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Movie Reviews: Secret Sunshine, Awake, The Amateurs 

Also Paul Schrader’s The Walker, Timber Falls, Oswald's Ghost and more

Wednesday, Dec 5 2007
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AAJA NACHLE If history has taught us anything, it’s that the effectiveness of a proposition such as Aaja Nachle (Come Dance) depends almost entirely on charm. In this case, that invitation is all but irresistible, because slinky Madhuri Dixit — Bollywood’s definitive leading lady of the ’90s, making a comeback of sorts after a a five-year hiatus — is both a world class hoofer and a gifted exponent of audience-seducing movie-star glamour delivered (crucially) with a glint of irony. As an expat Indian choreographer in New York who is called home upon the death of her guru, to save the now-crumbling ancient temple that was their performance space, Dixit is such an exhilarating presence that the movie’s fourth-hand “let’s put on a show” plot can be brushed off like a speck of lint. The credited first-time director is veteran Bollywood d.p. Anil Mehta (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), though it was producer Aditya Chopra who smooshed together the chestnut pudding of a story from bits and pieces of truly original crowd-pleasers such as Lagaan, Swades and Rang De Basanti. He also salted the cast with indie-cinema ringers who lend the proceedings a touch of class, including the great character actor Irfan Khan (The Namesake), who’s riveting even in a tiny role. Likewise, Konkana Sen (Life . . . in a Metro) and Kunal Kapoor (Rang De Basanti) seem genuinely surprised and delighted by the feelings that overtake them when they’re drafted to play doomed lovers in a modernized production of the ancient seventh-century folktale Layla-Majnun, whose title characters are so deeply attuned to one another that when one of them is beaten, the other bleeds. Both in subject matter and form, this 25-minute music drama within the film tips its hat to the roots of Bollywood cinema’s most distinctive conventions — with the inestimable assistance of its most seductive modern axiom. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)


THE AMATEURS Welcome to Butterface Fields, a SoCal “smalltown USA” peopled by cheery barfly numbskulls with names like Mo & Ron, Some Idiot and Moose. Their king is Andy (Jeff Bridges, giving just enough, though not his all), a divorced and feckless sad sack who, faced with competition for his teen son’s respect, decides the best way to make a mark and score some bank is to gather the townsfolk to shoot an amateur porno. As a first-time director, Michael Traeger’s greatest, not inconsiderable talent is staying out of the way as his skilled and eminently likable cast (including a very good William Fichtner, Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson and, making much out of almost nothing, Lauren Graham) generates a palpable camaraderie, while cinematographer Denis Maloney envelopes the film in a warm and homey amber glow, and editor Raúl Dávalos maintains a brisk narrative flow. The Amateurs is nothing if not easy to watch. Yet, as a writer, Traeger is consternatingly adolescent and glib, imagining a world where synonyms like fruit cup, honey pot and yodel are as funny as it gets; where cherub-faced innocents are discovered over and over to have insatiably kinky sex drives; where The Full Monty is still fresh enough to inspire cribbing; and where, if you’ve paid even slight attention, a surprise ending is no surprise at all. (The Landmark) (Hazel-Dawn Dumpert)


ATONEMENT See film feature  Click here for showtimes


AWAKE A medical thriller with a noggin full of novocaine, this shocker about a botched heart surgery evidently suffered brain surgery to match. Think of writer-director Joby Harold’s autopsy-turvy tale as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu with a high-concept lobotomy: Instead of some wheezy old Romanian dude descending the lower depths of health care hell, we get doe-eyed Hayden Christensen as the world’s most naive billionaire and unlikely heart-transplant candidate, whose troubles begin when “anesthesia awareness” leaves him conscious but paralyzed and unable to scream as doc Terrence Howard revs up the ol’ bonesaw. That would be contrivance enough for most thrillers, but factor in blushing bride Jessica Alba, suspicious mom Lena Olin and sinister cardio czar Arliss Howard — not to mention astral projection, supernatural visits, repressed memories and not one but two pivotal heart transplants — and you’ve got a movie that sucks more than it inhales. Harold’s glum overplotting squashes the sick humor and the innate fear of hospitals that gives the premise what kick it has; not even Craig McKay’s clever editing can defibrillate the preposterous ending. Even at 78 minutes, though, this definitely communicates a sense of anesthesia awareness — at least to your ass. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)


