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Movie Reviews: Amreeka, Gamer, The Headless Woman

GO  ALL ABOUT STEVE In this refreshingly quirky comedy, Sandra Bullock is Mary Horowitz, a Sacramento crossword-puzzle writer who’s geeky and hyperactive and generally too much to bear. When her parents fix her up with a handsome cable-news cameraman named Steve (Bradley Cooper), Mary pounces, but quickly scares him away with talk of “destiny.” Undeterred, she begins following Steve and a washed-up reporter (Thomas Haden Church) as they head across America, covering ratings grabbers such as a baby with three legs and a mine-shaft cave-in that has stranded a dozen hearing-impaired children. Writer Kim Barker (License to Wed) and first-time director Phil Traill aren’t afraid of big jokes (deaf kids down a well), but they also pay attention to the small details of character. As if to suggest that Mary finds solace in a nerd-friendlier time, her bedroom décor is strictly 1969-70, while her much-discussed go-go boots are a seeming nod to the goofy brainiac Barbra Streisand portrayed in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Although Bullock initially struggles with a character she’s probably too old to play, she ultimately makes Mary funny and sympathetic without softening her innate weirdness. The actress also earns points for daring to co-produce a Hollywood comedy that isn’t about a wedding. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  AMREEKA The thriving subgenre of immigrant displacement dramedy gets a confident new spin from Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian-Jordanian raised in the United States. Divorced, demoralized and struggling with her weight, Palestinian bank employee Muna (a very good Nisreen Faour) leaves the occupied West Bank with her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), to find a new home with her sister (The Visitor’s Hiam Abbass) in Chicago. The discovery that she has exchanged one set of checkpoints for another doesn’t prevent Muna — an archetypical maternal survivor straight out of Italian neorealism — from buckling down to the business of survival in a culture whose traditional mistrust of dark-skinned foreigners is exacerbated by 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Dabis concedes only subtitles to Western sensitivities — the perspective is firmly with the newcomers, whose dialogue switches on a dime from Arabic to English, signaling the constant juggling every acclimating migrant must undertake. But there’s nothing bitter or cynical about Amreeka, which is directed with impish wit, an observant visual competence, and an open, conciliatory spirit (Muna befriends her son’s Jewish teacher) that embraces the marginality Arabs and Jews share in common. (The Landmark; ArcLight Hollywood) (Ella Taylor)

CONFESSIONS OF AN EX-DOOFUS-ITCHYFOOTED MUTHA In Melvin Van Peebles’ homely home-video-art love-story curio, incorporating fragments of his 1982 stage musical Waltz of the Stork, the 70-something star-writer-director plays the lead role, from age 15 to 45, opposite actors who are, in every case, younger. This makes the scenes of teenage sexual discovery particularly eyebrow-raising. Like practically everything in the movie, the device only really “works” on a theoretical level, though it’s transfixing for a time, in a strange and slightly sad way. Van Peebles’ unnamed protagonist narrates back on his life, from middle age, talking over re-enactments of his runaway from Chicago (“Itchyfoot” meaning wanderlust), escape from gangsters, Harlem domesticity, oat sowing and pirate fighting with the Merchant Marines, gigoloing and a courtier gig in royal Africa. The film has a footling kind of style, emptying the whole after-effects toolbox of weird wipes, superimpositions and solarizations. There’s little concession to period detail in blithely anachronistic street scenes, and the art direction is not much more than one would expect from a backyard eighth-grade production. There’s a temptation to “give” this to Van Peebles, but any scene in which actors get to interact is deathly awkward, and 100 minutes should never feel this long. (Music Hall) (Nick Pinkerton)

THE FINAL DESTINATION Fatality lurks around every ceiling fan, shampoo bottle and espresso machine in the fourth entry in New Line Cinema’s improbably long-running death-by-misadventure franchise, focused on yet another group of friends who narrowly escape a catastrophic accident only to learn the hard way that when your number’s up, it really is up. The Grim Reaper seems to have taken a hit from the lean economic times, judging from The Final Destination’s el cheapo Canada-as-Anytown, USA, production values and sub–One Tree Hill cast; but as usual, all that is merely fuel for the series’ signature domino-effect death scenes, here rendered in shlock-o-riffic 3-D by director David R. Ellis (Final Destination 2, Snakes On a Plane), bringing all manner of bodily impalement and dismemberment as close as the butter on your popcorn. Ellis and screenwriter Eric Bress even go all meta on us with an Inglourious Basterds–esque finale set inside a 3D cinema, though their set pieces never quite muster the giddy brio of Final Destination 1 and 3 auteur James Wong at his best. They come close, however, in what I’m fairly certain is the silver screen’s first episode of pool-drain disembowelment. And to think, people say there are no fresh ideas in Hollywood. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

 

