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Film Reviews: Get Smart, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg

What the puck? Maddin’s Winnipeg
Jody Shapiro/Everyday Pictures

BRICK LANE Bracket the fact that it’s an adaptation of Monica Ali’s great big treat of a 2003 novel about displacement and feminine emancipation, and British director Sarah Gavron’s tale of a young Bangladeshi woman unwillingly transplanted to London’s East End is absorbing enough, moving enough and visually attractive enough to provide a perfectly acceptable night out at the movies. Schooled in silent endurance, Nazneen is estranged from her rural home, beloved sister and much-older bear of a husband. As the rapidly changing post-9/11 racial politics of England take shape around her dingy housing estate, Nazneen tries to accept her fate — until she meets a handsome young convert to radical Islam (Christopher Simpson) who rocks her world at every level. With a limited budget, Gavron had no choice but to prune Ali’s huge cast of Dickensian supporting characters, but in the process, she’s also replaced the novel’s teeming vitality and tragicomic drive with a prettified lyricism that drags the story down. As Nazneen, the exquisite Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee is too inert to express the untapped reserves of strength, passion and defiance that will transform this quiescent village girl — which leaves the excellent Indian actor Satish Kaushik, as her Micawberish husband, to carry the weight of the difficult balance between tradition and modernity that lies at the heart of every great migrant journey of the soul. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5; Fallbrook 7) (Ella Taylor)

Jody Shapiro/Everyday Pictures

What the puck? Maddin’s Winnipeg

DASAVATHARAM Famed for his multiple roles (quadruplets in Michael Madhana Kamarajan) and Lon Chaneyesque physical transformations (a dwarf in Aproova Sagodharargal), “Universal Hero” Kamal Hassan pulls out all the stops for this uneven but hugely ambitious Kollywood blockbuster, the most expensive Tamil production of the year. Here Hassan appears as no less than 10 characters in a self-penned, head-spinning screenplay that begins with 13th-century religious persecution and ends amid the Asian tsunami of 2004. The disparate threads are tied together by a treatise on the interconnectedness of things and the mysterious ways in which God may (or may not) work. In between there is no shortage of violent action, wacky comedy and, of course, musical numbers — a three-hour head rush of cinematic delirium that couldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world. All over the map and not always in the best of taste, the picture falls short of its state-of-the-art ambitions, but the rickety CGI and mostly so-so musical numbers (the opener is, however, spectacular) are countered by exuberant pacing and Hassan’s go-for-broke efforts. His shifting body language delights in roles as diverse as elderly Indian grandmother, Japanese karate master and, yes, George W. Bush, despite unconvincing, rubbery makeup. But it’s as a bumbling, Telugu-speaking intelligence officer that Hassan effectively steals the movie from himself, a surreal achievement appropriate to the lunacy on display. (Culver Plaza) (Joey O’Bryan)

GET SMART As old Broadway shows are revived, new Broadway shows get spun from old movies so that new movies may be fashioned from ancient TV series. It’s an iron law of the culture industry that turns out to be a pleasant surprise in the case of Get Smart, the late-’60s sitcom retooled as a vehicle for Steve Carell. The most successful of the half-dozen spy shows that materialized in 1965, the original Get Smart was distinguished less by its absurdist attitude than by its catch phrases and casting. Standup comedian Don ­Adams drew on his nightclub William Powell impersonation to play Maxwell Smart, the dense, inept, officious Agent 86. No less deadpan or baroquely bumbling than the Adams original, Carell’s Smart is actually smarter. He’s also more lovably neurotic — a know-it-all intelligence analyst obsessed with his weight who dreams of becoming a real spy. As directed by Peter Segal, Get Smart redux is less a parody of a genre that had already passed into self-parody many moons before the TV show was in reruns, and more an all-purpose (and often quite funny) goofball action comedy in which ridiculous banter alternates with slapstick car chases and midair stunts. And though it acknowledges the post-9/11 world, Get Smart has no political subtext beyond a mild but persistent hostility toward the Bush administration. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)

GO  NEVER FOREVER Had Emily Watson’s stranger-shtupping martyr in Breaking the Waves woken up midboink one day and realized, Hey, hot sex with an anonymous cock donor beats the hell out of joyless self-sacrifice, the result might have been writer-director Gina Kim’s floridly plotted but acutely detailed erotic melodrama. In a worldlier (as in: of this world) variation on Watson’s self-abnegating holy innocent, Vera Farmiga plays a blue-eyed wraith whose successful Korean-American husband (David L. McInnis) attempts suicide over their failure to conceive. To save her spouse (or so she believes) and deflect his devout family’s withering scrutiny, she hires a dirt-poor Korean illegal (Jung-woo Ha, from Kim Ki-duk’s Time) to impregnate her on the down-low, offering $300 a pop with a hefty fertility bonus. The twists required to rig the movie’s romantic and emotional crises sound loony in synopsis, but Kim — a South Korean native who chronicled her tortuous American journey in Gina Kim’s Video Diary — focuses so fixedly on the particulars of gesture, transaction and body language (especially hands) that she almost hides the blatant scaffolding in plain sight. The fearless, frequently nude Farmiga conveys the awakening of passion in a spectrum of small, subtle shadings; among other virtues — including Matthew Clark’s rapt camerawork — the movie has some of the hottest, most precisely modulated sex scenes since A History of Violence. (ImaginAsian Center) (Jim Ridley)

