Movie Reviews: Death In Love, 500 Days of Summer, Severed Ways 

Also, The Poker House, The Queen and I, and more

Wednesday, Jul 15 2009

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Most news reports about last month’s disputed election in Iran made mention of the late shah, but few if any mentioned the shah’s wife, Farah, who, as we learn in Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s first-person documentary The Queen and I, is alive and well and living in Paris. Thirty years after the revolution she watched unfold, Farah remains unapologetic about her husband’s reign — and this brief, intimate(ish) glimpse of her life is a meditation not just on the deposed Pahlavi dynasty but on the ability of monarchs to understand their subjects. Sarvestani was once one of those subjects: a poor communist and active participant in the 1979 Islamic revolution. What connects the two women today is years of exile and loss (Sarvestani fled after hardliners seized power in Tehran). In the course of the film’s 90 minutes, the filmmaker and queen forge an odd friendship — imagine Alexandra Romanov, had she escaped the Bolsheviks, teaming up to write a book with Leon Trotsky. The documentary is stylistically straight-forward, but Sarvestani makes the most of her limited time with a fascinating subject. Her access to Farah is what gives the film heft, so she wisely includes the drama of her own diplomatic chess moves to keep the cameras rolling — and her internal struggle to keep the film from becoming a flattering, royalist puff piece. The result is never less than an uneasy mix of journalism, memoir and docu-soap (“Stay tuned as sparks fly when the queen and former Marxist rebel go shopping!”), but it certainly is timely. Like its royal subject, The Queen and I is charming, elusive, frustrating and not easily forgotten. (Downtown Independent) (James C. Taylor)

GO SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA Werner Herzog meets Monty Python in writer-director-actor Tony Stone’s dreamy, deadpan saga — set to the thumping strains of Popul Vuh, Judas Priest, Morbid Angel and more — of (mostly) sublimated erotic obsession in the Old New World. Left for carrion on the shores of Newfoundland, a pair of lumbering, heavy-helmeted Viking warriors, identified in the credits as Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) and Orn (Stone), crash their way through to the forest primeval, killing lots of trees and Indians and smaller critters along the way (and, in one indelible moment, practicing the primitive rudiments of hair guitar). Despite some atrocious table manners and a brief if explosive bout with irregularity, all goes swimmingly — until, that is, Volnard encounters a pretty-footed Irish monk with conversion on his mind. Sparks fly, swords flash, and, for one hushed moment, the giggling subsides. A must-see. (Sunset 5) (Ron Stringer)

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s alarming Tony Manero — set in the dark days of the Pinochet regime and named not for its protagonist but rather his ego ideal, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever — is a study of a cinema-struck, solitary daydreamer in which an unsmiling 50-ish madman nurtures fanatical Bee Gees–fueled fantasies of disco glory. Played with total focus by stage actor Alfredo Castro (who co-wrote the screenplay), Raúl Peralta attends his favorite movie as if it were Sunday mass — sometimes bringing along his talismanic white suit as though it, too, needed to study Travolta’s moves. Raúl not only internalizes Tony’s version of the American Dream but he also memorizes Tony’s lines for use in the four-actor version of Saturday Night Fever he’s staging in a grungy Santiago cantina. Raúl’s obsession is complemented by a total disinterest in any human contact. Indifferent to Pinochet’s police state, this ferretlike wannabe stops at nothing in his quest to be Chile’s Tony Manero. He violently appropriates an elderly lady’s color TV, spontaneously rips up the cantina to create space for a glass-tile floor, runs amok when he discovers that the theater he frequents has replaced Saturday Night Fever with Grease, and, most grotesquely, befouls a rival impersonator’s white suit. Feasting on this bizarre fascist posturing, Larrain suggests that, with his sordid charisma, Raúl is a miniature Pinochet — reproducing the brutality of the state in his willingness to steal, exploit, betray and kill in the service of a fantasy. (Music Hall) (J. Hoberman)

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The studios continue to dilute the meaning of “Asia Extreme,” and self-serious commercial pap like this Westernized fraud makes Dragonball: Evolution seem like high art. Korean actress Gianna Jun (formerly Jeon Ji-hyun, star of My Sassy Girl) is given little to do beyond titillating fanboys. She plays a 400-year-old Japanese half-vampire who works with a covert council to hunt other bloodsuckers in her ageless form as an undercover schoolgirl. As enticing as “Blade meets 21 Jump Street” might sound, Kiss of the Dragon hack Chris Nahon’s live-action adaptation of a 2001 cult anime film is unexciting, incoherent, lamely acted, and carelessly written. Slick wire-fu spectacles come courtesy of a Crouching Tiger producer, while the clunky monsters are Ray Harryhausen throwbacks, and the movie’s incessant, cheaply produced CGI splatters look like oil geysers. There will be blood, yes, because you, too, will be ready to fall on your samurai sword. (Aaron Hillis)

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