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Movie Reviews: A Woman in Berlin, A Perfect Getaway, Paper Heart

German-Soviet relations
Yevgeni Sidikhin

GO  A WOMAN IN BERLIN One of the best of a new breed of indigenous movies prying open the Pandora’s Box of German suffering in World War II, A Woman in Berlin takes on the mass rape of German women by victorious Russian soldiers entering the country in 1945. Skillfully adapted and directed by Max Färberböck (who made the terrific 2000 drama Aimée & Jaguar) from the anonymously published diaries of a Berlin rape victim, the film is a properly twisted love story between two enemies, each clinging to a deluded and destructive patriotism. Played by the scorching Nina Hoss, last seen in Christian Petzold’s Yella and Jerichow, the unnamed woman is a cultivated and cunning sophisticate determined to seize control over who gets to ravish her; her protector (Yevgeni Sidikhin) is a Russian officer whose innate decency is muddled by his unquestioning loyalty to Stalin. Their impossible bond plays out against a fragile collusion — forever breaking out into naked hatred — between German women and Russian soldiers with nothing in common but the fact that they have all survived the war. Graphic but never exploitative, A Woman in Berlin is a bracing inquiry into the limits of morality in extreme situations, which avoids lapses into lazy relativism. Twice in the movie, Hoss’ Anonyma is asked if she’s a fascist; twice, she refuses to respond. Her answer lies in the haunting question she poses to her lover and foe: How do we go on living? (Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

ALIENS IN THE ATTIC Despite the great promise of its title and creative team (from the director of Like Mike! and starring not one, but two SNL alums!), Aliens in the Attic is cheap, shoddy, crass and depressing fun for the whole family — by which I mean 8-year-old boys. The jokes are pitched firmly at their frame of reference: Dirty socks, mucus and kicks to the crotch abound. The Pearson family retreats from a carefully unnamed city to an equally unspecific rural American location (actually New Zealand, but who’s checking?). Dad (Kevin Nealon) worries about son Tom’s (Carter Jenkins) declining grades and bad attitude; Tom is intentionally doing badly to shed his nerdy mathlete skin. To defeat those perky Mucinex commercial–looking things in the attic, he’ll need both brawn and mathematic formulas! The most notable other lesson learned is that portable technology doesn’t drive families apart; it actually gives kids valuable key-mashing skills, useful in defending against space invaders. Also noted: not judging people by their appearance, being respectful to your parents, the value of abstinence — as learned by Ashley Tisdale, 23, and already a shrieking harpy, in a creepy subplot where Tom obsesses over keeping her virginal — and, oddly, that enhanced interrogation techniques are unacceptable. Good to teach that young. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

THE COLLECTOR In this gore-heavy, logic-free thriller, the talented Josh Stewart stars as Arkin, an ex-con turned handyman who breaks into the remote Victorian home of his latest clients, only to discover that the family isn’t on vacation, as planned, but are instead locked in the basement, where a masked serial killer (Juan Fernández) is slowly torturing them to death. Having penned the last three Saw films, screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan are now certified experts in traps and torture, and so it is that the killer, for reasons that don’t make much sense, has rigged the house with sharp-edged booby traps, with a heavy emphasis on knives, nails and fishhooks, all of which Arkin must sidestep while trying to locate the family’s 8-year-old daughter. Making his directorial debut, Dunstan displays a knack for building suspense. And yet, weirdly, amidst all the requisite blood spray, one senses a reluctance on the filmmaker’s part to linger lovingly over the pierced skins and protruding entrails of the killer’s various victims — a reticence that may prevent Dunstan from helming a Saw flick of his own someday but which earns him here an infinitesimal bit of respect. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

EL TINTE DE LA FAMA (THE COLOR OF FAME) Intended by director and co-writer Alejandro Bellame Palacios as a commentary on Venezuela’s cultural identity — or, more precisely, the fragility and malleability of said identity — The Color of Fame is crippled by heavy-handed symbolism and reheated social commentary. It’s also just about redeemed by the uniformly fine acting of its cast. When failed-singer-turned-failed–entertainment manager Arturo (Alberto Alifa) loses his biggest chance at a payday (his talented but tormented brother) he turns his attentions to his wife, Magaly (Elaiza Gil), whom he persuades to enter a Marilyn Monroe look-alike competition. As Magaly slowly transforms into the Hollywood icon (with the help of an aged, jaded, flaming drag queen), she starts losing own identity and her life begins to eerily parallel Monroe’s. Palacios lays it on thick: An abandoned dog is bricked behind a wall and wails to be set free; a replica of Magaly’s communion dress floats through the night air; dialogue repeatedly mentions the spiritual cost of pretending to be someone you are not. Luckily, Alifa and Gil are not only eye candy but talented actors as well. Gil, as the reluctant reincarnation of Monroe, is especially captivating, and never more Monroelike than when Magaly is swallowed by despair. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)

 

