AMELIA Hilary Swank, slender, toothsome and long-jawed, is a gussied-up physical match for Amelia Earhart — and this is the only meaningful way in which Amelia resurrects the aviatrix. Drawn from two Earhart bios, Mira Nair’s dull hagiography comes in about 111 minutes too long. Swank’s Earhart is all grinning can-do, at fault for nothing, her only conflicts coming through the misunderstanding of a chauvinist, materialist society unprepared for her barnstorming beauty. Beyond her record flights, the film covers Earhart’s courtship with and marriage to publicist G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere), an architect of the Lindbergh legend, and her free-love affair with Gore’s dad, Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Amelia is pinned uncomfortably between “chase your dreams” PG-safe and aspirations of sophistication. For a woman to write, as we see Earhart doing, a prenuptial condition that “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you” would be gutsy in 2009, not to mention mere years after suffrage, there’s little sense of the emotional risk Earhart’s taking with that declaration, and the resulting ménage à trois lacks heat. Period details, from 1928 to 1937, are so clichéd that someone might as well announce onscreen, “Gosh, these ’20s certainly are Roaring!” (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)
AS SEEN THROUGH THESE EYES It’s an angle many Hitler historians can’t leave alone: As a young, aspiring painter, the führer was rejected by the Vienna Art Institute; as a murderous dictator, he remained an art lover, looting Europe of its greatest treasures. The facts are there, yet their melodramatic invocation does more harm than good to As Seen Through These Eyes, a documentary about the creative impulse that sustained many young prisoners of World War II concentration camps. Distractingly tortured metaphors are given a distractingly affected narration by Maya Angelou: the embittered Hitler “refocused his passion for painting into a new art form” and soon, “no one was safe from his sweeping paintbrush of death and destruction.” Inside this hackneyed frame are the actual subjects of the documentary, many of whom are Auschwitz survivors, who discuss their experiences and display their powerful wartime drawings and paintings. It must be tough being the world’s 7,000th Holocaust documentary; there aren’t a lot of fresh angles left, and recorded Holocaust images — occasionally used here without identifying context, as if they were interchangeable — have become so codified that one wonders if that interchangeability is the ultimate sacrilege. But the artwork — the product of individual experience and expression rather than an anonymous camera — returns the horror of the camps to its proper, piercing register. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)
ASTRO BOY Is it impossible to bottle childhood nostalgia in a movie? On the heels of Where the Wild Things Are comes Astro Boy, a CGI-animated origin story for the legendary cartoon hero of the same name, who first appeared in Osamu Tezuka’s 1951 futuro-Pinocchio manga comic. Westernized and sterilized, the still-nippleless, rocket-thrusting robo-kid now wears pants, flies without his classic theme song, and all but ignores his cult following to focus on merchandising to next-gen kiddies. But the fable stays intact: After smarty-pants schoolboy Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) — son of the genius Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) — is accidentally killed while presenting an experiment to the villainous General Stone (Donald Sutherland), Daddy builds a tricked-out android version, made from his son’s memories. But Astro is not Toby, and so ends up treated like the robotic servants who wait on humans hand and wheel throughout this shiny metropolis hovering in the sky. Further class struggles erupt on the discarded Earth surface, where junkyard urchins wave their fists up at those metro types, and Astro ends up fighting baddies in both realms while looking for a family to call his own. Corny but goodhearted, the film tries hard not to annoy parents, with animation more fizzy than frantic and nerdy references to Asimov’s law of robotics, Kant and Freaks: “One of us, one of us!” (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
