Movie Reviews: Adoration, Julia, Little Ashes, Revanche
ADORATION Atom Egoyan’s 12th feature film offers a typically kaleidoscopic rumination on voyeurism, videography, the relative nature of truth, and the aftermath of tragedy, closer in form and tone to the Canadian auteur’s early work (particularly his 1987 masterpiece, Family Viewing) than to his erratic recent literary adaptations (Felicia’s Journey, Where the Truth Lies). Egoyan’s wife and frequent muse, Arsinée Khanjian, occupies the central role here as a high school French and drama teacher who encourages a bright pupil (Devon Bostick) in an elaborate fabrication. Inspired by a classroom translation of a news article about a Jordanian man who attempted to blow up a commercial airliner with a bomb hidden in his pregnant girlfriend’s luggage, the boy claims the story as that of his own deceased parents — a lie that quickly goes viral and takes on even more bizarre dimensions when the teacher (for reasons Egoyan holds close to the vest for most of the running time), disguised in a face-covering burka, pays a house call on her student and his blue-collar uncle (an excellent Scott Speedman). Never short on ambition, Adoration has no lack of interesting things to say or interesting ways to say them, but the longer it runs, the more you feel Egoyan working up a sweat to deploy the same effects — Pinterian abstractions, fractured timelines, shifting points of view — that he once made seem effortless. The end result is a movie considerably more absorbing to talk, write and think about afterward than it is to actually watch. (Landmark; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)
GO JULIA Tilda Swinton doesn’t merely act the title role in French director Erick Zonca’s Julia — she devours it, spits it back up, dances giddily upon it, twirls it in the air. It’s a big, all-consuming performance, and in the hands of a lesser actress and filmmaker, it might have consumed the movie, too. But Julia is nearly as electric as its heroine, a leggy, vodka-guzzling tart in false eyelashes and cheap sequined gowns who tells men she can make their dreams come true, and who can, provided those dreams involve parking-lot sex and sunlight-blasted mornings after. The key to Swinton’s performance (and to the movie) is that she’s playing an actress — not a professional one, but a wily, desperate woman under the influence who adapts herself to what each new situation calls for, sometimes well, sometimes badly, but always with every fiber of her being. Her faces are many, including the eerie black death mask she wears when she agrees to help her unstable Mexican neighbor (the superb Kate del Castillo) kidnap her young son from the clutches of his wealthy grandfather. It’s a crackpot scheme made more so by Julia’s half-cocked attempt to secure herself a bigger share of the ransom money, and by the time the movie winds its way from Los Angeles to Tijuana, one kidnapping gives way to another with no end in sight. Directing his first theatrical feature in the decade since the neo-Bressonian The Dreamlife of Angels, Zonca tips his hat to the entire John Cassavetes oeuvre while crafting a messy, nervy and frequently exhilarating thriller that operates on instinct rather than plot and features richly pulpy dialogue by Zonca and co-screenwriter Aude Py. Jeered upon its premiere at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and only now receiving a token U.S. release, Julia demands to be reassessed and reckoned with. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)
LITTLE ASHES Hoping to expand his fan base beyond Twilight-loving tween girls to Chelsea twinks, alabaster beauty Robert Pattinson plays bi-curious Salvador Dalí in this silly portrayal of the 1920s Madrid university days of the painter and his pals, gay poet/playwright Federico García Lorca and gay-bashing Luis Buñuel. Written by first-time scripter Philippa Goslett, Little Ashes (named after one of Dalí’s paintings) is a typically bombastic lives-of-the-artists production made even more stilted by having all the actors (including the Spanish ones) speak accented English; the first several minutes contain so much Castilian overlisping that someone surely must have sprained a tongue. Pattinson — first presented as a twitchy weirdo in ruffled pirate shirts and hairdos reminiscent of Antony Hegarty’s before a fantastic sartorial makeover featuring costume designer Antonio Belart’s pick of excellent sweater vests — has difficulty conveying cracked genius, at one point seeming to mimic Jame Gumb’s prance in front of the mirror in The Silence of the Lambs, until settling on just bugging his eyes out. Though Dalí’s first smooch with García Lorca (Javier Beltrán), in the phosphorescent waters of Cadaqués, is steamy, the pleasures of man-on-man love — and the movie — evaporate quickly when the wildly ambitious painter announces, “I’ll bring Paris to its knees!” after he’s conflicted about being on his. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Melissa Anderson)
