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Movie Reviews: All About Steve, Loren Cass, Ink, Walt & El Grupo 

Also, Sandstorm, No Impact Man, Gamer and more

Thursday, Sep 10 2009
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GO  ALL ABOUT STEVE In this refreshingly quirky comedy, Sandra Bullock is Mary Horowitz, a Sacramento crossword–puzzle writer who is geeky and hyperactive and generally too much to bear. When her parents fix her up with a handsome cable-news cameraman named Steve (Bradley Cooper), Mary pounces but quickly scares him away with talk of “destiny.” Undeterred, she begins following Steve and a washed-up reporter (Thomas Haden Church) as they head across America, covering ratings-grabbers such as a baby with three legs and a mineshaft cave-in that has stranded a dozen hearing-impaired children. Writer Kim Barker (License to Wed) and first-time director Phil Traill aren’t afraid of big jokes (deaf kids down a well), but they also pay attention to the small details of character. As if to suggest that Mary finds solace in a nerd-friendlier time, her bedroom décor is strictly 1969-70, while her much-discussed go-go boots are a seeming nod to the goofy brainiac Barbra Streisand portrayed in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Although Bullock initially struggles with a character she’s probably too old to play, she ultimately makes Mary funny and sympathetic without softening her innate weirdness. The actress also earns points for daring to co-produce a Hollywood comedy that isn’t about a wedding. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)   

ART & COPY Since his 1996 grunge-rock documentary Hype!, Doug Pray has become an even more adept assembler of polished images. And where else would that tendency lead but to the world of advertising? Most filmmakers moonlight in the field, but here, Pray trains his camera on the guys behind the ads — the ’60s boomer revolutionaries who advanced the field out of the Mad Men era. And so we learn of how those famous VW ads from Doyle Dane Bernbach came to be, about George Lois’ groundbreaking art design for Esquire, and the use of pop songs (like the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”) by Hal Riney, later the voice of Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign. These guys, their work — it’s genius, at least to anyone not offended by art (the image) and copy (the words) designed to sell. Yet however stirring these vintage campaigns and their graying creators may be for ad junkies and nostalgists, Pray fails at analysis: His film is simply a tribute. Random statistics — kids see 20,000 TV ads per year; 30 seconds on American Idol costs $750,000 — mean nothing without context. And linking the ad biz to cave art (?!?) — well, that’s just idiotic. Everyone quoted here, and perhaps Pray himself, wants to be seen as an artist. But in this economy, those of us who pay for ordinary stuff may not be so inclined to worship this particular art form. (Sunset 5) (Brian Miller)

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT Of his empty, completely unnecessary remake of Fritz Lang’s 1956 thriller, writer-director-cinematographer-producer Peter Hyams explains in the press notes, “I wanted to make almost a classic film noir, except I wanted it with young people; I didn’t want it with grown-ups.” Parsed further, “almost a classic film noir” means an especially twisty episode of CSI; “young people” includes the shirtless gardener from Desperate Housewives and the ectomorphic doofus who shills for cell phones and Best Buy; “grown-ups” equals Michael Douglas collecting a paycheck. Set in Shreveport, Louisiana, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt finds ambitious TV reporter C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe), aided by his smart-aleck colleague (Joel David Moore), hatching a convoluted plan in which he implicates himself in a murder to prove that a slick D.A. vying for governor (Douglas) — whose assistant (Amber Tamblyn) is sleeping with C.J. — is manipulating evidence. Lang’s film, the last he made in the U.S., exposed the immorality of the death penalty; Hyams’ retread offers only more plot and longer, louder car chases. Though she’s the youngest of the principals, 26-year-old Tamblyn (as anyone who saw her incredible performance in 2006’s Stephanie Daley can attest) proves she is the only one who can act like an adult. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

BIG FAN It takes considerable effort to make Darren Aronofsky seem like a model of restraint, but Robert Siegel pulls it off in Big Fan. Siegel’s screenplay for The Wrestler insisted on beating down Mickey Rourke at every turn, but Rourke’s performance and Aronofsky’s grounding direction fended off the almost comically over-the-top cavalcade of bad shit. In his debut as writer-director, Siegel grinds down on rather than grounds his protag. Paul (Patton Oswalt) is a parking-garage attendant whose only pleasure is his nightly AM sports-radio call, on which he valiantly defends the Giants against Philly fans. Paul lives in Staten Island with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a shrieking harridan. We quickly understand that Paul’s brother, Jeff (Gino Cafarelli), is no good because of his thick Guido accent, and that his wife (Serafina Fiore) is equally worthless because of her orange Real Housewives of New Jersey tan. Things go massively awry when, through a series of events that involve a Times Square strip club, Paul inadvertently gets his QB idol suspended. Mental anguish ensues. Flawed though it was, this year’s Observe and Report — another outsider black comedy — had the guts to present Seth Rogen’s sociopathic mall cop without excuse or rationalization; the laughs came from the gap between his scary void and the reality around him. Big Fan instead chooses to beat up its clueless center so that we’ll like him more, and then surround him with familiar stereotypes to make him look more authentic. (Nuart) (Vadim Rizov)

