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Film Reviews: Semi-Pro, Summer Palace, A Walk to Beautiful

Summer Palace
Palm Pictures

CHICAGO 10 Thirteen months after Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president in a hall ringed with barbed wire and surrounded by National Guardsmen, amid four days of violent clashes between Chicago police and antiwar protesters, the government charged eight political activists with crossing state lines as part of a conspiracy to incite riot. Their carnivalesque trial resulted in five convictions (later overturned) and citations of contempt that included two defense lawyers — hence writer-director Brett Morgen's Chicago 10. Arguably the greatest media spectacle of the high '60s, the convention telecast included ample street violence. But if the convention was a tragedy, the trial was a farce. Revisiting events at once overly familiar and impossible to imagine, Morgen's impure mix of documentary footage and rotoscopic computer animation has a deliberate and irritating absence of context, and however authentically chaotic, Chicago 10 is insufficiently frenzied. According to the trades, Morgen's deliberately ahistorical treatment is a dry run for Steven Spielberg's planned Trial of the Chicago 7 — to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin, with Sacha Baron Cohen and possibly Will Smith as Abbie and Bobby. Schindler's List gave the Holocaust a happy ending, and Saving Private Ryan reduced World War II to a single mission, so why not recast the inexplicable convulsions of the late '60s in terms of personality? From bloody tragedy to savage farce to starstruck myth. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

Palm Pictures

Summer Palace

 
CITY OF MEN City of God, Fernando Meirelles' 2002 film about Rio's shantytowns, was spun off into a hit TV series (something like the Brazilian equivalent of The Wire) featuring two of the movie's youngest stars, favela-bred Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha. Now the boys are grown, and the series is being respun off into another film. After so many years in character, the actors disappear easily into their roles, Ace (Silva) and Wallace (Cunha), best friends who grew up together in the shadow of Pool Hall Hill, where Wallace's drug-dealer cousin reigns supreme. This is an all-male world — presumably because the town's women are off not being stupid, not getting themselves killed and not abandoning their kids — and themes of fatherhood and brotherhood are particularly resonant in Elena Soarez's script. Neither Ace nor Wallace knew his father while growing up (although a tragic-­verging-on-maudlin series of flashbacks reveals that their fathers did know each other), and after a misguided quest to discover their roots and avenge the past, they turn to the future, recognizing that they are each other's best chance to escape the entrancing violence of gang warfare. The film works best in its anthropological mode, showing us rotting schools and clueless policemen, and carefully laying out the shifting alliances and frantic social maneuvering of the shantytown's residents. Fleeting moments of compassion and connection are punctuated with bursts of death, and teenage boys swap Kalashnikovs as if they're baseball cards. Still, Soarez is a bit too insistent on Ace's and Wallace's fundamental goodness and innocence, without bothering to explain where they came by these qualities; hints of a back story will only frustrate viewers unfamiliar with the TV show. Paulo Morelli directs capably, with a heavy dash of MTV-generation flair: hypersaturated colors, close-ups of skin glittering with sweat, and a constant patter of gunfire that undergirds the soundtrack like a steady heartbeat. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Julia Wallace)

 
THE LOST A vile addition to the River's Edge /Out of the Blue sick-soul-of-suburbia video shelf, this punishing 2005 feature by writer-producer-director Chris Sivertson starts out as an ambitious, above-average, no-budget psycho-noir, only to nosedive into showboating sadism. Adapted from a novel by transgressive horror idol Jack Ketchum (who appears as a bartender), Sivertson's portrait of a preening small-town sociopath sets its tone with a ghastly double murder, then leaps forward four years to find the teenage friends involved now suffering to various degrees. Except, that is, for the ringleader, Ray Pye (Marc Senter), an effete greaser and nascent serial killer, who alternately browbeats and sweet-talks his traumatized girlfriend (Shay Astar) while stoking his short fuse with coke. Sivertson, who made the unjustly panned Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me, threads a dense, intriguing web of diseased community around his hateful protagonist, and peoples it with keen supporting players, including Michael Bowen and Ed Lauter as grizzled detectives and Dee Wallace-Stone in one harrowing scene as a dead girl's blotto mom. But Senter's smarmy badass posturing in the lead — an entrance exam for the Crispin Glover School of Thespian Understatement — only brings out the movie's crap nihilism. It ends in a drearily inevitable bloodbath, the kind of juvenile edgier-than-thou endurance test that will toss a pregnant nobody in harm's way just to indulge some kicky references to Sharon Tate. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)