LOVE N’ DANCING Actress Amy Smart (Crank) has a knack for bringing a spark to mediocre movies, which she does again in this amiably dull dance drama. Smart plays Jessica, a grade-school teacher about to marry an annoyingly clichéd businessman (Billy Zane), who looks at his BlackBerry more often than at his fiancée. After he bails on his promise to take dance lessons, Jessica begins working on her own with Jake (Tom Malloy, who wrote the script), a former West Coast Swing champion who’s thinking of taking one more shot at a national contest. Malloy and Smart are a lovely team, but, oddly, their rehearsal sequences are more involving than the grand finale, which features terrific numbers by professional dancers, as well as by our hero couple. Everyone moves beautifully, yet director Robert Iscove (She’s All That) keeps such a coolly professional distance from the dancers that we never feel their heat. Off the dance floor, Malloy has a certain awkward charm, although he only truly comes to life in a scene where he speaks to an auditorium full of kids. Regrettably, that’s the first and best scene in the movie. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Town Center 5; Fallbrook 7) (Chuck Wilson)
NEXT DAY AIR Benny Boom built his reputation directing music videos and commercials, and his first feature, Next Day Air, falls somewhere between the blunt-force visuals of the former and the focus-grouped formulas of the latter. What’s being sold in this skeletally plotted story of a drug shipment gone awry is not a hip-hop star (though a couple of them appear) or an energy drink, nor any debut directorial vision. Instead, Boom sells the viewer back to him/herself: “This is what you like,” the film’s mash of confidently broad laugh-lines, “lovably” repugnant characters, and abrupt plunges into violence suggest. The ensemble cast includes Donald Faison as a pothead deliveryman who mistakenly delivers a massive cocaine drop to two ineffectual thugs (Mike Epps and Wood Harris). When the Puerto Ricans next door start taking heat from their Mexican drug lord for the missing package, a sort of Keystone Cops sequence of events is set into motion. Except there are no cops, not much farcical energy, and none of the satiric edge it would take to pull off the film’s grim denouement. Next Day Air is a straight shot up the middle. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)
OUR CITY DREAMS Like rushed gallery-hopping, Chiara Clemente’s doc on five multigenerational, multinational women artists, all living in New York, provides only a cursory view of what’s on display. The director — daughter of painter Francesco, the focus of her first film, the short Three Worlds — starts with the youngest of her subjects, the Gen-Y cutout artist Swoon, and works backward to pioneering second-wave feminist octogenarian Nancy Spero. The women who bookend Clemente’s film are, coincidentally, the only two offering a sense of how New York has affected their practice — supposedly the uniting theme in Our City Dreams. Marina Abramovic, who moved to NYC in 2004, appears to have no connection to the city other than performing at the Guggenheim; Ghada Amer talks about house-buying jitters on an MTA bus; Kiki Smith is filmed briefly on an East Village block. A Gotham resident since 1964, Spero (creator of the fantastic glass-mosaic murals in the Lincoln Center subway station, captured fleetingly in the doc) gives the most forthright assessment of the agony and the ecstasy of trying to sustain life as an artist there, noting that she, painter husband Leon Golub and their tykes settled first in Paris in the ’50s as a more hospitable location. For even more candor, seek out the women who are barely able to pay rent on their studios in Sunset Park, Long Island City or Red Hook. (Music Hall) (Melissa Anderson)
GO REVANCHE An unidentified object sends ripples across the surface of a lake at the start of Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, and in the two hours it takes the movie to loop back to that crucial moment, we see another set of shockwaves issue forth from a bucolic Austrian town. A bank robbery is committed by Alex (Johannes Krisch), a proletariat lug working for a cheap-suited pimp in Vienna’s red-light district and in love with a Ukrainian call girl (Irina Potapenko) equally eager to escape the pimp’s thuggish clutches. It is, Alex says, in the way of all movie smalltimers trying to get rich quick, a foolproof heist — and so it might be, were it not for Robert (Andreas Lust), the provincial cop who happens to be patrolling the street where Alex illegally parks his stolen getaway car, and who fires the fateful shot that violently upends Alex’s perfect plan.
Alex takes cover at his elderly grandfather’s nearby farm, which turns out to abut the property of Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss) — a coincidence that might have seemed like a cheap provocation, but which Spielmann deploys with the cool inevitability of a Greek tragedian. It’s the untidiness of human relationships, however, more than the weight of moral reckoning, that drives Revanche, which was one of the few deserving nominees in the forlorn Foreign Language category of this year’s Academy Awards. As Alex seethes with vengeful thoughts, he finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Susanne, and comes to realize that he is not the botched robbery’s only collateral victim. The shooting and its ensuing investigation have also taken their toll on Robert, and in turn formed fissures in his marriage — or maybe (as an empty upstairs nursery suggests) magnified ones that were already there. When cop and robber finally meet again, it is not in a violent standoff, but rather a dialectic.