GO  GAMER Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have slowly started garnering actual critical consideration for their Crank movies; with Gamer, they make another good case for taking them seriously. In the near future, over-enthusiastic gamers play first-person shooters by controlling real death-row convicts (via implanted gibberish nanotechnology). One of them — champion Kable (Gerard Butler) — Knows Too Much, and must be eliminated before he wins 30 games and his freedom. That Kable doesn’t particularly care about game mogul Ken Castle’s (Michael C. Hall) grand conspiracy — and never has a conscience-stricken change of heart — is one of many small tweaks on the genre that make this a notable cut above bargain-basement action. Neveldine and Taylor’s spazzy (but coherent) action scenes rely mostly on blood spurts instead of feats of badassery, but their dystopia is inventive and their visual schemes diverse: The fight scenes play like a buffering online video, with the transmission glitches warping our sense of time, while Castle’s home looks like a live-action Speed Racer, with Hall munching snacks against bizarre nature imagery in disorienting tableaux. Their sense of the grotesque can overshadow their targets — close-ups of a 500-pound guy to indict lazy media consumers isn’t exactly subtle, and more of a distraction — but they’re as smart about the details as they are loyal to corporation-bashing. Oh, and there’s a dance number. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

HALLOWEEN II Serial killer Michael Myers, it turns out, has mother issues. In this disappointing sequel to his intense and much underrated 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, rock star–turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie sends Michael (Tyler Mane) on another killing spree at the urging of his now-dead mom (Sheri Moon Zombie), who appears (all too frequently) as a beckoning ghost standing next to a white horse. Again, Michael hunts baby-sitter extraordinaire Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), who’s living, one year after the first film’s murders, with the town sheriff (Brad Dourif). In his 2007 movie, Zombie dug deep into Michael’s screwed-up, white-trash family history, a process that humanized Michael and made his subsequent brutality all the more unsettling. This time, Zombie doesn’t appear to have many deep thoughts, so Michael doesn’t just stab his victims, he slices and chomps them into gooey pulp — an overkill motif that actually feels false to the character and quickly becomes a depressing bore. As evidenced by his previous Halloween flick and 2005’s astonishing (and irredeemably brutal) The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie has talent to burn, but he’s slumming here, and one suspects that he knows it. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  THE HEADLESS WOMAN Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is a dark comedy in which the filmmaker uses her considerable skills to render a protagonist opaque even as the audience is compelled to share her mental state. Distracted by her cell phone, Veró (María Onetto) — a well-off woman of a certain age — causes an automobile accident. It may be that she has run over a dog, although the two ghostly palm prints left on her driver’s-side window suggest something else. The subject of the movie is not the mystery of what happened but rather how, or if, that mystery is resolved. The story proceeds in casually hectic fits and starts; the plot is a patchwork of overheard dialogue and surprise cuts. How did Veró arrive at the clinic? Although not obviously injured, she breezes through a waiting room crammed with impassive Indians. Is she in shock or willed into a childlike state? Dazed and forgetful, our protagonist wanders through her defamiliarized routines, engaging in all manner of impulsive behavior, dealing with servants, always with a gracious smile and quizzical air. Midway through, Veró tells her husband that she thinks she might have killed someone back on the road. Is she trying to confess, to remember, to understand? Even as the woman who has lost her head continues to act “strangely” — and strange becomes the new normal, or vice versa — class relations and privilege come to the fore. Martel’s movie becomes a sardonic exposure of what a character in Godard’s Weekend calls “the horror of the bourgeoisie.” (Sunset 5) (J. Hoberman)

THE OPEN ROAD Justin Timberlake cuts such a cocky, carefree figure in his videos and on Saturday Night Live that it’s surprising (not to mention physically uncomfortable) to watch him struggle through The Open Road, a weak pulse of a father-and-son road drama. Timberlake plays Carlton, a slumping Texas minor league ballplayer whose ailing mother (Mary Steenburgen) asks him to track down his estranged father, Kyle “Lone Star” Garrett (Jeff Bridges), a celebrated retired slugger who spends his time charming fans at conventions and uttering Dan Rather–worthy down-home expressions like “That girl’s finer than the hair on a frog.” With his supportive ex-girlfriend Lucy (Kate Mara) by his side, Carlton flies to Ohio to retrieve Dad, but complications force the trio to drive back to Texas, which provides many opportunities for random conflicts and heartfelt conversations — and for viewers to check their watches. Unceremoniously dumped into theaters without advance screenings, The Open Road isn’t an unwatchable howler — instead, writer-director Michael Meredith’s film is merely dull and obvious. As for Timberlake, his success as a pop star is attributable to his graceful nonchalance, which registers as awkward shallowness when set against The Open Road’s leaden, earnest conventionality. Even worse, only one of the two male leads sings during the film — and it’s not J.T. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

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