Movie Reviews: Kabluey, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Meet Dave 

Also, Homo Erectus, Garden Party and more

Wednesday, Jul 9 2008

GO  DEATH DEFYING ACTS This impeccably well-made bonbon from Australian director Gillian Armstrong belongs to that camp of whimsical “what if?” movies that imagine what might have happened if Sigmund Freud gave counsel to Sherlock Holmes, or if Shakespeare came down with a really bad case of writer’s block. In Death Defying Acts, the central figure is the illusionist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce), who, in the wake of his mother’s death, offers a generous cash prize to any alleged psychic who can put him in contact with his mother’s spirit, while mercilessly exposing as frauds all those who can’t. That quest (which has its basis in fact) ultimately brings Houdini to Scotland and into the lives of a brash, down-at-heel music hall mystic (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her precocious teenage daughter (Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan) — and, before you can say “presto changeo,” a delicate romance blooms amid the Edinburgh gloom. A resourceful actor, Pearce doesn’t fully get his head around Houdini’s multitudinous contradictions, but Zeta-Jones is very touching as this forthright but fragile woman, who still believes in girlish dreams of glamour and passion. Those seeking a Houdini biopic or a smoke-and-mirrors thriller on the order of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige will inevitably go home disappointed. Taken on its own terms, though, Death Defying Acts makes the slight but charming case that even Houdini’s most perilous stage feats pale in comparison to the things men and women do in the name of love. This won’t be remembered as one of the prodigiously talented Armstrong’s great films (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Little Women), but it’s still 90 percent better than everything else out there, which makes it especially puzzling that the film’s U.S. distributor, The Weinstein Company, is dumping the movie into theaters so unceremoniously that, by the time you get around to reading this, it may already have pulled a faster disappearing act than Houdini himself. (Mann Chinese 6) (Scott Foundas)

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My Father, My Lord

ELSA & FRED Seventy-seven-year-old Elsa (Uruguayan actress China Zorrilla) has what might charitably be called “an outsized personality.” Exuberant, garrulous, completely self-absorbed, she has the conscience of a teenager who claims a death in the family in order to get out of a math test. When Alfredo (veteran Spanish actor Manuel Alexandre), a quiet, reserved, almost rigidly honest widower, moves into her apartment building, Elsa sets her sights on him. Clearly, Spanish director and co-writer Marcos Carnevale wants his romantic comedy to be viewed as a funny, sad, heartwarming affirmation of life and love — but that requires excusing Elsa’s narcissism and constant lying as charming eccentricities when, in fact, they are off-putting enough to sour the whole film. The problem isn’t the acting; both leads are superb. It’s Elsa’s character that is so difficult to take. Only the hopelessly romantic will be able to tolerate her. (Fallbrook 7; The Landmark; One Colorado) (Jean Oppenheimer)

GARDEN PARTY A gaggle of unblemished Los Angeles transplants face a squeaky-clean fantasy version of “struggling” in Jason Freeland’s trivial, commercially calculated ensemble drama (porn! pot! rock music!), which plays like a nonmusical Rent, or a faux-edgy Shortbus for kids raised on American Pie. There’s the Avril Lavigne–looking ingénue who has escaped her lecherous stepfather, only to wind up posing for an Internet pornographer; the sexually confused (oh, please — gay) male assistant to a pot-farming real estate maven who also posed nude a decade prior; the unhappily married artist who has lusted for that real estate maven ever since seeing those photos online; and the wimpy emo singer, so spotless that nobody would guess he’s secretly homeless. Each character’s through line relies on preposterous coincidences (nearly every cast member meets one another in a more-than-fleeting capacity) and frustratingly unrealistic behavior (who would let a street kid stay alone at their boss' grow house after meeting once?). If we’re meant to take these threads as a tapestry of L.A., then Freeland clearly needs to stop watching Robert Altman DVDs and go outside to see what the real world is actually like. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Aaron Hillis)

HAROLD The long stretches of dead air that, it can only be assumed, laughter was supposed to fill provide ample time for pondering what audience Harold, T. Sean Shannon’s strenuously stale comedy, was designed to find. Harold (Spencer Breslin) is a young fogey whose crustiness is as premature as his male pattern baldness. Seemingly above and beyond the adolescent desire to fit in, the 13-year-old crank alienates the people around him in the most unappetizing, unfunny way possible — with Bueller-esque to-the-camera narration, toilet humor, plunky dialogue, lame laugh cues (actual crickets sound over a shot of a teenage boy at a loss), and decent actors whose slumming would be merely embarrassing in a less ignoble film. (Chris Parnell, Rachel Dratch, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Ally Sheedy and her wiry, killer guns all appear.) As Harold moves through some jerry-rigged paces to get a girl, make a friend, and win the big go-kart race at his new school, the question of who might find Harold even mildly entertaining looms large: Its sub-Nickelodeon sophistication will leave the junior high hordes groaning (or twittering their groans), and the Matlock and Murder, She Wrote references will be lost on everyone younger than yours truly. And I refused to get them on principle. (Monica 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)

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