FRAGMENTS Previously and more embarrassingly known as Winged Creatures, Fragments peers into the private lives of a dozen or so drama queens who survive a shooting spree inside an L.A. diner. From the grisly chaos, Dakota Fanning’s brace-faced teen emerges as a Jesus freak, seemingly planting the seeds of a potential Jonestown, when she begins to creepily recruit classmates for group prayer, while a cancer-stricken schlub played by Forest Whitaker is transformed into a kissing cousin of Lost’s Hurley, winning a hundred grand playing craps before his luck evaporates along with the halter top belonging to the whore who manipulates his cock into her mouth. Such is the level of nuance and texture on display here that Kate Beckinsale’s peroxide blonde is meant to be understood as trash because she chews gum like a cow in heat, but at least the title of Rowan Woods’ misshapen and overreaching melodrama is apt, cobbled as it is from anxiously undigested allusions to war and birds and grief. Hard to say what is more inexplicable — why Guy Pearce’s hot doc poisons his wife or how urine became a plot clincher. But this much is clear: The hell that Paul Haggis hath wrought grows exponentially by the day. (Music Hall) (Ed Gonzalez)

GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA Credited as the first “action figure,” G.I. Joe came to life in 1964 as Hasbro’s answer to Mattel’s Barbie doll. There were actually four Joes — one for each branch of the armed forces — and in the imaginations of boys everywhere, they fought Nazis. Forty-odd years later, the Joes have evolved into an international band of soldiers seeking to bring down the evil Cobra Command. In the first of what’s likely to be a lucrative new film series, director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, Van Helsing) outfits actors Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans in “accelerator suits” that allow them to jump cars and buses in a single bound as they and their team attempt to retrieve a suitcase containing nano technology that a lunatic billionaire (Christopher Eccleston) plans to use for world domination. After a first hour that plays like a bad TV show, Sommers hits his groove with an over-the-top Paris chase sequence that, in turn, leads to an underwater finale that’s absurdly overproduced, momentarily diverting, and then instantly forgettable. The script — by Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, and Paul Lovett — is full of embarrassingly bad dialogue, but a recent midnight screening audience laughed benignly, as if to say that they hadn’t exactly been expecting profundity and wit from a summer-season toy-soldier flick. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

PAPER HEART A documentary except when it’s a mockumentary, this is all kinds of adorable and heartbreaking — the doc part, at least, in which Charlyne Yi (Martin Starr’s girlfriend in Knocked Up) sets out to cross the country and find the meaning of True Love because she’s pretty damned sure she’ll never experience it herself. Sad, right? Except it isn’t: Along the way, Yi bumps into Movie Stars who don’t buy her bull (Seth Rogen tells Yi her “love glass is half full”) and True Believers whose fairy tales she recounts, using crude, whimsical homemade puppets. It’s like those old folks’ interludes from When Harry Met Sally as interpreted by a sweet hipster naïf. The mock part, though, feels a little too mock: At a bold-faced Hollywood house party, Yi bumps into Michael Cera, and his instant crush on the gawkward comic turns into the love affair Yi never thought within her grasp. The scenes with Cera play a bit darker than intended, as Cera’s crush evolves into full-on stalking, but director Nicholas Jasenovec plays the thing with so much deadpan earnestness that it’s easy to miss the high “creepy” factor. Cera begins ingratiating himself into Yi’s quest, but that part of the story is doomed from jump: It’s entertaining for a moment but hardly as enlightening or endearing as the from-the-heart moments surrounding it. Yet again, real people are more interesting than fake ones. (The Landmark; ArcLight Hollywood) (Robert Wilonsky)

GO  A PERFECT GETAWAY Because they’re usually so badly made, B-movie thrillers rarely merit more than a chuckle and a roll of the eyes, but with A Perfect Getaway, writer-director David Twohy (Pitch Black) strikes the proper balance between the genre reverence for and a loopy subversion of the film’s “terrorized romantic couple” formula. The couple in question — nerdy screenwriter Cliff (Steve Zahn) and wife Cydney (Milla Jovovich) — have just arrived in Kauai for their honeymoon, when they hear about a recent murder of newlyweds on the secluded island. Suspecting a white-trash couple (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton), they befriend another pair of lovebirds (Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez), who seem nice enough despite some ominous signals that they, too, could have homicidal tendencies. Twohy knows that his film’s raison d’être is to lay out ridiculous red herrings while keeping us guessing who’s targeting our heroes, but he finds inventive ways to mess with expectations, whether it’s by supplying a bizarre backstory monologue or dishing dark humor at the unlikeliest of occasions. Rest assured, though, the story’s Big Twist is reliably out-there, culminating in a no-holds-barred battle to the death that’s craftier and more muscular than the norm. A Perfect Getaway is never great, but Twohy isn’t aspiring for greatness — he’s after gritty and lively and weird. And that’s good enough. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

 

12 IN A BOX Throw together bland black comedy, the dramatic sensibilities of a British tabloid and a plot vaguely recycled from Agatha Christie and you end up with John McKenzie’s 12 in a Box, the latest in a long tradition of European mansion movies. This iteration has a dozen relative strangers struggling to tolerate one another for 96 hours so they can win a huge sum of money. The movie is essentially an endless series of medium shots of one garishly decorated white room after another, giving it the look of a ’70s -era BBC architectural documentary but with the flat, featureless visual upgrade that only digital video could provide. While Jean Renoir and Robert Altman (among others) made their crowded mansions into fascinating characters with whom the human players interacted, McKenzie’s ugly setting reflects the banality of the people and the story within. The only member of the ensemble who manages to acquit himself of this jumbled mess is Brian Mitchell, a one-man Greek chorus, who espouses dry, distinctly British commentary on each asinine situation. A red, digital countdown timer counts down the story’s seemingly eternal 96 hours (and its 91 minutes of screen time). However, unlike the characters in the film (or this critic), you don’t have to enter this especially ugly box in the first place. (Music Hall) (John Wheeler)


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