Movie reviews: House, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Also, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa 

Also, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Dear Zachary and more

Wednesday, Nov 5 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS During World War II, a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) receives a promotion and moves his wife (Vera Farmiga), teenage daughter (Amber Beattie), and 8-year-old son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), to a remote country house. Almost immediately, Bruno spies through his bedroom window a nearby “farm” where the workers wear “striped pajamas.” Curious and bored, Bruno sneaks out, makes his way through the woods, and comes upon a barbed-wire fence, behind which sits Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a pale, thin, clearly starving boy Bruno’s age. Bruno begins visiting Shmuel every day, and slowly — very slowly — comes to realize that strange and possibly terrible things are happening on this farm that his father oversees. In adapting Irishman John Boyne’s acclaimed young-adult novel, writer-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) draws beautifully modulated performances from his two child actors, who navigate a full range of emotions, from wonder and betrayal to guilt. In the end, their characters meet a fate so absurdly melodramatic that I cringed. A moment later, it occurred to me that the finale might just devastate — and educate — middle- and high school–age audiences, themselves only a little less naive than Bruno, who could do worse than to have this earnest, well-made film be their first Holocaust drama. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Chuck Wilson)

GO CAPTAIN ABU RAED Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha) is an elderly widower who works as a janitor at the international airport in Amman, Jordan. He’s well-read, philosophical and given to moments of spontaneous whimsy, as when he finds the discarded hat of a jet pilot and wears it on the way home from work. A pleasant misunderstanding ensues — the impoverished kids in Abu Raed’s neighborhood assume he’s actually a pilot and treat him with such exaggerated respect that he decides to play along, Arabian Nights–style, entertaining himself and them with tales of his imagined travels. But one boy, Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), aggressively resists the storyteller’s charms, and grows hell-bent on exposing “Captain Abu Raed” as a fraud. From that power struggle, Jordanian-American writer-director Amin Matalqa derives a wealth of unpredictable tensions. Raed isn’t so sold on his new mystique that he meanly deceives the kids; if anything, he’s sympathetic to his young detractor (whom he can hear being beaten nightly, owing to the neighborhood acoustics). What is most deeply illuminated (especially by Sawalha’s magnificent performance) is the courage the little myths we invent about ourselves give us, to truly become ourselves. This is particularly well-dramatized in a subplot about Raed’s one grown-up friend, a female jet pilot (Rana Sultan) who actually lives the dream he spins for his young listeners. Her travels inspire him, but she must struggle for respect as a woman of achievement in male-dominated Arab society. Small wonder that Captain Abu Raed won an audience award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Such a subtle yet global view of human struggle — the whole world viewed through the prism of a single poor neighborhood — is a mark of extraordinary promise from this remarkable new filmmaker. (Music Hall) (F.X. Feeney)

CIRCULATION Films starring vampires and zombies are typically reserved for elucidating postdeath waking nightmares in which one either shakes hands with or unsuccessfully runs from the Reaper. While the less monstrous Circulation tackles these vintage horror-film tropes, it injects a certain amount of hope into the proceedings. Here, not only do the characters linger for a while as half-alive humans in Purgatory (a.k.a. the Mexican desert); but, as they inch toward their individual ends, they discover that they have the potential for reincarnation ... as animals. This New Age twist rescues Ryan Harper’s slow-paced feature debut from the depths of dullness. In terms of plot, all one gets is Gene (Sherman Klotz), a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel, picking up a hitchhiking Ana (Yvonne de la Rosa), who has risen from a fatal car accident caused by her abusive husband. As they cruise the desert, Gene and Ana increasingly engage animalistic fantasies; she eats plants after visualizing herself as a caterpillar, while he, dreaming of golden orb weavers, becomes a lasso specialist. The uncanny experience of watching the actors express these animal instincts that heightens the film’s excellent supernatural aspect. The pacing problem comes from Harper’s portrayal of purgatory as a desolate, sun-baked nowhere that’s generally unpopulated and devoid of action, save for two characters who can’t communicate due to a language barrier. The scenes building up to possible transformations are effectively disturbing, and to Harper’s credit, his minimal use of clichéd special effects helps to distinguish his film from its straight-up horror predecessors. Some viewers may take comfort in this shamanistic B-movie, while the rest will wish it were more like Dawn of the Dead. (Grande 4-Plex) (Trinie Dalton)

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GO DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER The nonfiction-film genre has grown fast, cheap and out of control lately with the democratization of digital video cameras and iMovie. Much agitprop on politics and the environment is out there masquerading as documentary work. Filmmakers no longer feel the need to spend years tracking the development of a subject. So it’s extraordinary to finally see a film worthy of comparison to Errol Morris’s seminal The Thin Blue Line arriving two decades later. A lifetime in the making, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father investigates the murder of Dr. Andrew Bagby, whom director Kurt Kuenne had known and filmed in home movies since they were childhood friends. Bagby’s ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, emerged as the prime suspect, and escaped to Canada while pregnant with their unborn son. Upon learning this, Kuenne set out to interview everyone Bagby ever knew, so that baby Zachary would one day get to know his dad. Meanwhile, Bagby’s parents relocated from California to Newfoundland to fight for custody of their grandson when it seemed there was no end to Turner’s extradition process. Kuenne lovingly assembles home-movie footage and new interviews, while deftly borrowing a narrative trick from fiction — the plot twist — to create a true-crime story so gripping, devastating and ultimately unforgettable that it easily trumps any thriller Hollywood has to offer this year. (Sunset 5) (Martin Tsai)

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