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Movie Reviews: Ajami, Order of Chaos, The Wolfman

DEAR JOHN Special Forces soldier John (Channing Tatum) and privileged altruist Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) aren’t Abelard and Heloise, but their epistolary romance gives the USPS logo an erotic charge. To cut through the shameless syrup of their source material, adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels require that real heat be generated between love-torn leads. Tatum and Seyfried exhibit the same chemistry Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams shared in 2004’s The Notebook — the most profitable page-to-screen transition in the Sparks oeuvre — and Dear Johnclosely follows that film’s template: the South Carolina setting, the romance between a prole guy and rich gal, separation by war, putting pen to paper, mental impairments (autism in Dear John, Alzheimer’s inThe Notebook), casting one of the stars of Mean Girlsas the female lead. Director Lasse Hallström, who cut his teeth crafting mini-melodramas in Abba videos, deals with the inevitable emotional contrivances (mild 9/11-sploitation, diseases ex machina) matter of factly. The biggest surprise here is Tatum, whose butch reticence has never been put to better use: His saddest farewell isn’t to his lady but to a man even more uncommunicative than he is. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

GO  AJAMI A contemporary crime drama edged with Greek tragedy, Ajami is an untidy, despairing, oddly exhilarating joint venture by writer-directors Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Set on the tinderbox margins of a rundown quarter of the Tel Aviv–adjacent city of Jaffa, the movie’s multiple plots and unwieldy, mostly nonpro ensemble of Arabs and Jews might better lend themselves to a television series. Yet it teems with life, energized by fierce formal ambitions. Barely held together by chapter headings, the action — which opens in the middle of its converging storylines with a mistaken drive-by shooting — switches dizzyingly between time, place and point of view, and the fact that you can’t tell one kind of Semite from another works its own sadly ironic magic. The bleak future Ajami projects for peace within and across Israel’s borders can be hard to bear, but this sympathetically humanist movie takes its place among a new generation of Middle Eastern films, which measures the terrible toll of war not only in dead bodies but also in the very fabric of everyday life for Arabs, as well as Jews. (Ella Taylor) (Monica 4-Plex, Music Hall, Town Center)

GO  THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS Daniel Ellsberg was an ex-Marine, trusted analyst and Cold Warrior under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who, “from the entrails of a bureaucratic war machine” — per a latter-day peacenik cohort — converted to antiwar dove. Leaking 7,000 Xeroxed pages of the Pentagon Papers study to newspapers, Ellsberg gave the world an alternate history of five administrations’ policies in Southeast Asia, and spurred a breached White House into paranoiac espionage, ending in presidential resignation. Ellsberg has been resurrected as an “eternal left” hero in recent times, publishing a memoir in 2002 and being played by James Spader in a 2003 TV movie. Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith approach their subject as though burnishing an icon — he withstands the homage well. In old age, Ellsberg is still an articulate interviewee; seen in his years of infamy, he resembles a wiry amalgam of the Cassavetes regulars. The impressive roll call of assembled talking heads includes “Plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, who authorized the burgling of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office; and Anthony Russo, Ellsberg’s recently deceased accomplice and RAND Co. co-worker. Most Dangerous Man makes a few distracting embellishments — reenactments (some shabbily animated), melodramatic cloak-and-dagger scoring — but in the main, it’s a professional job, standing above the crowd of politico documentaries that proliferate like kudzu over art-house screens. (Nick Pinkerton) (Music Hall)

MY NAME IS KHAN was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week.

NORTH FACE No, not the parkas. The fearsome north face of the Eiger mountain became the object of national socialist obsession during the ’30s. An Olympic gold medal was promised to its first summit party — preferably to be of good, blond, Aryan stock, and the Nazi press glorified those alpinists who tried. Though, as a newspaper editor says in this dramatization of an epic, real-life attempt, “those two don’t care about the politics,” referring to the rustic Bavarian mountaineers who quit the Wehrmacht to make the attempt — after bicycling 700 kilometers to Switzerland with their gear! Benno Fürmann and Florian Lukas play the impetuous pair. Embellishing the story is a journalist from their home village, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who provides a love interest and tears. Climbers who know the famous tale needn’t be warned of spoilers: Shot on location, the film is slow, realistic, and excruciating in its latter stages. The difference between a 50- and 60-meter rope is life and death; a lost mitten means debilitating frostbite. There are no helmets, GPS units or cell phones to use to call for rescue. This isn’t a companion to climbing drama Vertical Limit but rather to the documentary Touching the Void. (The train-tunnel “gallery” windows drilled through the Nordwand are also familiar from Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction.) Director Philipp Stölzl makes the movie a tad more political (i.e., anti-Nazi) than it needs to be, but Fürmann’s stoic performance reduces the story to its harsh, true fundamentals. Of the risks in climbing (as in life), he says, “You can be the best, but it’s still a lottery.”(Brian Miller) (Citywide)

ORDER OF CHAOS If you thought tax attorneys were all wonky pencil-pushers, writer-director Vince Vieluf’s overheated psychological thriller aims to disabuse you of that notion. Mild-mannered straight-arrow John (Rhys Coiro) is towing the company line and about to land a big account when he meets his new co-worker Rick (Milo Ventimiglia), an ultraconfident bad boy who decides John needs to loosen up and stop letting people boss him around. Before you can say bad influence, Rick has John partying all hours of the night, fraternizing with loose women, and mouthing off to his icy fiancée (Samantha Mathis). But, of course, Rick’s motives are far from altruistic. For a little while, Order of Chaos is merely dim-witted malarkey, as Vieluf strains to orchestrate an edgy, Bret Easton Ellis–style decadence — editor Jennifer Mayer seems to have been paid by the flash cut — but soon it becomes painfully clear that the filmmaker actually envisions this mano-a-mano revenge tale as some sort of tortured commentary on the corruption of the American Dream. As suave, devilish Rick, Ventimiglia seems to be channeling late-’80s Tom Cruise, while Coiro succeeds in being unconvincing as both a timid wimp and, later, a paranoid hedonist. All in all, Order of Chaos is about as scintillating as an audit — with slightly more nudity. (Tim Grierson) (Sunset 5)

PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTING THIEF was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week.

