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Film Reviews: Semi-Pro, Summer Palace, A Walk to Beautiful 

And other Feb. 29 releases

Wednesday, Feb 27 2008
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NOAH'S ARK "How much can you take?" asks a sinister voice over helicopter shots of Budapest at night; cut to an old man (Dezso Garas) in bed, awakened by the sounds of a near-biblical downpour. "It's the end of the world," he croaks with something like resignation. It's a dislocating opening, and it hints that Noah's Ark, the first feature in 20 years by the veteran Hungarian filmmaker Sándor Pál, will have an apocalyptic follow-through. Those feelings are dispelled roughly 30 seconds later, when the action devolves into cacophonous comedy by introducing the eccentric, ethnically diverse residents of an apartment complex as they cope with the effects of the downpour. This mostly involves them screaming and hurling racist invective at one another. Eventually, our focus returns to the duffer glimpsed in the first scene — a pensioner named Stock, who lives with his teenage granddaughter (Angéla Stefanovics). Their relationship doesn't seem to be particularly close — she has a screaming fit when he comes into her bedroom to wake her — but that doesn't stop Stock, a crafty curmudgeon whose apparent lifelong ambition is to own a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, from applying for a bizarre reality-TV contest to anoint "Hungary's Best Grandfather." The rest of the film details the pair's preparations for the event and the way their fractious neighbors attempt to help out under the pretense that they'll each get a share of the prize money. Pal's affection for his human menagerie keeps them from becoming grotesques, and he's not out to skewer their greed either: Noah's Ark may be scattered and tonally inconsistent — it's at once crass and wistful, direct and allusive, despairing and carnivalesque — but it's finally nothing if not good-spirited. (Grande 4-Plex) (Adam Nayman)

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PENELOPE "A Fairy Tale Like No Other"? Penelope's influences are right up-front — there's the Tim Burton production design (overstocking each frame with curios) and Amélie music-box wistfulness tinkling all about. The film's titular heroine (Christina Ricci) is born into money but, thanks to a hex brought on by a distant ancestor's snobbery, is accursed with a sow's snout (she's a prettier breed of The Twilight Zone's pig people). Director Mark Palansky starts Penelope by whisking us through a "The Story Until Now" sequence, and doesn't slacken much once the real tale starts in — released fully two years after shooting, the film's been trimmed to the quick. This little piggy ventures off her family estate for the first time into a hybrid London-New York-Belle Epoque beyond, to experience life and love (with the impeccably scruffy James McAvoy, ready to front some cruddy sparkle-and-fade NME-championed band). Ricci, though, is appealingly human, and some acknowledgment of the importance of female friendship, in addition to romance, is faintly touching. The social function of fables has long switched from cautionary chiding to coddling self-esteem. Hence the moral here: Self-acceptance brings inner beauty out. It's not quite that easy, but it's also not a bad lie to buy. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

 
ROMULUS, MY FATHER Known for his dramatic intensity in works like Chopper and Munich, Eric Bana runs the risk of falling into a typecasting rut; he's repeatedly attracted to brooding, unsmiling characters as if becoming a great actor means just emoting really hard. The worst-case scenario of this approach can be seen in Romulus, My Father, a plodding adaptation of Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita's coming-of-age memoir, which mistakes unremitting glumness for insight. In the early 1960s, the young Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee) moves from Yugoslavia to rural Victoria, Australia, with his moody father, Romulus (Bana), and philandering mother, Christina (Franka Potente), growing up a hostage to her infidelity and depression and his dad's futile attempts to keep the family together. Directed by Australian actor Richard Roxburgh and adapted by Nick Drake (not the late songwriter), Romulus, My Father is admirably unsentimental about the ravages of poverty and mental illness on the foundations of family. But soon the endless succession of heartaches that visit Gaita's brood — including multiple suicide attempts and romantic betrayals — becomes monotonous and unbearable, the cinematic equivalent of someone slowly pressing his thumb into your forehead. Bana's performance, like those of his co-stars, is affecting but one-note, and the film doesn't offer any fresh observations into the hard-knock life. Romulus, My Father is a stacked deck determined to make you feel bad, but it rarely makes you feel anything else. (Monica 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)

click to enlarge PALM PICTURES - Summer Palace
  • Palm Pictures
  • Summer Palace

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SEMI-PRO Better than Blades of Glory, which wasn't nearly as good as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which was a little better than Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was almost as funny as Old School, which was better than everything else Will Ferrell had done up to that point. This is what it's come down to with Ferrell: grading his movies in various shades of enh as each one blends into the next till they're all one giant gray blob of feh. Which sells short the semifunny Semi-Pro — essentially Major League clad in 1970s short shorts and topped with a few 'fros for fun, as Ferrell's washed-up one-hit blunder tries to get his woeful Flint Tropics into the NBA before the ABA vanishes out of existence. Still, you seen one Will Ferrell sports comedy, you're good. What distinguishes this one from the others: great characters, among them Woody Harrelson's washed-up vet seeking redemption and romance, Andre Benjamin's blustering baller with NBA aspirations, and Andrew Daly's play-by-play man. Funny in spots, but the game's four quarters — or two too many. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

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