THE BAND'S VISIT See film feature  Click here for showtimes


DIRTY LAUNDRY “If the beans ain’t cooking, there’s something wrong with the crockpot!” exclaims Loretta Devine’s fat, sassy matriarch in what is surely the best line of Dirty Laundry (there isn’t much competition). She’s referring to her daughter-in-law’s uterus here (yeah, ew), but she might as well be talking about the cheesy crockpot of a film that she’s starring in. The basic plot involves Sheldon (Rockmond Dunbar), a prodigal — and homosexual — son who returns to his Southern home after discovering that he fathered a child 10 years ago (thankfully, the mechanics of this are glossed over). Sheldon — who prefers, inexplicably, to be called Patrick — is a self-consciously urbane writer for a women’s magazine; when the kid shows up at the door of his “fabulous” New York apartment, he tells us that “in the literary world this is what we call an emotional climax.” Sorry, but . . . no. Weirdly, writer-director Maurice Jamal decides to show us this pivotal scene out of sequence, chopping it from the beginning of the movie and setting it down neatly in the middle; the result is a needlessly confusing first act that requires great feats of unrewarded concentration. Anyway, with gay, elitist Sheldon back among his wacky, loud, fried-chicken-chomping family, hijinks ensue. The end. (Beverly Center 13) (Julia Wallace)


THE GOLDEN COMPASS No fan of the “tweedy medievalist” C.S. Lewis, avowed atheist and novelist Philip Pullman set out to dissemble much of Narnia’s embedded dogma with this story of a girl’s quest to free children from their zombielike servitude to quasi-Christian, sin-obsessed authority. Chris Weitz opens his film adaptation by introducing us to the “other world,” where humans walk alongside their own souls. Soon we meet Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who, in her attempt to help her uncle research the source of Dust (Dust being a euphemism for “all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world”), gets kidnapped by Nicole Kidman, escapes, and then journeys to rescue a pal in peril. Along the way, Lyra masters reading the alethiometer — a golden compass that reveals the truth — given to her for no apparent reason. Okay, one vaguely implicit reason is that Lyra could potentially be the “prophesized child.” But along with that sidelong allusion to a righteous child who will save us all, the film contains a head-spinning hodgepodge of ideas wedged into a serviceable (if harried) fantasy lark. Pulling even the cloaked punches of the book, Weitz avoids Compass’ one relatively direct indictment (involving Adam, Eve and a pile of bollocks called “original sin”). By insisting on many of Pullman’s heady conceits but diluting the doctrinal antidote encoded within them, the intricate plot becomes an empty challenge. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)


GRACE IS GONE See film feature  Click here for showtimes


JUNO See film feature  Click here for showtimes

LOOKING FOR CHEYENNE A justified lament about much of American queer cinema is that it has stalled — or, post–New Queer Cinema — devolved into an adolescent stupor of one-note queerness (coming out/prowling nightlife/facile relationship comedies and dramas). The French, lesbian-centered Looking for Cheyenne is grownup fare. When Parisian journalist Cheyenne (Mila Dekker) loses her job and can’t find another, her loss triggers a fury at “the system” and the way it exploits and oppresses common folk. First by circumstance, then by choice, she adopts a Spartan way of life that includes turning her back on cars, electricity and the city itself — all of which alienates her girlfriend. “She decided to do without,” says one character. “She turned it into a philosophy.” Director Valérie Minetto, working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Cécile Vargaftig, has fashioned a beguiling comedy from a Marxist-inflected thesis that is filled with characters who rage against the machine with pessimism, optimism and naivete — sometimes in rotation. The sprawling cast breaks the fourth wall to address the camera, and then communicates through dream and fantasy sequences. At heart, the film is about the ways money-driven politics and big business wreak havoc on everyday lives, with its great strength being its casual positioning of a lesbian relationship as the nexus for those conversations. And without a bit of saccharine, it makes the case that human connection is the one true glitch in the matrix. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)


MIDNIGHT EAGLE  Disenchanted after seeing a child killed in the Middle East, war photographer Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa) retires to the Northern Alps of Japan, where he chances upon the eponymously code-named American stealth bomber crash-landing on a nearby snowcap. Based on Tetsuo Takashima’s novel and boasting the full cooperation of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, director Izuru Narushima’s convoluted action saga is a weirdly maudlin, counterintuitive chase for the B-5’s onboard MacGuffin: a live nuke on a countdown timer. In the war room, Prime Minister Watarase orders two elite Ranger forces to scale the mountains; cut to our photog hero and his high school pal, untrained but able to spot both the good guys and heavily armed enemy soldiers (hinted to be North Koreans), all in white camouflage, in the snow. Meanwhile, Nishizaki’s estranged sister-in-law (Yuko Takeuchi), a journalist, is in her own correlating procedural as she tries to unearth a related set of suppressed truths involving a microchip in a locket or something. Given that its $10 million worth of blizzardly widescreen glory easily looks like 20, it’s frustrating that Midnight Eagle is more concerned with puffed-up nationalist pride than logic. How did five characters’ paths all converge at the exact same minute anyway? (ImaginAsian Theatre; Rolling Hills 20) (Aaron Hillis)