GO  GAMER Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have slowly started garnering actual critical consideration for their Crank movies; with Gamer, they make another good case for taking them seriously. In the near future, overly enthusiastic gamers play first-person shooters by controlling real death-row convicts (via implanted gibberish nanotechnology). One of them — champion Kable (Gerard Butler) — Knows Too Much, and must be eliminated before he wins 30 games and his freedom. That Kable doesn’t particularly care about game mogul Ken Castle’s (Michael C. Hall) grand conspiracy — and never has a conscience-stricken change of heart — is one of many small tweaks on the genre that make this a notable cut above bargain-basement action. Neveldine and Taylor’s spazzy (but coherent) action scenes rely mostly on blood spurts instead of feats of badassery, but their dystopia is inventive and their visual schemes diverse: The fight scenes play like a buffering online video, with the transmission glitches warping our sense of time, while Castle’s home looks like a live-action Speed Racer, with Hall munching snacks against bizarre nature imagery in disorienting tableaux. Their sense of the grotesque can overshadow their targets — close-ups of a 500-pound guy to indict lazy media consumers aren’t exactly subtle, and are more of a distraction — but they’re as smart about the details as they are loyal to corporation-bashing. Oh, and there’s a dance number. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

INK Jamin Winans’ screenplay for Ink has all the ambition of a Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet epic, but since none of the studios bit, the writer-director decided to make it himself with next-to-no money, a bold gambit a viewer can respect even while wishing the final project were remotely as grandiose as the auteur’s aspirations. Still, if annoying, cheap crap like Six-String Samurai can find a cult audience, Winans’ intricately mapped fantasy world should inspire more than a few. Switching back and forth between our world and the afterlife, Ink imagines a battle between Incubi — scary black-aproned geeks with LCD screens strapped to their faces — and Storytellers, clean-cut actorly types who look like they just stepped out of their own headshots. At stake are the dreams of mere mortals, but caught between forces is the title character, a hooded figure who resembles a Dark Crystal Mystic in human form, and who wants to trade the soul of a little girl (Quinn Hunchar) for acceptance into the ranks of the Incubi. Back on Earth, the girl’s estranged father (Chris Kelly) is busy losing his mind and seemingly coming unstuck in time. Despite being augmented with many postproduction enhancements, Jeff Pointer’s cinematography is sadly uninspired, and many in the cast feel more like auditioning actors than actual characters, though Kelly’s Michael Keaton–ish delivery is a standout, and Jeremy Make adds some much-needed humor as a smartass blind “Pathfinder.” Winans’ ideas served him better on the similar, less ambitious feature 11:59, but even if Ink doesn’t entirely succeed, it makes for one heckuva calling card. Someone give this man a budget to play with. (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)

GO  LOREN CASS Chris Fuller’s powerfully unsettling debut — written in 1997 when the director was just 15 — is a starkly lyrical portrait of angry, disaffected teens in the racially tense wake of the 1996 St. Petersburg, Florida, riots. Igniting the fuse, a high school skinhead (Travis Maynard) and his mechanic pal (Fuller, under the pseudonym Lewis Brogan) fling a beer bottle at a black student’s van, leading to street skirmishes in which literally no punches are pulled: Rival gangs ruthlessly beat the crap out of each other oncamera. A fleeting romance develops between a slutty, late-shift waitress (Kayla Tabish) and Fuller’s grease monkey, and it soon becomes clear that the film’s rampant fucking/boozing/fighting is naturally born from boredom, confusion and dead-end despair. At face value, the story and themes have been done to death, but Fuller’s in-your-face artistic precision makes this a radical film. From the eccentric sound design that pipes in audio from Charles Bukowski, Dwarves’ frontman Blag Dahlia, and the rants of political activists over the otherwise sparse dialogue, to the unexpectedly still and striking 16mm framing, Loren Cass wants to blow your head off — which explains Fuller’s choice to include the still-shocking footage of Pennsylvania congressman Budd Dwyer’s televised suicide. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

