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Behind the Burly Q, Breath Made Visible, Mother and Child

BABIES Did I say "Awww" at Babies? I did. Did I giggle at the adorable things babies do in Babies? Oh my, yes. Did I ovulate like a dozen times during Babies? You better believe it. Is Babies a good movie? Of course not. But that's missing the point — like asking if a porn video is a good movie. Babies gets the job done. A canny exercise in feature-length YouTube, Babies follows four international infants from birth to toddling. Cutting from rural Mongolia to Tokyo and from the Namibian desert to San Francisco, director Thomas Balmes shows us little Bayar, Mari, Ponijao and Hattie as they nurse, sleep, poop, eat, crawl and play. Baby Bayar is a particular star, a sort of Mongolian Ben Stiller who endures countless indignities at the hands of his mischievous older brother, a yurt-invading rooster and a thirsty goat. (The audience also really loved it when he peed all over himself.) Other than the passage of time, there's not much of an organizing principle to Babies, and it offers little in the way of context. It's pretty much just straight-up babies, all the way through. This makes it easy to determine who will like Babies. If you're expecting a baby, you'll like Babies. If you once had a baby who is now grown, you'll like Babies. If you have a baby right now, you would like Babies, although, obviously, you'll never be able to leave the house to see it. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)

GO  BEHIND THE BURLY Q Although now swathed in nostalgic longing/hipster appropriation, the art of burlesque was once a vibrant, multitiered cultural enterprise — escapist family entertainment for the working class, an erotic getaway for men of all classes, and a carefully constructed art form. Leslie Zemeckis' slightly ramshackle but utterly entertaining Behind the Burly Q is a painstakingly researched love letter to the women and men who once made up the community of burlesque performers. If the documentary could be a little more tightly edited, its treasure trove of vintage photographs and performance footage is enough to make historians and fans of classic erotica swoon. The film's visual component is complemented by insightful talking heads (retired performers, as well as feminist scholars), who map a fascinating evolution of the form while filling in the backstories of the performers. It's the latter — ranging from horrifying stories of poverty, violence and abuse to professional and artistic triumphs — that really pull the viewer in. While icons such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans (the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) are given ample screen time, Gypsy Rose Lee, the biggest crossover success, is not only given a relatively brief mention but is also bitchily (and very entertainingly) ripped to shreds by folks who knew her. (Ernest Hardy) (Sunset 5)

GO  BREATH MADE VISIBLE Postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, who celebrates her 90th birthday in July, is a force of nature. Not the kind who steamrolls everything in her path but one who has a gently, relentlessly persistent drive, like a wave. Breath Made Visible, Ruedi Gerber's portrait of the artist as an ageless fount, transports us to the woods of Marin County, where the pioneering dancer and choreographer has lived and taught the principles of improvisation and collaboration for decades. The documentary's physical center is the enormous wooden deck that the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin built for his wife, pitched among the redwoods in their vast yard. It serves as studio, performance space, healing hub, refuge and mecca for those drawn to Anna's seerlike spirit and grace. It's no small feat to make a legend life-sized and accessible without dispelling her greatness and mystique, yet Gerber pulls off a delicate tightrope act with relaxed ease. (Michael Fox) (Music Hall)

CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY Passionate Republican, fervent Orthodox Jew, ruthless wheeler-dealer, charismatic self-promoter, dreamer and doer, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff at his height fashioned himself into a human ATM, lining the pockets of politicians on every side of the congressional aisle. Sooner or later, everybody from Tom DeLay to Patrick Kennedy was at least marginally in his debt. His meteoric rise and fall may seem on the surface to be yesterday's news, but as recounted here by filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the man's uniquely dramatic career still has much to reveal about how power malfunctions in America. Indeed, Abramoff's story is so much larger-than-life that Casino Jack is but one of two excellent films about the man coming out this year. The other — starring Kevin Spacey and due in the fall — is a witty, psychological interpretive dance that persuasively imagines the climate inside Abramoff's head. Gibney's take is by contrast a thorough, diligent history that must work around the man (Abramoff is still in prison, unavailable for interview). Getting everybody around his subject to open up, Gibney is then able to map, as per his movie's subtitle The United States of Money, which made (and makes) such corruption possible. Abramoff fleeced Indian tribes of millions, while affecting to represent their gambling interests; he entangled himself with shady, murderous characters while launching his own fleet of gaming boats — hence the nickname, "Casino Jack." More chillingly, as Gibney's patient, relentless X-ray of a movie magnifies in detail, Abramoff leads DeLay and others on junkets that hallow the sweatshop archipelago that are the Marianas Islands as "a triumph of free enterprise." Gibney makes the case that the United States sponsors and protects traffic in slave labor, which continues to this day. The blindfold that allows us to tolerate this horror (if only tacitly, in our ignorance) is the very mad-money ethic for which Abramoff was the ecstatic ambassador — and convenient fall guy. Casino Jack and The United States of Money is indispensible viewing. (F.X. Feeney) (Landmark, Playhouse, Sunset 5, Town Center)