 

 
NOAH'S ARK "How much can you take?" asks a sinister voice over helicopter shots of Budapest at night; cut to an old man (Dezso Garas) in bed, awakened by the sounds of a near-biblical downpour. "It's the end of the world," he croaks with something like resignation. It's a dislocating opening, and it hints that Noah's Ark, the first feature in 20 years by the veteran Hungarian filmmaker Sándor Pál, will have an apocalyptic follow-through. Those feelings are dispelled roughly 30 seconds later, when the action devolves into cacophonous comedy by introducing the eccentric, ethnically diverse residents of an apartment complex as they cope with the effects of the downpour. This mostly involves them screaming and hurling racist invective at one another. Eventually, our focus returns to the duffer glimpsed in the first scene — a pensioner named Stock, who lives with his teenage granddaughter (Angéla Stefanovics). Their relationship doesn't seem to be particularly close — she has a screaming fit when he comes into her bedroom to wake her — but that doesn't stop Stock, a crafty curmudgeon whose apparent lifelong ambition is to own a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, from applying for a bizarre reality-TV contest to anoint "Hungary's Best Grandfather." The rest of the film details the pair's preparations for the event and the way their fractious neighbors attempt to help out under the pretense that they'll each get a share of the prize money. Pal's affection for his human menagerie keeps them from becoming grotesques, and he's not out to skewer their greed either: Noah's Ark may be scattered and tonally inconsistent — it's at once crass and wistful, direct and allusive, despairing and carnivalesque — but it's finally nothing if not good-spirited. (Grande 4-Plex) (Adam Nayman)

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PENELOPE "A Fairy Tale Like No Other"? Penelope's influences are right up-front — there's the Tim Burton production design (overstocking each frame with curios) and Amélie music-box wistfulness tinkling all about. The film's titular heroine (Christina Ricci) is born into money but, thanks to a hex brought on by a distant ancestor's snobbery, is accursed with a sow's snout (she's a prettier breed of The Twilight Zone's pig people). Director Mark Palansky starts Penelope by whisking us through a "The Story Until Now" sequence, and doesn't slacken much once the real tale starts in — released fully two years after shooting, the film's been trimmed to the quick. This little piggy ventures off her family estate for the first time into a hybrid London-New York-Belle Epoque beyond, to experience life and love (with the impeccably scruffy James McAvoy, ready to front some cruddy sparkle-and-fade NME-championed band). Ricci, though, is appealingly human, and some acknowledgment of the importance of female friendship, in addition to romance, is faintly touching. The social function of fables has long switched from cautionary chiding to coddling self-esteem. Hence the moral here: Self-acceptance brings inner beauty out. It's not quite that easy, but it's also not a bad lie to buy. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

 
ROMULUS, MY FATHER Known for his dramatic intensity in works like Chopper and Munich, Eric Bana runs the risk of falling into a typecasting rut; he's repeatedly attracted to brooding, unsmiling characters as if becoming a great actor means just emoting really hard. The worst-case scenario of this approach can be seen in Romulus, My Father, a plodding adaptation of Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita's coming-of-age memoir, which mistakes unremitting glumness for insight. In the early 1960s, the young Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee) moves from Yugoslavia to rural Victoria, Australia, with his moody father, Romulus (Bana), and philandering mother, Christina (Franka Potente), growing up a hostage to her infidelity and depression and his dad's futile attempts to keep the family together. Directed by Australian actor Richard Roxburgh and adapted by Nick Drake (not the late songwriter), Romulus, My Father is admirably unsentimental about the ravages of poverty and mental illness on the foundations of family. But soon the endless succession of heartaches that visit Gaita's brood — including multiple suicide attempts and romantic betrayals — becomes monotonous and unbearable, the cinematic equivalent of someone slowly pressing his thumb into your forehead. Bana's performance, like those of his co-stars, is affecting but one-note, and the film doesn't offer any fresh observations into the hard-knock life. Romulus, My Father is a stacked deck determined to make you feel bad, but it rarely makes you feel anything else. (Monica 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)