NO IMPACT MAN The bold environmental project Colin Beavan began in the fall of 2006 — to expunge his carbon footprint by giving up material consumption, electricity, nonlocal foods and basically all worldly pleasures in Manhattan for one full year — was always destined to have some naysayers crying “publicity stunt.” And to an extent, it is. Timed to coincide with the release of Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s entertaining doc chronicle of Beavan’s year in self-righteous hell, his new eco-martyr memoir of the same name is subtitled “The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process,” which both doubles as a lofty plot synopsis and pre-emptively deflects critics with that “guilty liberal” confession. Unfolding mostly as real-time vérité, the film is less valuable for detailing Beavan’s expensive and punishing process to become greener than that jolly giant (he buys composting “worm boxes,” for God’s sake) than it is for showing his deeply hesitant wife, Michelle Conlin — who laments no more dining at Pastis or buying iced quad espressos — give in to this decidedly un-fun lifestyle. We could all do better, definitely (be sure to sneak in your reusable bottles instead of buying from the concession stand!), but how much can we possibly glean from a guy whose idealism can be measured with a calendar? (Royal) (Aaron Hillis)

THE OTHER MAN Whatever initial life there might have been in a story by German writer Bernhard Schlink (The Reader) has been crushed to a pulp by writer-director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) in this flat thriller about a software executive (Liam Neeson) hunting down the lover of his absent wife (Laura Linney), an upscale shoe designer. It hurts to see a terrific cast (including the lovely and intelligent young Irish actress Romola Garai as the couple’s quietly seething daughter) squandered on such dreary filmmaking, full of neo-noir fuss and bother to no particular end other than the banal question of whether one can love two people at once — or even just one who, pardon the unpardonable pun, is a bit of a heel. The short answer is yes; the long one involves many obligatory shots of computer sleuthing in gray old London. Then it’s off to more picturesque foreign parts, where Antonio Banderas, fetchingly attired in designer suits, plays Latin lover and lots more besides. “I make things more beautiful than they are,” he smirks, and even that’s only a little bit true. Any genuine poignancy to be wrung from this callow tale is post-hoc and inadvertent — the sad sight of Neeson grieving for a missing wife. (The Landmark; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

SANDSTORM If you’re unfamiliar with the practitioners of Falun Gong — peaceful spiritualists who have been persecuted by the Chinese government since the ’90s — then you’ve obviously walked blindly past their regular Midtown Manhattan demonstrations, where members disperse fliers while re-enacting bloody scenes of torture and caged confinement. With production values so cheap they couldn’t even afford the shoestring, writer-director Michael Mahonen’s well-intentioned but embarrassingly feeble 2004 drama comes off as the public-access video equivalent of those protests, unpaid nonprofessionals and all. In symbolic retribution for the abuses against the Falun Gong, nature inflicts a sinister sandstorm upon Beijing, confining police officer He Tian Ying (awkward first-timer Rong Tian) and his sickly wife indoors without water and electricity, their food and medicine supplies rapidly diminishing. In flashbacks that could’ve been shot in different corners of the same ugly room, we learn the reasons for his guilty conscience, as his superior forces him to oversee the murderous terrorizing of a proud Falun Gong subscriber. At best, it’s a perfunctory narrative, complete with title cards that clunkily hit the same bullet points that might appear on one of those rally fliers. No matter how many human-rights organizations have acknowledged this indignity, Sandstorm is basically a biased social-issue doc having an identity crisis. (Music Hall) (Aaron Hillis)

SORORITY ROW The first credit to roll for Sorority Row, director Stewart Hendler’s highly unnecessary remake of a 1983 slasher, is for a character identified as the “Bra-clad sister.” A few entries down are “Slutty sister,” “Ditzy sister” and “Sarcastic sister.” I’m not sure you need to know much more than that, but here goes anyway: Among these luminaries is a group of sorority seniors whose idea of a revenge prank is convincing a young man that he has killed his girlfriend with an ill-timed roofie. The vaguely sensible one among them (played by Briana Evigan, whose resemblance to Demi Moore puts her co-star — and Moore’s actual offspring — Rumer Willis to a strange sort of shame) protests the group’s plan to cover up the death of their fellow sister when the prank tanks, and takes the lead when a graduation gown–wearing maniac begins killing off everyone associated with the death. A very thin feminist subtext about the meaning of sisterhood only highlights how badly this film botches its attempt to have it both ways: naked, bleeding cuties combined with “final girl”–ish, butt-whipping empowerment. Call me the sarcastic sister, but the only things screaming in any convincing way here are the cheap look, epileptic direction and off-key, “edgy” humor. It’s all so ‘80s, I could die. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