THE CANYON Another one for the bad-stuff-happens-to-stupid-people file, The Canyon might at least offer the satisfaction of a few squirmy thrills, if it weren’t so insistent on treating its central couple’s plight as the stuff of high tragedy. When newlyweds Nick (Eion Bailey) and Lori (Yvonne Strahovski) find their dream of riding mules through the Grand Canyon thwarted by local prohibitions, they enlist the weird, grizzled dude they meet at the bar to serve as their guide. But after leading them far off the beaten path, Henry (Will Patton) falls prey to a snakebite and, offering up a lame warning about nature taking its revenge on mankind, dies, leaving the two to fend for themselves. As they become progressively more lost, the blandly handsome young couple find that the blandly handsome Arizona wilderness — filmed by director Richard Harrah with picture–post card banality — isn’t as bland (or as handsome) as it seems. But despite the obvious dangers — and a gruesome amputation — the film goes light on action and suspense alike, so that most of its running time is spent focused on two dullards spouting inane dialogue or doing dumb shit like trying to make cell-phone calls while climbing a massive crag. (Sunset 5) (Andrew Schenker)
CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT The vampire trend continues, but the only authentic bloodsuckers in Cirque du Freak are its producers and studio execs. Drawn from the young-adult books by U.K. author Darren Shan, Cirque du Freak has F/X creatures, teen angst and romance, mysterious back stories and a brewing war between beasties. On paper, it’s a perfect formula — Twilight meets X-Men meets Harry Potter — but the onscreen result is not the sum of its parts. Cirque du Freak opens in sunny suburbia, where bland high-schooler Darren (Chris Massoglia) hangs out with his ne’er-do-well buddy, Steve (Josh Hutcherson). Something wacky this way comes: The titular freak show is in town for one night only. The two sneak out to meet the freaks, including sardonic spider-tamer Larten (John C. Reilly), whom Steve recognizes from one of his occult books to be a 220-year-old vampire. Soon enough, Darren becomes a half-vampire (?) whose new love interest — a cute girl too insecure to show her monkey tail — teaches him that “being human is not about what you are, but who you are”; Darren battles the now-evil Steve, who is also now-jealous because Darren got to become a vampire; and Willem Dafoe shows up looking like Vincent Price resurrected. Some of you are thinking: That sounds rad! And Cirque might have worked if it were either straight dark comedy or actually dark like its source material. Directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie), the movie suffers from the same tonal schizophrenia of that other recent goth wannabe, Jennifer’s Body: Is it meant to be scary, or funny? Oops, it’s neither. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
HANNAH FREE In perhaps her biggest role since her work on the iconic 1980s cop show Cagney & Lacey, Sharon Gless stars as Hannah, an elderly woman denied permission to visit her dying lover, Rachel (Maureen Gallagher), even though they’re residents of the same nursing home. Hannah and Rachel have been in love for 40 years, even during Rachel’s marriage to a man. In flashbacks, Hannah recalls their life together, which, it must be said, isn’t terribly interesting. Adapting her play, screenwriter Claudia Allen presents each woman in the broadest of strokes — Hannah is a free spirit obsessed with traveling the world, while Rachel is homespun and responsible. Rather quickly, the flashbacks become repetitively lovey-dovey; only near the end does Rachel, in a fine moment for Gallagher, let loose, giving Hannah a piece of her mind and the film itself a much needed blast of energy. As directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, Hannah Free is as predictable as a Hallmark Channel movie, although there’s undeniable pleasure to be had from watching Gless mumble and grumble and generally chew the scenery. Cagney lives, and she’s as cranky as ever. (Music Hall) (Chuck Wilson)
THE JANKY PROMOTERS & FROM MEXICO WITH LOVE Two films opened, unheralded, last week at the Beverly Center—and may well be gone by the time you read this. That is what’s called “a contractual release.” It used to be that when a studio changed heads, only those unlucky pictures that were produced under the previous regime would be given such a grim reaping: a bare-bones ad campaign or none at all; a debut in some dimly lit ’plex, sandwiched between extinct mammoths that once enjoyed the dignity of a fairly promoted first weekend. “Straight to video” used to mean forgettable martial arts stars, or formerly viable actual stars whose careers were in turnaround, or still-sexy ex–flavors of the month condemned to premature afterlives. These days, however, such bitter fates also greet filmmakers whose audiences are firmly established, and wildcatter indies whose efforts, in fairer times, would at least be given a visible sendoff. Written by and starring Ice Cube and released (nominally) by The Weinstein Company, The Janky Promoters is farce in the unpretentious vein of Barbershop,Barbershop2,Friday,Next Fridayand Friday After Next. That is also its problem, in hard Darwinian terms. Cube and Mike Epps play a pair of concert-promoting hustlers who, in a single 24-hour period, are repeatedly busted in their shameless lies by other shameless liars. Despite the music of Young Jeezy (playing himself) and the