Movie Reviews: Hunger, One Day You'll Understand, A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy 

Also, Frost/Nixon, The Black Balloon and more

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

GO  THE BLACK BALLOON Produced for what was likely a day’s Botox budget on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, the auspicious Oz import The Black Balloon — the debut feature of director Elissa Down — comes on like a Rain Man for the High School Musical set but quickly establishes itself as that rare “disease movie” in which the disorder in question is mined neither for mawkish sentimentality nor ersatz inspirationalism. Perhaps because Down herself grew up with two autistic siblings, she brings a decidedly piss-(and-shit)-and-vinegar approach to the story of shy Queensland teen Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who has enough trouble fitting in at his new high school and returning the flirtation of his comely phys-ed classmate (stunning, saucer-eyed newcomer Gemma Ward) without the interference of his shortbus-riding autistic brother (Luke Ford, who acts the part with total conviction). Sweetie this isn’t, but within its resolutely mainstream parameters, The Black Balloon courses with a firsthand feel for languorous Aussie summers, the shifting scales of love and hate in sibling relationships, and the earned wit that helps families cope with difficult situations. The time is the 1980s, and as in the Australian New Wave films that proliferated during that period, one has the sense of a cadre of bright young filmmaking talents on the verge of breaking out. (Majestic Crest; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)

CADILLAC RECORDS Although the fact-based Cadillac Records stars heavyweights Jeffrey Wright (fantastic as usual, as Muddy Waters), Eammon Walker (a gruffly commanding Howlin’ Wolf) Mos Def (whose Chuck Berry nearly walks away with the film), and Adrien Brody (all moist-eyed empathy as Chess Records founder Leonard Chess), the hovering question is how well Beyoncé does as Etta James. The answer: She’s adequate. In this film about the rise and fall of the legendary Chess music label and its stars, Beyoncé cusses up a storm, wields her lushly voluptuous body like a WMD, and navigates an emotional OD scene without embarrassing herself. But when she performs the James classics “At Last” and a well-placed “I’d Rather Go Blind,” her limitations — and the film’s — snap into focus. Beyoncé’s pop-soul voice lacks the earthy, evocative carnality and gritty pathos of James’, and when she tosses her signature yodel-riffing into one classic tune, your ears die a little. Similarly, director Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That) races through the script’s bullet points — R&B is built on the dreams of white immigrant sons and black sharecropper descendants; white appropriation of Negro creativity is played out in boardrooms and in the thievery of style and ideas; soul music and the blues are sounds of self-affirmation — with a brisk superficiality that leaves crucial plot points underdeveloped and unresolved, and refuses to engage the dark side of Leonard Chess’ paternalism. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)

GO  FROST/NIXON Has any president since Lincoln inspired more movies, TV mini-series and operas? Dutifully directed by Ron Howard from screenwriter Peter Morgan’s enjoyably glib play, Frost/Nixon is the latest installment of the Nixoniad, appropriately set in a media hall of mirrors. The subject is not Watergate but its aftermath — the series of four televised interviews with the disgraced 37th president, which British chat star David Frost orchestrated and syndicated in the spring of 1977, a little less than three years after Nixon’s resignation. A docudramatist whose screen credits include The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan conceives the Frost-Nixon interviews as a prizefight between two comeback-hungry veterans, ever-cheerful Frost (Michael Sheen, wide-eyed and so coiffed as to be a distraction) and sonorous, gloomy Nixon (Frank Langella). In opening up the play, however, the movie unavoidably dissipates its power. Having Nixon’s actual lair, the so-called Casa Pacifica, as a location is considerably less compelling than the stripped-down onstage set. Still, Frost/Nixon’s main attraction is neither its topicality nor its historical value but Langella’s re-creation of his Tony Award–winning performance. Langella doesn’t shake his jowls or attempt Nixon’s sickly smile. Ice cold and physically imposing, the actor is a naturally menacing presence; his stooped, shambling, eye-rolling Nixon is like a prehistoric beast at bay. In his 1970 speech on Cambodia, Nixon had warned that America would become “a pitiful helpless giant.” Langella’s performance is the lament of a man who became what he beheld. (ArcLight Hollywood) (J. Hoberman)

click to flip through (2) © BLAST! FILMS - Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands
  • © Blast! Films
  • Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

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GARDENS OF THE NIGHT The title is the first sign that the audience is in for it. The second is a child’s voice reading from The Jungle Book, and the third is the voice of a counselor (John Malkovich) comforting the pretty young thing sitting before him. From there, we are treated to a dubiously long “Stranger Danger” sketch that pushes way beyond the limits of taste and reason: All dripping faucets, dulcet piano tinkling, blinking lightbulbs, fairy-tale allusions and Tom Arnold whispering sweet nothings, Gardens of the Night poeticizes the horror of young Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) being kidnapped and passed around like a rag doll, along with her surrogate brother Donnie (Jermaine Smith), in a not-so-surreptitious child pornography ring that includes creeps played by B-listers Harold Perrineau and Jeremy Sisto. Pitched at the risible level of Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade, the film never quite recovers from writer-director Damian Harris’ dithering way of shooting things. Back in the present, the subject is the way the abused become abusers, and how the bond between the older Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) and Donnie (Evan Ross) is tested on the streets — but after being built on such a shoddy foundation, their current-day reality registers only as an afterthought. (Sunset 5) (Ed Gonzalez)

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