Movie Reviews: Ajami, Order of Chaos, The Wolfman 

Also, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Waiting for Armageddon and more

Wednesday, Feb 10 2010

DEAR JOHN Special Forces soldier John (Channing Tatum) and privileged altruist Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) aren’t Abelard and Heloise, but their epistolary romance gives the USPS logo an erotic charge. To cut through the shameless syrup of their source material, adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels require that real heat be generated between love-torn leads. Tatum and Seyfried exhibit the same chemistry Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams shared in 2004’s The Notebook — the most profitable page-to-screen transition in the Sparks oeuvre — and Dear Johnclosely follows that film’s template: the South Carolina setting, the romance between a prole guy and rich gal, separation by war, putting pen to paper, mental impairments (autism in Dear John, Alzheimer’s inThe Notebook), casting one of the stars of Mean Girlsas the female lead. Director Lasse Hallström, who cut his teeth crafting mini-melodramas in Abba videos, deals with the inevitable emotional contrivances (mild 9/11-sploitation, diseases ex machina) matter of factly. The biggest surprise here is Tatum, whose butch reticence has never been put to better use: His saddest farewell isn’t to his lady but to a man even more uncommunicative than he is. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

GO  AJAMI A contemporary crime drama edged with Greek tragedy, Ajami is an untidy, despairing, oddly exhilarating joint venture by writer-directors Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Set on the tinderbox margins of a rundown quarter of the Tel Aviv–adjacent city of Jaffa, the movie’s multiple plots and unwieldy, mostly nonpro ensemble of Arabs and Jews might better lend themselves to a television series. Yet it teems with life, energized by fierce formal ambitions. Barely held together by chapter headings, the action — which opens in the middle of its converging storylines with a mistaken drive-by shooting — switches dizzyingly between time, place and point of view, and the fact that you can’t tell one kind of Semite from another works its own sadly ironic magic. The bleak future Ajami projects for peace within and across Israel’s borders can be hard to bear, but this sympathetically humanist movie takes its place among a new generation of Middle Eastern films, which measures the terrible toll of war not only in dead bodies but also in the very fabric of everyday life for Arabs, as well as Jews. (Ella Taylor) (Monica 4-Plex, Music Hall, Town Center)

GO  THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS Daniel Ellsberg was an ex-Marine, trusted analyst and Cold Warrior under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who, “from the entrails of a bureaucratic war machine” — per a latter-day peacenik cohort — converted to antiwar dove. Leaking 7,000 Xeroxed pages of the Pentagon Papers study to newspapers, Ellsberg gave the world an alternate history of five administrations’ policies in Southeast Asia, and spurred a breached White House into paranoiac espionage, ending in presidential resignation. Ellsberg has been resurrected as an “eternal left” hero in recent times, publishing a memoir in 2002 and being played by James Spader in a 2003 TV movie. Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith approach their subject as though burnishing an icon — he withstands the homage well. In old age, Ellsberg is still an articulate interviewee; seen in his years of infamy, he resembles a wiry amalgam of the Cassavetes regulars. The impressive roll call of assembled talking heads includes “Plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, who authorized the burgling of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office; and Anthony Russo, Ellsberg’s recently deceased accomplice and RAND Co. co-worker. Most Dangerous Man makes a few distracting embellishments — reenactments (some shabbily animated), melodramatic cloak-and-dagger scoring — but in the main, it’s a professional job, standing above the crowd of politico documentaries that proliferate like kudzu over art-house screens. (Nick Pinkerton) (Music Hall)

MY NAME IS KHAN was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week.

NORTH FACE No, not the parkas. The fearsome north face of the Eiger mountain became the object of national socialist obsession during the ’30s. An Olympic gold medal was promised to its first summit party — preferably to be of good, blond, Aryan stock, and the Nazi press glorified those alpinists who tried. Though, as a newspaper editor says in this dramatization of an epic, real-life attempt, “those two don’t care about the politics,” referring to the rustic Bavarian mountaineers who quit the Wehrmacht to make the attempt — after bicycling 700 kilometers to Switzerland with their gear! Benno Fürmann and Florian Lukas play the impetuous pair. Embellishing the story is a journalist from their home village, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who provides a love interest and tears. Climbers who know the famous tale needn’t be warned of spoilers: Shot on location, the film is slow, realistic, and excruciating in its latter stages. The difference between a 50- and 60-meter rope is life and death; a lost mitten means debilitating frostbite. There are no helmets, GPS units or cell phones to use to call for rescue. This isn’t a companion to climbing drama Vertical Limit but rather to the documentary Touching the Void. (The train-tunnel “gallery” windows drilled through the Nordwand are also familiar from Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction.) Director Philipp Stölzl makes the movie a tad more political (i.e., anti-Nazi) than it needs to be, but Fürmann’s stoic performance reduces the story to its harsh, true fundamentals. Of the risks in climbing (as in life), he says, “You can be the best, but it’s still a lottery.”(Brian Miller) (Citywide)

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