TYLER PERRY’S I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF If you are the director, producer, writer (adapting your own stage play), and co-star of a film, you really show how bad you can do all by yourself. Usually thrilling in their lunacy, most Tyler Perry movies can at least keep up their momentum through the combination of an overstuffed plot and the presence of Madea, the big-boned granny who will rip out your urethra tube if you sass her. Perry’s latest — about a boozy nightclub singer, April (Taraji P. Henson), begrudgingly sheltering her niece and nephews — has so many dead moments that singing spots by Gladys Knight, Pastor Marvin Winans and Mary J. Blige simply highlight, rather than alleviate, the inertia. Madea, tonic in February’s Madea Goes to Jail, appears onscreen for only about 15 minutes, at least sharing an inspired bit about Siegfried and Roy on Noah’s “arch.” If the Atlanta impresario is just bored with cranking out two adaptations a year of his earlier stage work, the audience is getting restless too: I counted at least three walkouts at the 11 a.m. public screening I attended. Though Perry may have stuck with his chitlin-circuit material for too long, I still can’t wait to see what he does with the choreopoem in an upcoming project — directing Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

WALT & EL GRUPO In 1941, with financial woes mounting and an animators’ strike making his studio anything but the happiest place on Earth, Walt Disney took President Franklin D. Roosevelt up on the offer to be a cultural ambassador to Latin America. For the U.S., it was a chance to woo potential allies who were also being courted by the Nazis; for Disney, it was a chance to soak up new artistic inspiration while fleeing the turmoil in his own professional kingdom. As written and directed by Theodore Thomas, the documentary Walt & El Grupo, which tracks the five-country trek embarked upon by Disney and a handpicked team of his employees (“el grupo”), is both a gargantuan, multifamily home movie and a slight, if entertaining, curio that’ll be of most interest to hardcore Disney aficionados. Culled from the personal photos, letters and home films of the expedition’s descendants, as well as from behind-the-scenes footage from the Disney vaults, and punctuated with wonderful segments from the 42-minute 1942 film Saludos Amigos, which resulted from the trip, Walt is both humorous and moderately revealing about the backstage machinations of the Disney machine. Still, it flutters into the realm of hagiography, painting Disney as a baffled, almost saintlike victim of the ungrateful animators who demanded a larger piece of the pie. (Regent) (Ernest Hardy)

WHITE ON RICE A hapless fool only a family member could love, the Tokyo-born Hajime, a.k.a Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe), has a gift for offending women, as well as a tendency to lock himself out of the car and set the kitchen on fire. Newly divorced, Jimmy has come to America to live with his sister Aiko (Nae), her husband, Tak (Mio Takada, excellent), and their gifted but emotionally neglected young son, Bob (Justin Kwong). Having Jimmy in the house literally drives Tak crazy, and at its best, this uneven film by writer-director Dave Boyle suggests that going a bit nuts is a good thing for the rigid paterfamilias. Boyle and Watanabe may intend for Jimmy to be an innocent who inadvertently changes lives, á la Forrest Gump, but he’s often too creepy to care about, as when he begins stalking his beautiful cousin or leaves young Bob home alone on Halloween. As a writer, Boyle is on firmer ground when he concentrates on Tak and Bob, too nearly mute males acting out in all manner of amusing ways. When father and son finally make each other smile, White on Rice glows with warmth. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

WHITEOUT In this earnest but muddled Antarctic thriller, a masked man kills research scientists who may have stumbled upon a valuable object hidden beneath the ice. Figuring out the murderer’s identity falls to U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), with help from the research station’s doctor (Tom Skerritt) and a shady U.N. investigator (Gabriel Macht). Carrie is a good detective tortured by memories of a Miami drug bust gone bad, and in a regrettable blunder, director Dominic Sena (Kalifornia, Gone in 60 Seconds) and his four credited screenwriters have chosen to stage that failed arrest in a series of hokey flashbacks that always end with Sena cutting back to a zoned-out Carrie, who literally shakes her head to clear away the bad vibes. One feels for Beckinsale, a B-movie action queen badly in need of a comedy and a script that doesn’t require, as this one does, her stripping down to her skivvies in the opening scene. It could be said that Whiteout is an honest attempt to set an old-fashioned whodunit in an exotic locale, but the mystery at the film’s core is so hopelessly dull that one begins to long for a third-act cameo by the Abominable Snowman. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

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