OSWALD’S GHOST The murder of John F. Kennedy — the unsolved murder, according to an overwhelming majority of Americans — has never lost its creepy fascination. In this riveting yet ultimately unsatisfying documentary, veteran director Robert Stone revisits the scene of the crime as well as the conspiracy theories that persist to various degrees. Oswald’s Ghost is grippingly effective as a detailed recap for the huge chunk of the populace born after 1963 (or anyone stumped trying to separate fact from furious, feverish fiction in JFK); it also does an excellent job of shaking the foundations of the belief systems that have calcified around the major plots and perp(s). Stone is less successful in drawing a line from JFK’s assassination through the turmoil of the ’60s to Watergate and the continuing cynicism and distrust that Americans evince toward government today. Although he doesn’t solve the murder — or even try — Stone argues quite convincingly that Kennedy’s horrifically violent death will continue to prickle the national psyche. (Grande 4-Plex) (Michael Fox)


REVOLVER For any high-fivin’ “Movies for Guys Who Like Movies” bros hoping for the Guy Ritchie of yore, Revolver disappoints. It’s no return to rock, this, but rather Ritchie’s soporific, proggy-conceptual Film of Ideas, with Vivaldi interludes, fussbudget set design, recurrent references to chess, and a hit man inexplicably got up as Tati’s Mr. Hulot. Hobbling stateside after a raping from the U.K. press, Revolver’s nothing if not eccentric; at times, I halfway admired the suicidal gambit of making such a gnomic self-actualization gangster pic. All the crime-saga tropes are accounted for — the ronin badass, feuding rival gangs, an invisible criminal overboss — but they do double duty as allegorical points on the film’s schematic layout. Jake Green (Jason Statham) is no sooner released from prison than he’s back feuding with a casino sleaze (Ray Liotta, explosively deviant), but things swiftly go down the rabbit hole as he’s indentured to and lectured at by a mysterious duo of loan-shark gurus (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore). The plot’s hieroglyphic symbolism adds up, finally, to some kind of lesson about the Ego, a fact confirmed by a lineup of Ph.D.s (and Deepak Chopra) who pop on-screen to tell you exactly that before the credits roll. (Broadway 4; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Nick Pinkerton)


SECRET SUNSHINE Writing from Paris this past spring, fresh from attending a pre–Cannes Film Festival press screening of South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine, I correctly predicted that, regardless of the competition, Lee’s star, Jeon Do-Yeon, would walk off with the Cannes jury’s Best Actress prize. It’s that kind of performance. Now, Los Angeles moviegoers who missed Lee’s film (which still lacks a U.S. distributor) during its two recent screenings in AFI Fest have another chance to catch it as it plays an under-the-radar awards-qualifying run at a single West Hollywood ­theater, one month before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art welcomes Lee for a career retrospective. In the film, Jeon plays a recent widow in the process of moving with her young son from Seoul to the small town of Milyang, where she hopes to establish herself as a piano teacher. There, she finds herself the object of the affections of the shy local mechanic (The Host star Song Kang-ho) and the target of the proselytizing of Milyang’s Pentecostal community — of her faith (or lack thereof) in some higher power. Then Secret Sunshine abruptly shifts gears to become a kidnapping thriller, and some time after that a nearly Bressonian study in faith and human suffering. With dexterity and grace, Lee and Jeon navigate these switchblade reversals of light comedy and high melodrama, utter despair and flickerings of hope, until, in the end, the movie feels all of a piece and impossible to imagine any other way — a secular hymn to the small triumphs and cavernous tragedies of the everyday, and to our awesome ability to cope. (Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas)


