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Movie Reviews: An American Affair, Phoebe in Wonderland, 12

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29: Al Gore’s ex–dorm mate tells all.

AN AMERICAN AFFAIR Even the most insatiable JFK-conspiracy-theory freak won’t get much juice out of William Sten Olsson’s An American Affair, which subscribes to a pretty tiresome CIA/Cuba scenario (reprisal for failing to assassinate Castro or something). Until the end, all that is window-dressing for the summer of ’63 story of one Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright), a thoroughly loathsome, unprepossessing 13-year-old creep. Adam gets into the habit of playing rear window with new neighbor Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), who likes to sit topless in her window in between chauffeured assignations with Kennedy. Having played Bettie Page as an adorably innocent and vacant dominatrix-next-door type, Mol now walks through the part of a blandly free-spirited artist — the kind who tears up her backyard because “form is dead” and goes on acid trips with droning sitar music (in 1963! So ahead of the curve!). You know no good can come of Adam landscaping Catherine’s garden, peeking through her windows at night, and getting caught by trenchcoated CIA types who speak ominously of “the Cubans.” (Many lines like, “Christ! Bobby!” ensue.) Only Noah Wyle, as Adam’s unreadable dad, rises above the muck; he deserves his Tarantino-aided resurrection sooner rather than later. (Sunset 5) (Vadim Rizov)

BETWEEN LOVE & GOODBYE Aching to stay close to East Village glam-pop singer Kyle (Simon Miller), strapping French actor Marcel (Justin Tensen) weds a lesbian pal for his green card, but blood proves thicker than the spit these boys swap in Casper Andreas’ melodramatic, low-budget bummer. Named from a sampling of Kyle’s lyrics, Between Love & Goodbye follows said timeline in the couple’s relationship, as they’re torn apart by the poisonous arrival of a jealous new couch-surfer, Kyle’s transgendered ex-prostitute sister April (Rob Harmon). Dispassionate about conveying any personality depth beyond Marcel’s oversensitive clinginess, April’s bitchy entitlement, and Kyle’s power-bottom passivity, the story Andreas seems more devilishly eager to tell is what happens after goodbye, when the break-up degenerates into catty feuding. All the players recruit friends and roomies to take sides and soon this is war, with eviction threats, tattling to Immigration, and a hair-pulling scrap that ends in stitches and assault charges. Few will see a point to this soap-opera hysteria, but the perspective needed is from outside the theater: If this unconvincing bore weren’t gay-themed, who would even watch it? (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

ECHELON CONSPIRACY The box-office suicide title refers to the National Security Agency’s database for collecting surveillance material. Echelon Conspiracy’s “chilling” what-if proposition is that it should become a sentient, self-operating force — aptly, the screenplay’s blind trowelling of action clichés (“You try to run and I will hunt you down!”) seems like the work of Final Draft operating on its own. Or of Pat Hobby. Or of ... Iron Eagle scribe Kevin Elders. Shane West, apparently being paid for every finicky overreaction, is an American tech guy abroad, swept into a Mysterious International Conspiracy after his random receipt of a clairvoyant cell phone that text messages him the keys to easy money ... and easy death. Exposition is reeled out with Bangkok, Prague and Moscow variously visible in the background. Edward Burns, with his eternal air of midtown bartender, drops in as a casino detective/ex-government operative. Digressions to dyspeptic overseer Martin Sheen in a commercial park building playing NSA headquarters open the door to some lazy-cynical Buck Fush material. Given the passivity of computer use, the “hacker thriller” is film history’s great running joke, but special attention should go to Echelon Conspiracy’s authors for conceiving a climax that tries to juice tension out of someone using a search engine and staring at a download countdown. (Selected theaters) (Nick Pinkerton)

EVERLASTING MOMENTS Lovely to look at but too slow to get lost in, Jan Troell’s new movie is a tribute to still photography filtered through a portrait of working-class life wracked by war and want in early 20th century Sweden. Written by Niklas Rådström from a story by Troell and his wife Agneta about her ancestor Maria Larsson, a mother of seven who won a camera in a lottery and used it both to record and survive her harsh life, the movie satisfies for an hour, but never quite persuades that its subject is worth two. For all its tumultuous backdrop, Everlasting Moments plays out on a much narrower canvas than Troell’s 1996 masterpiece Hamsun, which gave us a hugely transcendent figure to chew on. Where Hamsun probed the power of art to corrupt the soul, Everlasting Moments stakes a claim for the power of craft to elevate the spirit. In other words, it’s pretty like a Rembrandt, but far less exciting. We never learn whether Maria’s photos were ever seen outside her family, which wouldn’t matter much if Troell were able to make more of his heroine (played by Maria Heiskanen) than a regulation Ma Joad who achieves some measure of control. Mikael Persbrandt is the life of the party as the unfaithful lush of a husband who nonetheless provided his wife with as many everlasting moments as did her camera. (Ella Taylor)

EXPLICIT ILLS A tender ensemble slice of inner-city Philly life to wash out the foul taste of Crossing Over’s far more explicit ills, The Hottest State star Mark Webber’s directorial debut is also, not surprisingly, stronger than either of Ethan Hawke’s stints behind the camera. Having spent time squatting while being raised by a single mom, Webber has been an outspoken activist against urban poverty, thus his all-star indie cast tends to serve as collective mouthpiece for his lefty politics. The lived-in performances include Lou Taylor Pucci as the artist who has to sell pot to survive, Paul Dano as a struggling actor battling the melancholia of an unhelpful world, Rosario Dawson as the working-class mother of a young asthmatic (newcomer Francisco Burgos, a tad too precocious for his own good), and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter as Jimmy Fallon’s new house-band MC — but also, a vegan entrepreneur. Executive produced by Jim Jarmusch and lensed with luminous saturation by Patrice Lucien Cochet, the film is confidently polished, and thankfully more sweet-tempered than preachy, given that every narrative thread has an underlying theme of social injustice. As it leads up to a neighborhood-wide rally that brings every character together, it’s a shame that Webber (in a marching cameo) has already surrendered his drama over to a last-act tragedy (poverty’s fault, of course). For that, I too protest. (Aaron Hillis)