 
SEMI-PRO Better than Blades of Glory, which wasn't nearly as good as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which was a little better than Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was almost as funny as Old School, which was better than everything else Will Ferrell had done up to that point. This is what it's come down to with Ferrell: grading his movies in various shades of enh as each one blends into the next till they're all one giant gray blob of feh. Which sells short the semifunny Semi-Pro — essentially Major League clad in 1970s short shorts and topped with a few 'fros for fun, as Ferrell's washed-up one-hit blunder tries to get his woeful Flint Tropics into the NBA before the ABA vanishes out of existence. Still, you seen one Will Ferrell sports comedy, you're good. What distinguishes this one from the others: great characters, among them Woody Harrelson's washed-up vet seeking redemption and romance, Andre Benjamin's blustering baller with NBA aspirations, and Andrew Daly's play-by-play man. Funny in spots, but the game's four quarters — or two too many. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

 
FILM PICK  SUMMER PALACE In its broad strokes, Mainland Chinese director Lou Ye's Summer Palace adheres to a hallowed tradition of American and European movies about idealistic collegiate youths becoming sexually and politically radicalized. Only instead of Berkeley or Paris in '68, the setting is Beijing in the late 1980s, where Yu Hong (the excellent Lei Hao), a student hailing from the northern city of Tumen, arrives to begin her university studies just as the student unrest that will eventually lead to the Tiananmen Square protests is simmering to a boil. The film's restaging of that contentious episode is one reason why Summer Palace, which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, resulted in Lou being slapped by Chinese authorities with a five-year ban on his filmmaking. Another is the film's explicit sexuality, which rivals Ang Lee's recent Lust, Caution in its frequency and candor. Lou (who first came to the attention of American audiences with his 2000 Vertigo homage, Suzhou River) is clearly a believer that if you liberate the body, the mind will soon follow, which is precisely what Yu Hong sets about doing in the company of her fellow student, the broodingly handsome Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), who drifts in and out of her arms — and those of her best friend, Li Ti (Ling Hu) — over much of the next two decades. Without overselling the metaphor, Lou turns this menage à trois (or à  quatre, if you include Li Ti's own on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ruo Gu) into a microcosm of the period's major political upheavals. As student solidarity reaches its peak, so does the intensity of the lovers' passions; then, as the Berlin Wall crumbles and the Iron Curtain parts, the characters scatter across the globe, whereupon they find that all the social freedoms of the New Europe and New China can not quell their restless hearts. Lou, whose previous Purple Butterfly similarly grafted romantic melodrama against the swirl of sociopolitical chaos (in that case, the 1930s occupation of China by Japan), scales Summer Palace like a Tolstoyan epic, though his penchant for florid poeticism (seen to best — or worst — effect in the voiceover excerpts from Yu Hong's diary) and jolting narrative ellipses sometimes threatens to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. What never lessens is the movie's rapturous eroticism, and the exquisite longing in each one of Yu Hong's sideways glances. (Music Hall; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