THE SINGING REVOLUTION  The title refers to the Estonian independence movement, incubated through the country’s stifled years as a Soviet satellite, when the sole outlet for the country’s forbidden nationalist strivings was a folk-singing festival where tens of thousands of voices joined in a patriotic anthem. About half of The Singing Revolution recounts, through three generations of partisans, the agonized history of their pushover motherland — passed around since time immemorial between international powers — in the particularly brutal years between WWII and its 1991 declaration of independence. Singing isn’t really the focus; more important than the music (which, out of context, isn’t much) is the unity it fostered. The makers of this hugely optimistic doc, James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, devote much attention to spontaneous manifestations of communal spirit. One incredible tale: As independence gains a foothold, a crowd of USSR-loyal reactionaries storms the capitol building in Tallinn. Trapped officials, as of yet without official police protection, radio out an SOS to the Estonian public — and The People actually show up, dispersing the situation in an orderly fashion. It seems an odd fit for theatrical release, but the film offers a functional primer in Baltic history, as well as choice video footage of one small country as it weathers a tectonic shift in world politics. (Music Hall) (Nick Pinkerton)


STRENGTH AND HONOUR Proving that old adage that bad things come in sevens, Mark Mahon’s schlocky Strength and Honour opens as Irish boxing phenom Sean Kelleher (Michael Madsen) accidentally pounds his friend to death in the ring. (That’s one.) Flash forward to a drab hospital room where Sean’s wife, weak and pallid, makes her dying wish: Never box again. Then she dies. (That’s two.) Flash forward to the dinner table, where Sean’s young son pukes all over his plate. (That’s three.) Not since Kate Winslet’s Cough Heard Round the World in Finding Neverland has terminal illness been so subtly foreshadowed. The prognosis? Twelve to 18 months. But wait! There’s an experimental procedure! It’s only available in L.A., and won’t likely be approved by the FDA for, er, 12 to 18 months. But if Sean can pay $250K out of ­pocket, he’s golden. (Four, five and six: Insurance refuses to cover the dead wife’s hospital bills; the bank repossesses Sean’s house to the tune of some awful song, “I Want to Run with the Wild Horses”; and dad and son move into a motor-home enclave, where bare-­knuckle boxing is the new riding bikes.) Point is: Sean has to box again. Zip-up hoodie worn just so, he goes back to the old gym and trains for the big fight — a gloves-free free-for-all with a mega payout. More things happen, until inevitably Sean makes it to the final, duking it out with reigning champ Smasher (Vinnie Jones, scary) against the backdrop of an Irish Spring commercial. (Forgot to mention: Smasher renders Sean’s best friend paralyzed in the semi-finals. That’s seven.) (Selected theaters) (Allison Benedikt)


TIMBER FALLS Call it The West Virginia Switchblade-Sickle Massacre. When a young couple (Edward Burns wannabe Josh Randall and Brittany Murphy wannabe Brianna Brown) go on a hike in a state park, they take the trail less traveled, and that makes all the difference, as it’s inhabited by your average homicidal Bible-quoting lunatics with their own private dungeon. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before in other permutations — save for the villains’ bizarre, impractical master plan — but director Tony Giglio doesn’t skimp on the goods, delivering ample amounts of blood, torture, sex, deformities, skinny dipping and the requisite dose of anti-red-state paranoia. No one who’s seen any horror movies will be surprised when a seemingly benevolent officer (Nick Searcy) turns out to be in on the plot the whole time, but you may be taken aback by how much you end up rooting for the leads to survive, which is a testament to their acting skills considering how annoyingly pretty they are. Giglio doesn’t quite seem able to decide what his tone is, incongruously mixing goofy redneck humor with harrowing scenes of intense pain, but horror fans should dig it nonetheless — I did. Not recommended for the devoutly religious, moralistic scolds or anyone with a sensitive stomach. (Selected theaters) (Luke Y. Thompson)


THE WALKER Paul Schrader’s cinema is largely defined by the pathology of his male protagonists, and with The Walker, he’s added a striking new character to his gallery of loners. Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) is the degenerate scion of a political family. Openly gay and eminently presentable, this American aristo makes himself useful as a companion to the neglected wives of the Washington elite — gabbing over canasta or escorting them to the opera. (Hence the term “walker,” coined to describe Nancy Reagan’s frequent squire Jerry Zipkin.) Filmed quite credibly in London, The Walker evokes a town of mighty rubes and backbiting yentas. Carter, however, has a special fondness for the vulnerable Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas), a sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, unhappily married to liberal senator Larry Lockner (Willem Dafoe with a Gary Hart ’do). Once Lynn discovers her lobbyist lover stabbed to death and gallant Carter puts down his copy of Suetonius to shield her, The Walker settles into thriller mode. But in its final third, it falls apart. Emotional murk rises, stakes are lowered and, despite a late dose of Hardy Boys derring-do, drama founders. This is a serious movie and, gliding around the center of power, a stylish one. But, like its protagonist, The Walker is unable to finish the job. (Sunset 5) (J. Hoberman)

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