OPENING THIS WEEK
Other than Rose Byrne’s onscreen radiance and a soothingly warm palette lit by cinematographer Seamus Tierney, there’s not much to get passionate about in this amiable chamber piece from theater director Max Mayer. Hedging just about every bet it lays on the table to the tune of a gentle guitar, Adam spins a wish-fulfilling romance between a recently bereaved young man with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) and his beauteous new neighbor, Beth (Byrne), who all too conveniently happens to work in a helping profession. Writer-director Mayer tries to reduce the improbability quotient by loading Beth up with burdens of her own (including Peter Gallagher, who does “feckless father” in his sleep), which test the authenticity of her values. To his credit, Dancy doesn’t take the showstopping Rain Man route, but, however underplayed, his Adam is all too authentic for most social intercourse. Clogged to the pore with pathos (boxes of mac and cheese stacked in Adam’s freezer), bogus romanticism about mental illness (Adam sees natural wonders the rest of us don’t), the obligatory kindly black helper (Frankie Faison), and the saintly patience of the love interest, Adam only confronts reality at the end, when it timidly owns up to the likelihood that such relationships only work if the healthy partner is willing to become a mother, not a wife. (The Landmark; ArcLight Hollywood) (Ella Taylor)
ALIENS IN THE ATTIC was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at www.laweekly.com/movies. (Citywide)
THE COLLECTOR was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at www.laweekly.com/movies. (Citywide)
GO THE COVE
Late in the infectiously frisky documentary The Cove, an older man calmly gate-crashes an international conference on whaling with a TV screen strapped to his chest, showing bloody images of the mass slaughter of dolphins in a cove off the coast of Japan. It’s a show-stopping publicity stunt by dolphin advocate Ric O’Barry, and also one act of an ongoing ritual of public penance by this one-time hunter and trainer of dolphins for the 1960s television series Flipper. O’Barry came to understand that dolphins cutting up on TV or in aquariums around the world may provide oceans of fun for audiences but that it’s torture for the sociable, intelligent mammals forcibly separated from their fellows and habitat. The sleepy-eyed but intense O’Barry — who slips into Japan in silly disguises to avoid being arrested or attacked by irate fisherman at the cove where dolphins are culled for export or killed — is the perfect star for this forthrightly activist film. But he’s far from the only performance artist in the rousing blend of pop entertainment, faux-thriller, horror movie and naked agitprop that is The Cove, a benign feat of manipulation designed to make you rue every minute you spent ooh-ing and aah-ing at SeaWorld. It’s also designed to make you call for the blood of the Japanese government, which lobbies against international efforts to protect small crustaceans and secretively protects the fishermen who trap thousands of dolphins a year to sell for export or kill for, as it turns out, mercury-contaminated meat that shows up not only in delicatessens around the world but in the school lunches of Japanese children. “You’re an activist or an inactivist,” says director Louie Psihoyos, co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. He possesses the instincts and righteous rage of Michael Moore but without Moore’s bile or self-importance. The Cove is the exuberantly theatrical and often funny story of Psihoyos and his team of overgrown authority-averse schoolboys (and one tender girl). This self-described “Ocean’s Eleven” includes a stuntman and a gung-ho team of designers from Industrial Light and Magic, who create rocks with hidden cameras to plant around the cove and record the mass murder of these lovely mammals. Lovely is the operative word. Skillful and hugely entertaining as it is, I’m not sure The Cove would be as potent as it is if the subject were, say, walruses. Dolphins are the Goldie Hawns of endangered species: bright, playful, cute — and, by some freak of nature, they appear to be grinning most of the time. O’Barry laments the anthropomorphization that has turned dolphins into clowns in aquariums around the world, but he’s not above ascribing human motivation to them. When one of the dolphins stops breathing in his arms, he calls its death a suicide. The Cove is enchanting, horrifying, rousing; but it comes close to making the case that dolphins should be saved because they’re cute and breathe air. Where does that leave the overfished salmon I went home to poach? (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Ella Taylor)
THE ENGLISH SURGEON
The English surgeon is Henry Marsh, a British neuroscientist who has been traveling to Ukraine since 1992 to tutor, diagnose and perform operations that the post-Soviet medical infrastructure is incapable of handling. Geoffrey Smith’s well-meaning documentary takes risks: Contextual setup aside, the film’s footage comes from a mere two weeks of shooting Marsh’s umpteenth visit to remove an especially risky tumor. Smith has the guts to show graphic brain surgery, and the sense to avoid maudlin testimonies from friends and family, knowing that no adoring relative could explain why a world-renown scientist sacrifices his time and mental health to repeatedly do the right thing for no reward. But I wish more attention had been focused on Marsh’s Ukrainian friend Igor Kurilets’ struggles with the country’s proudly anachronistic medical establishment — The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, this ain’t. By focusing on Marsh without any real personal or structural insight, the effect is to prioritize the humanitarian over the far more interesting problem: the system. And the end — a tear-soaked, predictably bathetic visit to the family of a girl who died when Marsh made the wrong call on the operating table — succumbs to the easy sentimentality the film has shirked till then. That a young girl’s death is lastingly sad is the smallest revelation of all. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)
