Movie Reviews: Living in Emergency, Micmacs, The Painter Sam Francis 

Also, Agora, Burzynski, Ondine and more

Thursday, Jun 3 2010

AGORA Not lacking for conviction or cojones, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a big, broad, stridently atheistic sword-and-sandals entertainment that recounts a tragic turning point in world history. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer in 4th-century Alexandria, whose life and work is increasingly threatened by a bloody societal shift toward reactionary, virulent Christianity. To its credit, the film calls out Christianity’s ignominious imperialism and locates a valid historical analogue to today’s religious extremism. Yet good intentions shan’t save Amenábar from his own ham-fisted methods. It’s one thing to depict crusaders hurling a cynic onto hot coals, ritually slaughtering pagans, stoning and massacring Jews and enforcing total faith — but need they wear uniformly dark, ragged cloaks and snarl through unkempt faces, while pagans dress brightly, bathe frequently, and no doubt smell really good? Servant boy–cum-wispy–indie-rocker-of-antiquity Max Minghella even comes to learn that slavery is far better than belief. Amenábar’s camera assumes extreme low- and high angles, setting heroes against starry skies before freely zooming back to assume a celestial POV (praise be to Google Maps). What’s missing is a satisfying, plausible middle ground, where heady ideas and metaphors coalesce into compelling drama. Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) has the ambition but not yet the skill of a Kubrick or Spielberg to make visual flourishes function emotionally. The music swells, characters glower and suffer in slow-mo, and Amenábar champions the life of the intellect by condescending to ours. (Eric Hynes) (Landmark)

BURZYNSKI Eric Merola, a former art director of commercials, is either unusually credulous, doesn’t understand the difference between a documentary and an advertisement, or has an undisclosed relationship with the subject of his allegedly nonfiction first film. Consciously or not, Merola is shilling madly for Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a Polish-born physician who has run afoul of federal authorities and shown up on several quackometers for his claim to have cured scores of patients of a lethal brain cancer with a treatment derived from animal urine. Burzynski’s smooth patter and bad dye job don’t clinch the case against him — though how he gained the trust of desperate patients is anybody’s guess — but neither do they mitigate the powerful stench that rises from his plaintive cries of victimization by “jealous” government agencies and courts that blocked his right to complete clinical trials. Narrated in a weirdly robotic voice-over, Burzynski violates every basic rule of ethical filmmaking: Merola interviews only Burzynski’s supporters; produces no patient records other than the doctor’s own; and offers no credible proof of the drug’s success and no data about its side effects, even as he slams chemotherapy and radiation. Who’s the bigger charlatan — Burzynski or Merola — and why is this conspiratorial rubbish being released into theaters? (Ella Taylor) (Music Hall)

JOHN RABE Like many historical dramas and biopics, John Rabe operates between the extremes of broad-stroked symbolism and selective detail, between poetic license and classroom exposition, between history and his story. The film recounts the true and largely overlooked actions of German businessman Rabe (a fine Ulrich Tukur), whose decision to remain in Nanking during the Japanese siege of 1937 made him a hero in China and a nuisance to the Nazis. A loyal member of the party, Rabe first fends off bombers by hiding factory workers underneath a giant swastika, then commands a safety zone that spares more than 200,000 civilian lives. It’s a remarkable story, and filmmaker Florian Gallenberger does his best to shade his portrait with complications and mitigations. But for a story not often told, John Rabe feels awfully familiar, deliberately recalling the wartime tragedies of Berlin, Warsaw, Spielberg, Polanski, et al. There are good Germans and bad Germans (one of the latter sporting a nasty scar), good Japanese and bad Japanese (snorting and glowering like dragons), a crack team of hardy heroes, whiffs of romance among the ruins, and somehow just one lead Chinese character. Historical melodramas like John Rabe soberly re-create events yet still manage to sensationalize them, whether through lingering shots of stripped schoolgirls and decapitated heads, or via a willfully uplifting climax. Cello-scored pantomimes of resilience and grief can make us feel, but it’s not always evident who or what purpose that serves. (Eric Hynes) (Monica, Town Center)

KILLERS was not screened in advance of our deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

GO   LIVING IN EMERGENCY Uninterested in heroicizing  the four Western doctors it follows through their missions in the Congo and Liberia, or even in whitewashing the ethical challenges of an organization like Médecins Sans Frontières, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders takes a rough — in several senses — measure of how humanitarian aid works. Two of the doctors are making their first MSF missions, two are veterans — one more wearied than the other. Director Mark Hopkins stays close to their experiences, whether they are treating a hernia in a bush tent or celebrating their short-lived success in reassembling a broken skull. The doctors’ motivations remain somewhat enigmatic, even as the two veterans emerge as more fully drawn characters. A matriarchal Italian in braids and long, stylish skirts calls the decision to close a clinic in postwar Liberia “a criminal mistake”; an Australian surgeon rips on UNICEF before suggesting, in a rare moment of ethnographic dissonance, that it’s more rewarding to practice medicine in war-torn Congo, the current rape capital of the world, because it is a country “where people care about each other.” Hopkins focuses on the work, refusing to get too close to his subjects, who themselves struggle — as a matter of survival — against the human instinct to not just cure but to connect to those in pain. (Michelle Orange) (Music Hall)

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