 

HAPPINESS RUNS Born and raised on a polygamous commune in the wilderness, embittered teen hippie Victor (Mark L. Young) has realized that the nonconformist ideals of his elders—like his parents (odd-duck pairing Andie MacDowell and Mark Boone Junior) and a seductive hypnotist guru (Rutger Hauer)—have produced a litter of burnt-out, oversexed, downright oppressed kids without the ability to see their looming self-destruction. Loosely based on writer-director Adam Sherman's similar cult upbringing and disillusionment, the film builds on a fascinating cautionary tale, but doesn't develop its characters past whatever movie-of-the-week crisis each suffers from. We get that everyone's folks are too busy getting high or laid, but without a deepening of those parent-child dynamics, we're left with a tacky Lord of the Flies scenario, seemingly filmed by Larry Clark like a trippy '60s surf movie. Victor doesn't have the scratch to move away, and he's also distracted by his constantly naked, childhood love, Becky (Hanna Hall, the youngest sis from The Virgin Suicides), who has returned to care for her ailing dad and fuck every boy just to feel anything. (Aaron Hillis) (Sunset 5)

IRON MAN 2 As Iron Man 2 begins, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark — mechanical genius, Forbes 400 perennial, the pop star CEO of Stark Industries — has dropped any pretense of a secret identity, dealing now with the murderous envy created by conspicuous success. Enter Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a rogue Russian physicist whose lifelong grudge against the Stark family inspires him to weld together his own knockoff suit. He'll find a sponsor in CEO Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a Tony Stark imitator whose Hammer Industries finishes a consistent second place to Stark. The screenplay, by Justin Theroux, trusts that More is More. There's techie lifestyle porn, hot cars, hot guns, establishing shots jetting from Moscow and Malibu to Monaco, and three dozen comic books' worth of exposition girdled into two straining hours. The elements that made the first Iron Man a rather likable blockbuster have not entirely evaporated. Director Jon Favreau brings together interesting American movie stars and lets them actually play through scenes (even though Rourke and Rockwell play theirs together as if in two different — both interesting — movies). But the only reason Sam Jackson's Agent Nick Fury shows up is, essentially, to do press for the upcoming Avengers movie. This sub-subplot is symptomatic of the franchise-first mind-set in the era of the $200M "Episode," where films are constructed less as freestanding edifices than as elements in superstructures. The idea is that we learn to trust that any extraneous-seeming thread will connect to something in another couple of summers and pay off, assuming the movie does. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

THE LIGHTKEEPERS Though her makeup is too modern for this 1912 period piece, Blythe Danner is luminous in the role of housekeeper for a wealthy young heiress, played by Mamie Gumer. Danner, the film's sole strength, does what she can with the material, but it's not enough to offset writer-director Daniel Adams' cliché-ridden script and leaden direction, or the excruciating hamfest that is Richard Dreyfuss' lead performance. The film opens with curmudgeonly Cape Cod lighthouse keeper Seth (Dreyfuss) browbeating his latest assistant, who huffily quits. Immediately, the Fates wash a mysterious, handsome man (Tom Wisdom) up on shore. Claiming to have lost his memory save for his suspiciously generic name — John Brown — the young man sets about ingratiating himself with Seth, whose tiresome rants against women are lifted straight from the Little Rascals' He-Man Woman Haterz Club. When the heiress and her housekeeper move in next door, all the pieces of both Seth's and John's shadowy pasts too conveniently and obviously fall into place. Adams strains for charm and whimsy, interjected with wackiness (runaway horses being clumsily chased; mishaps with lobster traps) and it's all a bust, as is the sappy score that swells every time the camera pans o'er spacious skies and crashing waves. (Ernest Hardy) (Citywide)

 