smoldering menace embodied by a local druglord (an outstanding Darris Love), everything builds to a fairly careless climax. In the theater across the hall, FromMexicoWith Lovespins a more tightly constructed yarn from its equally familiar elements, imposing the feel-good arc of Rocky (underdog-boxer-with-heart goes the distance against a privileged opponent) upon the gritty, well-drawn texture of life among migrant workers along the border near Laredo, Texas. Director Jimmy Nickerson was previously a distinguished stunt and fight coordinator (Rocky,Gladiator, Fight Club); the boxing here feels enjoyably lived in. Gummy bits of backstory may cling like Post-its to the undersides of the dialogue—we never lose sight that our hero (Kuno Becker, excellent) is the son of a dead boxer who could have been one of the greats, etc.—but the screenplay (by Glen Hartford and Nicholas Siapkaris) otherwise promotes reliable tension and lumps in one’s throat. As villainous father to the spoiled gringo boxer, Stephen Lang might easily have been a mere cipher of ill will but instead gives us a man who has painted himself into a corner, psychologically—and so is more tormented, and dangerous. Are movies as we know them dying, that two such generic canaries as these should keel over in the cultural mineshaft? Both would pull you in if you caught them while channel-surfing—The Janky Promoters has good laughs (there’s a welcome intrusion by the crew of the reality show Cheaters at one adulterous impasse); and whatever its surface predictabilities, From Mexico With Love has the virtue of coaxing you to care about its people. Trouble is, neither picture does anything new. Whatever large paradigm shift is transforming motion pictures, here are two hapless proofs that, economy be damned, lack of originality is the silent killer. (F.X. Feeney)
MOTHERHOOD Casting against type is one thing, but putting Uma Thurman — an unheralded character actress; the more extraordinary the character, the better — in the role of an unkempt New York City mom goes against the cinematic gods. And the gods are angry at Motherhood, writer/director Katherine Dieckmann’s ode to the trials of Manhattan’s downwardly mobile, breeding bourgeoisie. Thurman, in a scruffy brown wig and dingy housedress, has been cursed with a mannered “comic” performance and that funky, flutey elocution she uses when she’s trying to speak like a real person. Thurman plays Eliza, the mother of two young children, and wife of a hapless editor (Anthony Edwards). Together, they live the kind of shabby-groovy life — ruled by preschool pickups and parking shenanigans — familiar to half of Brooklyn. Dieckmann nails the look of a certain niche of urban neo–middle class living, but the film’s hyperearnest tone and reliance on “day-from-hell” New York clichés overwhelm those details. Eliza, formerly known for her “fiercely lyrical fiction,” wants to win a mommy blog contest because “nobody talks about this stuff.” Alas, the deadline for the contest looms as several major dramas unfold, including the organizing of a kiddie birthday party and Eliza’s swift, bloggy betrayal of a fellow mom’s confidence about using her son’s bath toy as a dildo. (Monica 4-Plex; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Michelle Orange)
ONG BAK 2 You’re not always entirely sure what is happening in Tony Jaa’s new movie, but there certainly is a lot of it. In this in-name-only sequel, the martial-arts maven plays Tien, a scion avenging his family in a 15th-century Thailand marked by arcane hybrid fighting styles and a numbing sepia murkiness. Flying-fist connoisseurs may appreciate his journey from training with bandits to battling the warlords who killed his father, but the crossover fans tickled by Ong Bak’s spark and humor will be disappointed here. While Jaa clearly hasn’t lost any of his stamina in the six years since starring as a different underdog in the original, his first outing as a director is confusing, with distractingly muddy storytelling and wildly varying styles from scene to scene. Thrills do come from acrobatic antics with an alligator and on an obliging elephant; a kick fight conducted mostly on the ground; and an engaging assortment of pummeling in a multilevel thatched village. The movie would work better as a highlight reel. While the first Ong Bak replayed shots from a second angle, here the gimmick is replaying in slo-mo — which only calls attention to the film’s slog. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Nicolas Rapold)
