Movie Reviews: Beautiful Islands, Kings of the Evening, Racing Dreams 

Also, Farewell, Ramona and Beezus, Valhalla Rising, Mademoiselle Chambon

Thursday, Jul 22 2010

GO  BEAUTIFUL ISLANDS At a time when most advocacy documentaries seek to pummel you into a state of righteous fury, Japanese director Tomoko Kana’s Beautiful Islands is so gentle in its techniques that it’s practically radical by comparison. Employing a dispassionate, observational style, the film transports the viewer to three locations: the tiny South Pacific island nation Tuvalu, Italy’s romantic Venice, and the remote Alaskan village of Shishmaref. Their common thread is the threat they face from global warming, which is causing their lands to be flooded by nearby seas and oceans. Executive-produced by feature director Hirokazu Koreeda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking), Beautiful Islands shares with his movies a skill for depicting mundane human behavior in ways that suggest deeper universal truths: Kana presents each island’s customs in as unobtrusive a manner as possible, only gradually revealing how the locals are coping with the rising waters, which endanger their way of life. Consequently, anyone looking for the standard emotional cues of most topical documentaries, which tell you exactly when to boo or cheer, will be hopelessly adrift with this delicate, meditative film that offers no solutions to the planet-wide crisis. With a movie this placid, Kana risks crafting a picturesque travelogue enchanted with its own passivity, but Beautiful Islands’ tranquil rhythms ultimately work to underscore the documentary’s essential sadness — slowly, and right under our noses, parts of our shared world are being systematically washed away. (Tim Grierson) (Music Hall)

A homely bit of international Cold War cloak-and-dagger, starring badly dressed bureaucrats instead of chic spies, Farewell is based on a vital early-’80s espionage break involving the KGB, DST French intelligence and the CIA. Heads of all concerned governments appear in the film, but more attention is paid to the domestic lives of the reluctant agents as they’re infected by the habit of deception. Emir Kusturica plays Sergei Gregoriev, a Soviet colonel disillusioned by Andropov’s Russia, living off hopes for his son’s future and fond memories of an old appointment in Paris. In exchange for a little conversational French, Gregoriev begins leaking information about the overseas spy network to Pierre, an engineer working in Moscow (Guillaume Canet — like Kusturica, principally a director). That information trickles down to Ronald Reagan, played by the great Fred Ward, who seems to always be watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; its famous “Print the legend” may refer to Farewell director Christian Carion’s narrative liberties — Gregoriev is a sanitized version of the real Vladimir Vetrov — or the obfuscation preached by Willem Dafoe’s CIA big shot (William Casey?). Valance is one of the key texts in a film that emphasizes the part that culture plays in loyalty, along with 19th-century Romantic Alfred de Vigny and Queen, who Sergei’s teenage son is seen rocking out to on his contraband Walkman, a scene infused with the promised freedom implicit in decadent Western pop. (Nick Pinkerton)  (Landmark, Playhouse, Town Center)

Homer Hobbs (Tyson Beckford) is an ex-convict in Depression-era America trying desperately to turn his life around after being released from prison. With just a dollar in his pocket, he takes refuge in a boardinghouse whose tenants teem with secrets. The film’s real focus, though, is the Sunday night competitions in which neighborhood men put on their finest threadbare threads to compete for a $5 prize. Director Andrew P. Jones, working from a script co-written with his father, Robert, has crafted an unabashedly feel-good film. It moves briskly but leaves room for the stellar supporting cast to turn stock figures into appealingly shaded characters — including Lynn Whitfield as the stern but bighearted proprietor of the boardinghouse, Reginald T. Dorsey as a charming hustler, and Linara Washington as a no-nonsense woman whose hard-knocks past and cutting wit can’t completely hide her own good heart. The weakest acting link is Beckford, who lights up the screen even as his overly earnest performance has all the hallmarks of a novice. Shining through the story and familiar character types is a sharp observation: While the bolstering of wounded spirits is the weekly competition’s unstated goal, Kings goes deeper in its delicate unpeeling of the correlation between innovative black “style” and black despair. (Ernest Hardy) (Mann Plant)