RED RIDING TRILOGY Now a 305-minute triptych film, Red Riding originated in the novels of David Peace, who looked back without nostalgia to the Yorkshire of his youth. Peace’s four Red Riding books, set between 1974 and 1983, tell four compact, overlapping narratives of crime and punishment — rarely of the guilty. Adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni, Red Riding Trilogy’s three episodes are each handled by a different, noteworthy U.K. director. Julian Jarrold’s 1974 concerns Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), who has moved home from the south for Dad’s funeral and a job as a junior crime reporter. He starts to cover the disappearances of local girls and decries something rotten in Yorkshire, as his investigations don’t jive with the conviction of a local half-wit. 1980, the best freestanding film by a wide margin, takes place during the last at-large days of the Yorkshire Ripper, who held North England in suspense for five years and 13 murders. Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is a Manchester internal affairs man sent across the moors to review the failed search for The Ripper, and Hunter’s outsider status allows director James Marsh several face-offs between conceited, contained Considine and the resentful Yorkies. But any spell cast is diffused by weak cleanup man Anand Tucker’s whiffed 1983, returning to 1974’s crime(s) in smeary digital video. Another missing child triggers flashbacks and David Morrissey’s career copper remembers his conscience while picking up Dunford and Hunter’s loose threads. A bathetic conclusion previews what we can anticipate from Ridley Scott’s announced American remake. (Nick Pinkerton)(Nuart)

TERRIBLY HAPPY After waving a gun around at home, young Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is shipped to the South Jutland flatlands to cool off as marshal of a small town. Surprising no one who has watched such a migration onscreen before, he finds amused villagers with a highly developed talent for collusion and a tendency to become familiar with their new impartial authority. Within minutes, a married woman, Ingerlise, with a concussed Rita Rudner affect, sidles into his office and delivers a spiel that’s part blowzy flirtation and part ambiguous report of spousal abuse. The paunchy cowboy-hatted wife beater, Jørgen, has the run of the place, dark deeds unfold on the marshy outskirts, and everyone’s okay with it. Hansen peers out cautiously from his innocent stubble-dusted face as if afraid of being found out, as director Henrik Ruben Genz’s simmering stew sees a man who made one violent mistake be ruined anew by genially corrupt yokels. Cedergren is a little too bland, but that works with Hansen’s air of haplessness and sets him apart from the colorful locals. Hansen’s self-inflicted reckoning is a horizon visible throughout the movie, and the bog outside of town is a thudding but effective metaphor for willful repression. That quagmire, where incriminating items (like cars and bodies) may be secretly dumped, poses the double-edged-sword solution to Hansen’s despair over the past: Just forget about it. (Nicolas Rapold) (Sunset 5, Playhouse 7)

WAITING FOR ARMAGEDDON “When I look at what’s happening in the Middle East,” says an interviewee in Waiting for Armageddon, “I don’t look at it with the hope that things will work out.” Moments later, rhapsodizing about floating in post-Rapture clouds alongside Christ while earthbound sinners writhe in torment, he chuckles, “It’ll be a lot of fun to watch.” Co-directed by Kate Davis, Franco Sacchi and David Heilbroner, Armageddon is Doc Filmmaking 101 — establishing shot, talking head, repeat. What makes it compelling is the juxtaposition of the filmmakers’ professional detachment with the chilling words and smug attitudes of their right-wing Evangelical Christian subjects, who hang themselves with their own religious/ideological rope. (Christ’s love, compassion and mercy go unmentioned here by his followers.) Armageddon efficiently glides from churches both small and mega to the homes of its subjects, over to Israel with a tour group of true (and gallingly bigoted) believers as it unravels the Evangelical crowd’s perverse reasons for supporting Israel. It traces the political roots of the movement to a Democrat, outlines said movement’s power bases (school boards, corporations, political offices) and their numbers (an estimated 50 million,) and lets level-headed theologians refute bloodlust interpretations of scripture. But those refutations are little comfort against the manifest power of American entitlement and religious superiority fueling final-days fantasies, against which the film winds up being a sobering warning. (Ernest Hardy) (Downtown Independent)

THE WOLFMAN The Wolfman has it all — mist drifting over moonlit moors; Geraldine Chaplin as a Gypsy fortune-teller; a dark, gloomy castle full of cobwebs and family secrets; effective fake-out scares complete with crisply jarring sound; a bombastic score and a soundtrack overstuffed with creepy whispers. Benicio Del Toro stars in this lushly art-designed 19th-century period film, but his beefcake-gone-bad magnetism is not enough to justify sitting through a movie that’s full of sound, fury and unintentional camp — and is still bafflingly inert. After acclaimed actor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) receives a letter from his brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) informing him of his sibling’s disappearance, he hightails it from the New York stage to the sprawling home of his estranged family, only to be greeted by the news that his brother’s badly mutilated body has been recovered. A bonehead move that the script passes off as heroism (lots of those) soon results in Talbot being bitten by the creature who killed his brother. Blood, gore and a laughably bad insane-asylum sequence ensue. Some father-son conflict (papa Talbot is played by Anthony Hopkins, alternately hammy and sleepwalking through the part) juices the film a bit, but not enough to save it. (Ernest Hardy) (Citywide)