Directed with terrific control and economy of means by Spielmann — a film and theater vet who has had only one previous movie distributed in the U.S. — Revanche gets its hooks into you early and keeps them there, alternately suggesting a darkly romantic film noir in the vein of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (which navigates a similar journey from seedy urbanism to lyric countryside), a Strindbergian chamber play opened up for the great outdoors, and a Jacobean revenge drama stripped of its ceremonial bloodshed. In his first major screen role, stage actor Krisch cuts an intensely physical presence, making vivid business out of scaling a wall or somersaulting across a bed to answer the door, but proving even more adept at registering the rage and resignation that pass behind Alex’s eyes as he stares out into the horizon, weighing his fate. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)
GO RUDO Y CURSI Not quite The Further Adventures of Cain & Abel, the second coming of Beavis & Butt-Head or Peyton Meets Eli, but energetic fun nonetheless, Rudo y Cursi is a multiple-brother act: It’s written and directed by Carlos Cuarón and produced by elder sibling Alfonso Cuarón, director of Y Tu Mamá También, which Carlos co-wrote, and reunites Mamá co-stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, playing half-brothers to boffo effect. Nearly as popular on its home territory as the first Cuarón hit, Rudo y Cursi is a similarly manic, if less psychologically fraught, exercise in male-bonding and fraternal rivalry. Rudo (Luna) and Cursi (Bernal) are a ripe pair of bumpkins — the former, irascible and inarticulate; the latter, expansive and voluble. Each is a potential soccer star — or so we’re told by the little hustler, Batuta (Guillermo Francella), who, in discovering the brothers and providing the movie’s voice-over narration, more or less conducts the action. Batuta can only take the brothers with him to Mexico City one at a time; thus we can enjoy their miserable digs, mind-blowing exposure to frozen food, locker-room hazing and heady success twice. The sports action runs a distant second to screwball character comedy, and the denouement is pretty downbeat — at least by the grotesque standards of the conventional North American sports movie. In Rudo y Cursi, the rocky road to success is just a dead end — or a big circular drive. (For an expanded version of this review, go to www.laweekly.com/movies.)(The Grove; AMC Century City; ArcLight Sherman Oaks; Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)
STAR TREK Not very boldly going where many a Hollywood franchise has gone before, Alias and Lost creator J.J. Abrams’ already overpraised Star Trek “reboot” makes over Gene Roddenberry’s well-worn space opera with buffer flesh and younger faces — considerably younger than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were when they first donned their Starfleet uniforms. Beyond that, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman risk Trekker censure by making haste with the destruction of two iconic Federation planets, and by providing a time-traveling double for a certain pointy-eared Enterprise crew member. But fret not: There’s a giant black hole in space to conveniently allow this new Trek mythology to peacefully coexist with the one accrued by the franchise’s previous incarnations — a concept about as novel as the “dream” season of Dallas that ended with Bobby Ewing in the shower.
Still, this airbrushed Trek origin story — Starfleet, 90210, if you will — begins promisingly enough, by irresistibly parting the curtain on the adolescent lives of Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), here conceived as a bar-fighting, motorcycle-riding hellraiser; and the solemn, logic-minded Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). It’s only once the movie’s warp engines are engaged that it starts to lose steam, as the newly minted Enterprise responds to a planetary distress call and finds itself in the grip of a genocidal Romulan warlord hellbent on destroying — what else? — Earth. Like one of the Trek franchise’s most enduring villains, the genetically enhanced conqueror Khan, Eric Bana’s Capt. Nero comes bearing a decades-old grudge, though unlike Ricardo Montalban’s flamboyantly psychotic star turn, Bana’s curiously muted performance fades from memory even while it’s on screen; the 1990s Next Generation television series offered more compelling baddies than this on an almost weekly basis.
The bar has been raised significantly for this sort of movie by Christoper Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but even by the standards of its own predecessors, this Trek feels like it was made by a committee of logic-minded Vulcans (or franchise-protective studio executives) rather than a filmmaker with the singular personality of Nicholas Meyer, whose three Trek films as writer (and two as director) remain the series’ best and brightest by a mile. Abrams still hasn’t really figured out how to direct for the cinema screen — as in his Mission: Impossible III, he relies too much on close-ups and TV-style cutting, punctuated by a scattering of impressive (if not particularly exciting) action set pieces. The visual effects are predictably excellent — sometimes, in the case of a three-man free fall through space, unexpectedly lyrical — but most of the movie’s dramatic conflicts feel strictly pro forma, from Spock’s Vulcan/human identity crisis to his grafted-on romance with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), and there’s so much talk about people’s dead parents that you start to wonder if Dave Eggers did an uncredited rewrite.Nor is the movie helped much by the radically different acting styles of the principal players, from Pine and Quinto’s relative naturalism to the broad comic mimicry of Karl Urban (as the hypochondriachal doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Anton Yelchin (as the English-challenged navigator Pavel Chekov) and Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg (as the redoubtable engineer Montgomery Scott). As a longtime (albeit casual) Trek fan, I’m willing to give Abrams and company the benefit of the doubt — the popular 1980s Trek film series got off to a similarly rocky start, and whether you count this as the first or the 11th big-screen Trek, it’s one of the famously troubled odd-numbered entries. My advice to the filmmakers: When you return for the inevitable sequel, don’t worry so much about placating the fanboys and instead set your word processors to stun. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
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