MERCY Johnny (Scott Caan) is a Hollywood party boy/successful novelist who tosses out bon mots like, "You hitting that?" Then his best seller is panned by Mercy (Wendy Glenn), a New York critic with the bone structure of a supermodel, who accuses Johnny of "lacking" depth." In a town full of overly eager and opportunistic easy lays, Mercy gets Johnny's attention with her dis. "Usually, with women, I can only hear the teacher from Peanuts," Johnny tells his bros. "But with her, I heard her." Scripted by Caan and directed by fashion photographer Patrick Hoelck, Mercy looks like an Urban Outfitters catalog and plays like A Very Special Episode of Entourage, only sporadically convincing that it's taking such form to mobilize a critique of the same. It's literally a vanity project; Caan has written himself a character who utilizes his own unusual physicality. His boyishly handsome face suits the vulnerability of a romantic hero, but he also has the body of a linebacker squeezed down to the height of a jockey, and his short-guy-with-something-to-prove swagger befits Johnny's blend of cockiness and insecurity. The performance is a bit too perfect, leaving no room for spontaneity or happy accident. Speaking of accidents, Caan's written a hell of one — as Chekhov promised, an asthma inhaler brought out (and cloyingly commented on) in the first act points to tragedy in the third. At the risk that giving him a bad review will cause Scott Caan to fall in love with me, I must note the irony in a film that seeks to critique superficiality, only to (spoiler alert!) fall back on the old, shallow "dead fiancées deepen dipshits" trick. (Karina Longworth) (Sunset 5)

GO  MOTHER AND CHILD Rodrigo Garcia has admirably distinguished himself through his commitment to creating intelligent roles for his heavily distaff casts. Like his debut, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), and Nine Lives (2005), Mother and Child is a compassionate, multithreaded tale about the lives of everyday women. Driven by the strength of the performances, Garcia's latest takes potentially banal subjects — what defines "family," biological parents versus those who adopt — and transforms them into something powerful. The film focuses on three women: defensive physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening), who lives with her ailing mother and writes letters to the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 14; steely attorney Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), adopted at birth and free of emotional attachments to anyone; and high-strung bakery owner Lucy (Kerry Washington), who, unable to conceive, begins the process of adoption with her husband. In a film with several graceful touches — Mother and Child stands out for its color-blind casting and the casualness of its interracial relationships — Garcia's strenuous avoidance of another reproductive choice disappoints all the more. None of the pregnant women, regardless of age or financial security, discusses abortion. The sanctity of the titular connection is real, as are the characters Garcia creates. But in not addressing an option that these women surely must have grappled with, Garcia's laudable film stops short of being great. (Melissa Anderson) (Arclight Hollywood, Landmark)

MULTIPLE SARCASMS Anyone who tells you he has a great career, perfect marriage and superior parenting skills does not. And if he then declares that he's suddenly going to abandon all of that for a belated playwriting career, look out. The old midlife crisis plot gains no freshness when staged back in 1979, though Timothy Hutton's wide plaid pants, his leather-booted, beret-wearing wife (Dana Delany), and fern-infested Upper West Side apartment are impeccably period-rendered. Multiple Sarcasms, directed and co-written by first-timer Brooks Branch, appears constructed from the old sets, costumes and extras from Annie Hall. For most of the film, whiny, self-absorbed architect Gabriel holes up in his bathroom with a tape recorder, pouring out his discontents for his manuscript, when not pining for his BFF (Mira Sorvino). A manic twin to Hutton's cul-de-sacked loser in Lymelife, Gabriel comes across as a selfish bastard surrounded by three excessively patient females (including precious 12-year-old daughter played by India Ennenga). Multiple Sarcasms — also the name of the Feiffer-esque play he'll write — reeks of the same selfishness. A vanity production by Branch, previously a studio-branding consultant, it's the kind of odious, self-validating wish fulfillment that actually makes you appreciate the more generous self-absorption of Henry Jaglom films. At one point, Gabriel's agent (Stockard Channing) warns tartly against "this fucking whining white guy shit." But the movie doesn't listen. (Brian Miller) (Monica, Playhouse, Sunset 5, Town Center)

GO  OSS 117: LOST IN RIO In gleefully ripping on both classic spy movies and T&A-obsessed Frenchmen, OSS 117: Lost in Rio reasserts the primary definition of "burlesque": broad parody, rather than broads in pasties. Seemingly derivative of both James Bond and his groovy flipside Austin Powers, the titular agent (played by Jean Dujardin) most closely resembles himself: The film is based on a popular series of books by Jean Bruce, the first of which predates Bond by four years. It is 1967, and 117 is sent to Rio to retrieve a microfilm containing the names of French SS collaborators. Director Michel Hazanavicius (also behind 2006's OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies) commits to the festivities with gusto, if a creeping lack of imagination. The look of the reference-heavy film, mostly shot on location in Brazil, is impeccably cheesy, but the Nazi humor and awkward sexist and racist eruptions smell a little stale. Yet given time, the film develops an energy all its own. Hazanavicius knows his sight gags (an extremely low-speed chase involving two hospital patients in butt-baring gowns is one highlight) and silly set pieces (a North by Northwest spoof involving Christ the Redeemer is another). But it is Dujardin who wins the day — and eventually, of course, the gimlet-eyed girl — as the perfect, preening fool. (Michelle Orange) (Nuart)


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