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SAW VI If you haven’t followed the series up until now, there’s not much point in trying to catch up with the agonized convolutions of the Saw saga’s plot line. Somebody tried to explain the plot of Saw III or IV to me once, and it took a half-hour — this film, presumably like its predecessors, is a bumblefuck involving a serial killer, Jigsaw (a thin-lipped Tobin Bell, now intoning from beyond the grave), who devises Fear Factor–/Pit and the Pendulum–style deadly dilemmas for his victims. Taken just as an objet d’art, Saw VI — gray, grisly, solemn, stupid — would be about the most dismal thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, the argument against film preservation. But it vaults into the realm of real detestability through pretensions of relevance: having Jigsaw go after faddish bad guys such as usurers made to cut their own pound of flesh, and a team of insurance-company employees looking out for the bottom line. Yes, Saw VI, you’re a vehicle for positive social action. Suggested plot for the inevitable Saw VII: Jigsaw captures and tortures “artists” and studio execs who have money and access to a supple, potentially transcendent and ennobling medium but instead make a lot of Saw movies. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)
STAN HELSING There is not a single frame of funny in Stan Helsing. A flaccid, excruciatingly tedious spoof of contemporary horror films that, according to press notes, was “written and directed by one of the guys who brought you Scary Movie” (said guy is Bo Zenga), SH traffics in wan sight gags, lethargic pacing and a plot that can be summed up as “and then some other lame shit happens. .” When quipping slacker video-store clerk of the title (Steve Howey) heads out for a night of Halloween partying with his best friend (Kenan Thompson), his ex-girlfriend and a stripper-turned–massage therapist, little does he know that before the night is over he will discover he is descended from a legendary monster hunter — which comes in handy, as he and his motley crew do battle with a who’s who of horror-flick baddies. What Zenga doesn’t half-ass recycle (oh, check out the wisecracking black folks talking shit to the video screen as white folks in a horror flick stumble into harm’s way), he simply fumbles. The generically attractive young cast gamely tries to pump life into the script, to no avail. Leslie Nielsen in waitress drag, however, looks like he’d rather be having a colonoscopy. (Mann Chinese 6) (Ernest Hardy)
THE STEPFATHER Awkwardly chummy guys with weird glasses who disappear into darkened rooms with your laughing mother to listen to Donald Fagen solo albums — the stepfather was a ready-to-villainize archetype for the kids-of-divorce who saw the 1987 Terry O’Quinn thriller. That Stepfather was Donald Westlake’s reworking of Hitchcock’s wolf-in-the-suburbs Shadow of a Doubt, and now Westlake’s screenplay has been rejiggered. The kickoff is good — the finale effectively literalizes the expression “broken home” — but director Nelson McCormick doesn’t keep things “taut” in between. Rather than do scenes right the first time, he tends to déjà vu them (this usually involves Amber Heard, wearing not-too-much). Menaced family and friends include a Gossip Girl guy and a bunch of actors who look faintly like other, more-famous actors, but The Stepfather is, finally, only as good as its stepfather — and Dylan Walsh ain’t bad. He’s nondescriptly handsome in a subdued, strong–jaw line, L.L. Bean–fashion, shortish-as-bullies-will-be, and oversensitive and overpolite in a hard-to-pinpoint way. Still, comparison with Jaume Collet-Serra’s recent and superior Orphan — also about a breached family — shows the difference between a by-the-numbers journeyman and a serious student of genre. Anyhow, closing on a butt-rock cover of “Happy Together” should leave ’em laughing. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)
(UNTITLED)(Untitled) aims wide and misses, its satire of the contemporary-art scene seemingly lifted from the transcripts of late-’80s Senate debates about the NEA. Two highly competitive brothers — Josh (Eion Bailey), a successful painter of dull hotel art, and Adrian (Adam Goldberg, who also serves as executive producer), a perpetually indignant, brow-furrowing composer of atonal music — fall for wildly ambitious New York gallerist Madeleine (Marley Shelton). Director Jonathan Parker, who co-wrote with Catherine DiNapoli (the duo behind 2001’s Bartleby), wants to have it both ways, snidely mocking his protagonists and then granting them happy, art-affirming endings. Adrian scribbles furiously in his Moleskine, Madeleine wears noisy textured clothing (though Sarah Lawrence tees are her preferred sleepwear), and crybaby Josh wonders, “When did beauty become so fuckin’ ugly?” Tepid spoofs of Damien Hirst and Charles Ray creations fall flat as finger-wagging proof of contemporary art’s aesthetic bankruptcy, a Warholian-like aphasic thrown in for more laffs. (Untitled) tries to reignite who-gets-to-call-it-art debates that haven’t been taken seriously for at least a decade — which may explain the recurring presence of a plastic bag that appears to have blown in off the set of American Beauty.(The Landmark; Sunset 5; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Melissa Anderson)