 

PICK GO  MY WINNPIEG Guy Maddin’s frozen reverie on Canada’s “Gateway to the West” is barely defrosted by the warmth of the projector bulb. My Winnipeg opens with a bit of canned cheer in the form of the ’50s booster ballad “Wonderful Winnipeg.” Soon, however, the filmmaker is conjuring up his own “snowy, sleepy Winnipeg,” a place of eternal winter and endless night. A movie of moody reflection, My Winnipeg is shot mainly in black and white, punctuated with near-subliminal intertitles, fake snow flurries and the melancholy sounds of trains crossing the prairie. The filmmaker provides a turgid stream of consciousness, babbling on in an urgent, incantatory mock-travelogue style — with recurring shots of his stand-in (Darcy Fehr) asleep as he rides the midnight special. Maddin is convinced that he must leave the city “now!” Instead, he finds himself back in childhood, living in a frame house fronted by his mother’s beauty salon. Restaging his youth but making his own detours, Maddin transforms Winnipeg into a city of mystery. The world’s smallest park is a single tree; the sole respite from the city’s flatness is the landfill mountain known as Garbage Hill. Most arcane are the hockey rites — and also the most personal: Maddin claims to have been born in the locker room of the Winnipeg Maroons’ now-demolished home. “Who is alive anymore?” he wonders, as the movie wends toward closure. “It’s so hard to remember.” (Nuart)

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GO  POISONED BY POLONIUM: THE LITVINENKO FILE Who needs paranoid thrillers when we have Russia’s deathless gift for autocracy as plot material? Political documentary doesn’t get more fascinating — or depressing — than Andrei Nekrasov’s visual essay tying the London death by poisoning in 2006 of his friend Alexander Litvinenko to rampant corruption in the post-Soviet Moscow elite. A high-ranking official of the FSB, the secret service that succeeded the KGB after the collapse of Communism, Litvinenko joined several colleagues in blowing the whistle on their superiors, alleging widespread extortion, murder and collusion with organized crime. Fearing for his family, Litvinenko fled to England, where he was granted asylum. In taped interviews with Nekrasov, he charges the Russian government and secret service with, among other crimes, fomenting the war with Chechnya and orchestrating Moscow bombings in order to legitimize the continuation of a police state and a power-hungry ruling class. Any lingering doubts that Russian President Putin is a sinister figure will be dispelled by testimony offered that Putin began his career as a KGB student informer, diverted funds from a Leningrad food program to his own people, and continues to sponsor secret espionage and far worse. Nekrasov, a London-based playwright and director who was himself kicked out of theater school in St. Petersburg for refusing to collude with KGB persecution of students, gained extraordinary access not only to other dissidents who corroborate Litvinenko’s account, but also to the chief suspect in Litvinenko’s poisoning, now living large in Russia, who details the “harmlessness” of the poison found in Litvinenko’s bloodstream after he had tea with him, then offers Nekrasov a cuppa. Wisely, Nekrasov refuses. On the basis of this brave film, with its heartbreaking footage of a wasted Litvinenko dying in a London hospital, if I were he I’d hire a taste-tester for the foreseeable future. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

VIVA Viva does for late-’60s/early-’70s sexploitation what Far From Heaven did for Douglas Sirk, only without the subversion. Guaranteed to delight erotica fetishists and porn semioticians (if any exist) alike, Anna Biller’s homage re-creates the colors, fashion, lifestyles, Hammond organ solos and cheesy sex setups of the era without questioning the conventions. Viva (Biller) and Rick (Chad England) are the couple next door, who laugh at nothing for outrageously long periods of time and frankly discuss their sex lives in public; Sheila (Bridget Brno) and Mark (Jared Sanford) are much more square. The untimely rupture of both marriages leads Sheila and Viva to explore at least as many clichés as Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, from love-child nudist hippies to David Hemmings–aping swinging-London artists. About half an hour of this was enough for me — long before the orgy, LSD drugging and hallucination animation, I’d gotten the joke. Nevertheless, Biller’s re-creation is not only right-on but rigorous; the early shots of suburban Cali in particular are so perfectly framed as to suggest a weird structuralist goof. Still: for fans of the work of Charles Busch and other like-minded spoofs only. (Sunset 5) (Vadim Rizov)

 

WITHOUT THE KING Director Michael Skolnik’s generically crafted documentary on the precarious conditions of Swaziland, last functioning monarchy in Africa, is a curious mixture of banality and revelation. It’s the banality of suffering that’s most horrifying. The viewer is presented a familiar roll call of ills that — in this New Jersey–size country, population just over a million — have been magnified to staggering proportions: 69 percent of the country lives on less than 63 cents a day; highest rate of AIDS in the world; average life expectancy of 31 years. Scenes of crushing poverty (villagers ravage a garbage dump for animal intestines to eat) are contrasted with the extravagant lifestyle of a transparently indifferent king whose personal wealth of billions is kept in a Saudi bank account. As the seeds of violent revolt sprout, the king’s eldest daughter — introduced to viewers as she raps about designer clothes, expensive champagne and fast cars — undergoes a sparking of consciousness. Sent to California to get an education, her eyes are slowly opened to the world around her, and her passionate defenses of her father start to falter. By the time she returns home and visits an AIDS orphanage, her mouth dropping at what she witnesses, we feel we may be witnessing the birth of a royal revolutionary. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)


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