones play like a Spalding Gray monologue loosened up with a few shots of tequila. There are the stories of his racist mom, lobotomized aunt, and a TV exec who told him he’d never find work as a homosexual — and the more charming tale of his Uta Hagen acting class, which yielded nothing but future A-listers (Steve McQueen, Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon and Anne Meara, to name a few). Directors Barry Poltermann and Frank Anderson aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here stylewise, but by introducing the performance with man-on-the-street interviews that emphasize how little most of us know about Reilly’s talent, they give their film and subject added poignancy. (Nuart) (Aaron Hillis)

PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG This laudatory but not quite fawning 93-minute documentary takes a greatest-hits approach to the life and song of the now 88-year-old agit-folk musician. And surely Pete Seeger has earned the right to talking-head testimonials from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and company. Shallow, very officially sanctioned and overly compressed, The Power of Song plays like a PBS infomercial for the inevitable DVD box set, which will surely include even more archival footage. Director Jim Brown is perhaps too determined to prove the obvious: that Seeger has lived a long, full, admirable life. (Even today, he loves chopping wood, as did his dark historical double, Ronald Reagan.) Bonnie Raitt aptly calls him “a bridge” between prewar folk and its equally political, boomer-era revival. An end-credit antiwar song (“Bring ’Em Home”), performed with Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco, extends that bridge to Iraq. Yet today the fan base for Seeger, himself a World War II vet, is mainly the AARP demo. My favorite moment in this blandly affectionate tribute comes when an excited grandmother rushes up to Seeger in Washington Square Park like a tween spotting Justin Timberlake. They may be old now, but the music still carries the passion of youth. (Music Hall) (Brian Miller)

P2 After being KO’d in the underground parking garage of her Manhattan office building, Angela (Rachel Nichols), a workaholic executive, wakes to find herself chained to a table. It’s Christmas Eve, the building’s empty, and a sad-eyed security guard named Thomas (Wes Bentley) wants a little company. Angela quickly makes her escape, only to find herself trapped in the multilevel parking garage, with her suddenly angry Lothario in hot pursuit. If it weren’t for two excessively violent deaths, P2 could be termed a refreshingly old-fashioned thriller, one dependent on hairbreadth escapes and the pluck of its heroine. Take out those unnecessary moments of gore and you’d have a silly (can’t Angela just pull the fire alarm?) but diverting little movie, one driven by a commanding performance from Nichols, a pale beauty whose resemblance to a young Sissy Spacek has been playfully accentuated by blood streaks and a Carrie-like cream dress. Regrettably, writer-director Franck Khalfoun (who wrote the script with High Tension director Alexandre Aja) has neglected Bentley. The actor, who got his break as the son in American Beauty, doesn’t appear to have been told that a good cat-and-mouse thriller needs a villain who whispers menacingly, not one who stomps his foot and shouts hysterically. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME Not your mother’s Holocaust movie, Michèle Ohayon’s gripping documentary asks you both to weep for and celebrate a Dutch Jew who maintained a wife and a girlfriend in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and who freely admits he denied his own terminally ill sister his last crust of bread. Now 93 years old and living in the United States, Jack neither was nor is a rogue, but a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and a tireless speaker on the high school circuit — a sweet old gent proud of his still-active libido. But in 1943, the young accountant, married to the wrong (and possibly bipolar) woman, fell hopelessly in love with Ina, a put-together young bourgeoisie with liquid brown eyes and impeccably coifed hair, just before all three were rounded up by the Nazis. Ina is still a fox after 60 years of marriage to Jack, but before you cry happy ending, the film shows — via the letters the two lovers wrote each other in the camp — just what it took to make love conquer all when the problem was not merely surviving hunger, lice and typhus but, of all things, keeping up appearances for the sake of everyone’s dignity. At once tender and tough-minded, Steal a Pencil for Me offers a useful corrective to the sentimental prevailing notion that the Shoah only happened to saints. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

STRANGE CULTURE Artist and professor Steve Kurtz’s nightmare only began when his wife died in their bed of a heart attack. The cops who responded to his 911 call didn’t like the look of his work materials, which included Internet-bought bacteria for a project on genetically modified foods that Kurtz worked on with geneticist Robert Ferrell. Soon his apartment was swarming with zealous FBI agents in Hazmat suits looking for evidence of “bioterrorism.” One can only imagine the scale of Kurtz’s suffering as he awaits trial and copes with his private grief, while both freedom-of-expression and civil rights issues loom large over the whole affair. But the twin images of American paranoia and philistinism rolled into one sit up and beg for a little low comedy. In Strange Culture, filmmaker and video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (Teknolust) divides the testimony between the real-life injured parties and actors — an attempt to match arty style with substance that seems obvious, fussy and not a little smug. The famously lovely mug of Tilda Swinton (cast as Kurtz’s wife) merely distracts, and I couldn’t help feeling that this potent story would have been far better served by a straight-ahead documentary. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

WAR/DANCE In a just world, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s documentary wouldn’t exist — at least not in this fashion. The rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army would not have been free to ravage northern Uganda, butchering parents, raping and killing children, and displacing entire towns of civilians; failing that, at the very least there would be no alarm needed to alert the rest of the world to the atrocities — among them the conversion of kidnapped children into forced killers. But in the existing marketplace, entertainment, not social consciousness, is the currency — hence this wake-up call couched in a strenuously upbeat inspirational sports doc. The sport is Uganda’s national music-and-dance competition; the underdog heroes are Dominic, Rose and Nancy, three orphaned teens in the Patongo refugee camp, whose school troupe is the first to represent rough-and-tumble northern Uganda against the more cosmopolitan south. They tell their horrific stories of mutilation and murder directly to the camera, while the reliance on picturesque backdrops, high-energy performances and countdown-to-the-big-show narrative gambits begs you not to watch something easier on the conscience. The movie comes across as desperately, even irritatingly, contrived, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it overcame my naturally complacent instinct — which would be to watch something (anything) else, to not get haunted by that closing litany of Web sites for global action. (Royal) (Jim Ridley)

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