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THE URN For fans of Jewish humor craving Z-grade Neil Simon shtick, The Urn contains plenty of "toches" jokes, an Ivy League-­educated son who returns home as a Hasid, a blind grandfather (Emmy winner Fyvush Finkel) who had "Bubbeh" cremated but still carries her ashes around in the titular container, and an ex-con cousin who needs a liver transplant. All of this befalls Joseph (Stanley Kamel), a Westside schlemiel who's going through a midlife crisis — and dealing with the return of his shiksa ex-wife with her llama-dislodged clitoris. (Don't ask.) Writer-director Skip Usen's concept may sound zany, but as a film, it's labored and earns almost no laughs. The script feels like a play that was turned down by the Santa Monica Community Jewish Theater — and translating it to the big screen does The Urn no favors. The music is corny, the lighting amateurish, and the actors look awkward and pained as they recite wince-inducing punch lines like, "What kind of world is it when a youngster can't attend the execution of his own mother?" Oy veh. (Regency Fairfax) (James C. Taylor)

 
VIVERE 'Tis the eve of Christmas, festival of light, but three more or less German women — two young half-Italian sisters (Esther Zimmering and Kim Schnitzer) and a much older stranger played by veteran actress Hannelore Elsner — spend it in the darkness of their own pain and losses while bumping into one another at points across the new Europe, whose porous borders have inspired a whole new style of fractured filmmaking and identity crisis. The night's action keeps looping back on itself to tie the women's stories together and shift perspective from one to the other, though truthfully only by a little. I like writer-director Angelina Maccarone's ambition, but her technical ingenuity exceeds her grasp of potentially complex emotions, which get stuck in a groove of mawkish self-pity. There is pregnancy, and lesbian longing, and guilt and rebellion and retirement panic, some of which is handled with sensitivity. But the overarching theme of abandonment is hammered into the ground with lugubrious intensity, followed by a lurch into optimism wherein the plot ties itself into a shiny bow of insight labeled "Chin up, be nice, watch the stars, go home — wherever that is." (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

 

GO  A WALK TO BEAUTIFUL Five women, isolated in their own corners of the Ethiopian hinterland, undertake a pilgrimage to a free hospital in Addis Ababa. All of them have long suffered from obstetric fistulas — tissue tears from pregnancy trauma leading to an unceasing drip of incontinence. In the context of village life, this means ostracism (a clinician: "These are the modern-day lepers"). The women, five among tens of thousands suffering the same, offer a terrible privilege in opening up their private abjection — a more complete shame would be difficult to imagine. That confidence isn't betrayed. Aside from a few casual digs at the loutishness of the rural Ethiopian male, documentarians Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher feel no need to overlay this health-care calamity with pious outrage; any editorializing is implied in the immutable facts from overworked gynecologists and the camera's testament. (What could be more eloquent than a pan across one room to reveal four reparative operations under way simultaneously? It's like battlefield surgery.) A Walk to Beautiful is emotionally arduous stuff, which doesn't mean anything by itself; the world lacks for neither pain nor camera crews. But there's something quite rarefied here, in the experience of commiseration these refugees find with their fellow patients: "Everyone here is sick. I thought it was only me." (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

 
WITLESS PROTECTION One knows, or ought to know, what to expect in a movie featuring Dan Whitney's "Larry the Cable Guy" character: much bodily-function humor, including several scenes in which a nearly naked Whitney revels in his own physical grotesqueness; mild jokes at the expense of foreigners and liberals; and copious country-music references. Unfortunately, what you can't count on is the enthusiasm of his standup act — Whitney exerts more energy in his segment of Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie than in Health Inspector, Delta Farce and Witless Protection combined. Barely written and directed by TV helmer Charles Robert Carner, Witless Protection is a riff on Midnight Run ... so much so that Yaphet Kotto actually reprises his role from that film as FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely, who this time is a villain on the take, which is why Larry kidnaps rich bitch Madeleine (Ivana Milicevic) away from the feds who are supposedly her witness protection. Whitney remains affable throughout, but there are few belly laughs. Still, it's hard to despise the movie, especially when Peter Stormare shows up over-enunciating the most brilliantly awful English accent of all time. It should be noted, though, that at no point does Larry say his catch phrase, "Git-r-done!" It's one thing if Whitney wants to expand his range, but if you're gonna be in Skynyrd, you gots to play "Free Bird." KnowhutImean, Vern? (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)


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