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The premise, punched-up puns, and character development are more lightweight than the helium balloons in Up, but Disney’s new CGI-heavy excuse to flood the market with kiddie merch (it’s the year’s first 3-D commercial, and we’re the real guinea pigs) has a box-office trick up its shallow sleeve: Jerry Bruckheimer. Amping up the Beverly Hills Chihuahua formula with a whole A-team of adorable, talking furballs who converse in one-liners and pop culture references (Apocalypse Now and Scarface, really?), the mega-producer’s stamp is on every fight sequence, explosion and ugly stereotype. I’m referring to Blaster, one of the genetically modified guinea pigs in G-Force — a federally funded team of elite animal operatives — who is literally black, speaks in buffoonish jive, and is voiced by Tracy Morgan (“Holla!”). Penélope Cruz plays the spicy she-pig Juarez, but more embarrassing is Zach Galifianakis, apparently still hungover and forced to show his live-action mug as the nerdy Dr. Dolittle, who commands the squad with voice-recognition hardware. Together, along with a fly, a mole and the competent direction of longtime F/X supervisor Hoyt Yeatman Jr., these charmless happy-meal avatars must battle evil industrialist Bill Nighy and his sentient consumer-electronics robot, which looks exactly like a junkyard Decepticon. From recycled trash to inevitable blockbuster gold, Bruckheimer is the true transformer. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
For a purportedly autobiographical work, the events of this labor of love from director George Gallo (whose screenwriting credits include Midnight Run and Bad Boys) fit seamlessly into the fabric of the standard coming-of-age movie. John (Trevor Morgan), a fledgling aesthete from a working-class family whose father (Ray Liotta) equates artistic inclinations with effeminacy, seeks out the tutelage of Nikolai (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a foul-mouthed, vodka-guzzling painter who has given up on art and life. The year is 1974, and Nikolai’s career as an old-fashioned paint-and-brushes man has foundered under the rise of abstraction, which he constantly rails against, dishing up equal servings of profanity and profundity in a thick Russian accent that’s supposed to cut through all the bullshit and pretension on display. Over the course of a life-changing summer at Nikolai’s country house, John learns about more than just color theory, thanks to the ministrations of an older woman (Samantha Mathis), and it seems inevitable that before the credits roll, the kid will also have inspired a new lease on artistic life in the old master. This painlessly tasteful film serves both as propaganda — simplistically championing the integrity of representational art over sordid modernism — and as an inspirational tale in which one discovers that in the art world, as in Hollywood, dreams really can come true. With Ron (Hellboy) Perlman providing comic relief as a grotesque cravat-sporting art dealer. (Music Hall; Fallbrook 7) (John Tottenham)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, secular worker-priests of the Belgian cinema, emerge once more from their lower depths. In describing one of their movies, you describe them all. Their characters are the victims of soggy street-cart food and social disintegration — no God, no family or community infrastructure, no moral compass. Here, it’s Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian living with a Belgian junkie, Claudy (Jérémie Renier). Spouse or roommate? The details casually drop into place. They’re married only as a business arrangement: Claudy got his dope money; Lorna got Belgian citizenship, which she’s scheduled to transmit through remarriage to another incoming immigrant, all arranged by phlegmatic lowlife mobster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). This being a Dardenne film, the protagonist is stashing money to buy a modest dream of “normal life” — Lorna wants to open a snack shop with her boyfriend. This being a Dardenne film, Lorna’s a self-preserving solipsist, blind to any harm she does getting hers, which includes having passively agreed to Fabio’s plan: murder-O.D. Claudy to expedite her divorce and next quick-cash wedding. In a sense, the Dardennes make economic horror movies, starring the dregs of the working class. Claims for something higher don’t read; the Dardennes challenge their beleaguered subjects, not themselves and not their audience. When Lorna and her ilk confront the “moral conundrums” of bare-subsistence life, no alternative answer seems viable. This leaves the viewer (impatient, in this case) to wait for the constipated soul to arrive at inevitable relief. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
GO NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD
At the same moment that directors like Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong were earning festival kudos and critical acclaim for the early films of the Australian “new wave,” the more industrious/shameless likes of director Tim Burstall (“Tim liked getting tit in the shot”) and producer Antony I. Ginnane (“the Roger Corman of Australia”) were churning out low-budget quickies equally ripe for world export — albeit to the grindhouses instead of the art houses. Mark Hartley’s boisterous film-buff documentary Not Quite Hollywood pays loving homage to the latter camp, who played an equally important role in the 1970s revival of a moribund Aussie film industry, even as their movies popularized the notion of the outback as a haven for loose women, slobbering boozers, and homicidal biker gangs. Mostly alive and well and happy to share their war stories before Hartley’s camera, these “Ozploitation” mavens run the gamut from larger-than-life, carnival-barker hucksters (like The ABC of Love and Sex: Australia Style impresario John D. Lamond, interviewed in front of a pole-hugging go-go dancer) to ingenious genre purveyors (like George “Mad Max” Miller and the late Richard Franklin, whose Hitchcock-inspired Patrick and Roadgames beg rediscovery). But the talking heads here are routinely upstaged by the exploding ones — plus lots of jiggling jugs and airborne motorbikes — provided by Hartley’s exuberant film-clip montages. The rise of video and the death of the drive-ins would eventually bring the curtain down on the Aussie schlock industry, but for two glorious hours, Not Quite Hollywood returns us to a time when the price of admission was cheap and the thrills even cheaper. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)