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MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON Discretely drawn and elegantly photographed, Mademoiselle Chambon gives a French, working-class love triangle the Brief Encounter treatment. With long, steadfast takes and portraiture framing, director Stéphane Brizé creates an atmosphere that cradles the delicate connection that develops between her main characters, a bricklayer named Jean (Vincent Lindon) and his young son’s teacher, Mlle. Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). The fact that the two actors are a married but currently separated couple in real life makes sense of the distant, almost painful recognition with which Chambon first regards the coarse but gentle Jean, who is contentedly married to Anne-Marie (Aure Atika) when they meet. Brizé teases out the tyranny of attraction from a largely wordless, almost anthropological remove: Jean’s stress over his ailing father and Chambon’s appealing way with a violin notwithstanding, their bond remains mysterious, even to them. The film’s operative tension (will they or won’t they?) wavers toward the end, when a pregnancy cramps the couple’s otherwise smooth course of unresolved mooning; in the absence of that tension, the style swells with self-importance. When decision time finally arrives for Jean, it’s a relief to see something definitive happen, although by then, the film has grown too gestural to deliver that final punch to the gut. (Michelle Orange) (Playhouse, Royal, Town Center)

GO  RACING DREAMS With a title designed to recall Steve James’ classic sports aspiration doc Hoop Dreams and a wealth of detail and an understanding of the human stakes of its characters’ endeavors to match, Marshall Curry’s Racing Dreams follows three preteen racers through a make-it-or-break-it year in their impending NASCAR careers. Alternating lucid, easy-to-follow footage of the five races that comprise the national karting championship (the kids are all at least a year away from racing stock cars) with scenes of the subjects’ home lives, Curry documents the enormous pressure placed on these children not only to succeed on the track but to raise the money needed to continue. While Annabeth comes from a relatively stable middle-class family that make the necessary sacrifices to advance her career, Brandon lacks the funds — and the charisma to attract them. Fundraising’s no problem for 12-year-old Josh, who eerily turns corporate shill, thanking the race’s sponsors after a victory in a bid to win some of his own. No less than for the black inner-city teens of Hoop Dreams, cash is the name of the game in Curry’s fascinating doc, even as the kids’ motivation remains a pure love of the sport. (Andrew Schenker) (Sunset 5, Playhouse, Town Center)

RAMONA AND BEEZUS Despite the presence of Mouse House starlet Selena Gomez, Ramona and Beezus is less Disney than Hallmark Channel, a loose adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s first novel in her beloved kid-lit series, which is wholesome to the point of dull. Without much in the way of a governing narrative structure, Elizabeth Allen’s innocuous film charts Ramona Quimby (Joey King) — her age advanced here from 4 to a more precocious 9 years old — as she suffers a series of embarrassments in front of family, friends and classmates. King captures Ramona’s spunky, oddball spirit, but her imaginative antics, often embellished with ill-fitting fantasy CGI, frequently take a backseat to the inconsequential romantic predicaments of big sis Beezus (Gomez) and Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ramona’s story admirably attempts to address issues of adult abandonment, social alienation and economic instability, the last of these via a timely subplot about Ramona’s dad (John Corbett) being downsized; it’s all wrapped up with disingenuous happily-ever-after tidiness. Yet even more than the overriding milquetoast atmosphere, it’s this focus on real-world fears that destabilizes Allen’s film, as the plethora of pressing adult concerns eventually becomes so pronounced that any trace of comedic verve dissipates, thereby draining the proceedings of the very color that defines its idiosyncratic protagonist. (Nick Schager) (Citywide)

VALHALLA RISING After the increasingly black comic violence of his Pusher trilogy and Bronson, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn — who apparently never got over A Clockwork Orange — goes left field with Valhalla Rising, a movie as maddeningly ponderous and self-important as its black-metal title. As with Robert Zemeckis’ recent Beowulf, Refn is inexplicably fixated on the conflict between virtuous pagans and hypocritical, self–respect-destroying Christians during the Viking era; specifically, mute warrior One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) versus all kinds of Christian scum. This is full-on portentous allegory, with One-Eye ironically ending up martyred as an alternate pagan Christ, while hypocritical Christians proselytize, then get picked off by unseen hillside savages. There’s a vague Lars von Trier–ish feeling hanging over the whole movie, not just in the unflinching yet weirdly comic gore but in the ridiculously weighty chapter titles (“Chapter V: Hell,” “Chapter VI: The Sacrifice”). Frequently dull and stupidly obvious, you nonetheless have to applaud the misguided ambition of Refn’s career turn. If nothing else, as the metal guitars grow louder and louder, the synergy between Viking imagery and the pagan-obsessed metal freaks it spawned has never been clearer. (Vadim Rizov) (Sunset 5)

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