GO  HARVARD BEATS YALE 29-29 marks a particular 40th anniversary — not Richard Nixon’s election, but the scarcely less astonishing event that occurred a few weeks later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the undefeated Harvard football team met undefeated Yale and, trailing by 16 points with 42 seconds left in the game, scored twice to confound its arch rival with a tie. Filmmaker Kevin Rafferty, then a Harvard undergrad, was an eyewitness to The Game, as this miracle was dubbed, and his account is enjoyably steeped in ambiance and ambivalence. As interviewed by Rafferty, the Crimson are definitely more salt of the earth — or at least less preppy — than the Bulldogs. One guy survived Khe Sanh; another, admitting to long-ago Progressive Labor Party tendencies, maintains that the Crimson essentially coached themselves: “In the spirit of ’68, we took over the team.” Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones is on hand to intone the requisite ’60s clichés with exquisite sanctimony, and a very young Meryl Streep makes an unexpected cameo, albeit in a photograph. The talking heads are intercut with The Game — an excellent way to watch it, especially as the first half consists of Yale crushing the vaunted Harvard defense. Yale draws a few penalties, calls a bizarre time-out, and fails to adjust for an onside kick, but it’s a disputed instance of pass interference that cues the movie’s Zapruder moment. This may or may not be the greatest instance of college football ever played but, Brian’s Song, Jerry Maguire and The Longest Yard notwithstanding, Rafferty’s no-frills annotated replay is the best football movie I’ve ever seen: A particular day in history becomes a moment out of time. (Nuart)

GO  PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND Nine-year-old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) is every parent’s dream and nightmare — a talented child for whom school presents few challenges but also a troubled girl prone to flights of fancy and self-abuse. She cannot process the real world, in which she finds no “hope,” so instead loses herself in a make-believe one: Wonderland, courtesy the drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) who encourages the lost little kid to “jump” lest she suffer a more brutal fall. And yet, even as Alice wandering a magical kingdom, Phoebe’s condition deteriorates; her parents, writers played by Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman, find it easier to blame themselves than to allow outsiders (shrinks, principals, drama teachers) to interpret the source of Phoebe’s anguish. A Lifetime Network production, writer-director Daniel Barnz’s film is profoundly stirring, if also occasionally maddening; its excursions into whimsy (Phoebe in conversation with the Mad Hatter and Red Queen, say) are clumsy, like scenes from Coraline injected into a far more serious drama about the fine line between illumination and despair. Yet the performances are transcendent — especially Fanning’s, as the little girl who wants to get better, who wants to be better, as she slowly disappears through the Looking Glass. (Sunset 5) (Robert Wilonsky)

SHERMAN’S WAY Director Craig Saavedra and writer Tom Nance’s collaboration plays like something out of an indie-film paint-by-numbers. Take a richie-rich, straight-laced stuffed-shirt (Michael Shulman as set-for-life college student Sherman), stick him in a beat-up roadster heading cross-country that’s piloted by a wacky wash-up (James LeGros as forgotten Winter Olympian Palmer “The Bomber”), toss in a few eccentrics and hotties-to-trot along the way, and, voila, off to the film festival circuit we shall go in search of shallow-end enlightenment. The acting doesn’t help—just how many cue cards were used in this production, anyhow? And, though no fault of its own, the film now feels like a rinky-dink redo of HBO’s new Eastbound & Down series, starring Danny McBride in more or less the same role as LeGros—the former star athlete who thinks he’s big shit but is nothing more than a dumb shit on his way to the footnotes. (R.W.)

SHUTTLE Next time, spring for a cab. Sadly, there may not be a next time for two young women and three men whose ride home on an L.A. airport shuttle (blue, but definitely not Super) goes hellishly awry. Lifelong friends Mel (Peyton List) and Jules (Cameron Goodman) and two horny guys they met in baggage claim (James Snyder and Dave Power) jump aboard a discount shuttle along with a mousy businessman (Cullen Douglas). Soon, the driver (Tony Curran) pulls a gun, straps everyone in with seat belts that can’t be unfastened, and heads for an industrial part of town where there’s nary a car or cop in sight. First-time writer-director Edward Anderson piles on the plot twists, some of them clever and surprising, though there isn’t much joy in the telling. As shot by cinematographer Michael Fimognari, the interior of the shuttle is sometimes too dark to make out the action, and the film runs long. Still, the well-acted third act is effectively intense, if maddeningly illogical. But hey, we don’t go to these movies for logic, do we? (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI “Sometimes you must stand up when standing is not easy,” goes the movie’s mantra (or something to that effect); most viewers will come away replacing “stand” with “throw.” It’s been 15 years since the first (and one presumed incorrectly, last) adaptation of the Street Fighter video game, and the fumes are only now leaving theaters. Proving that there’s no statute of limitations on lousy ideas, director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s attempted franchise expansion returns to the Capcom motherlode that produced the worst movie in the entire Jean-Claude Van Damme filmography. Playing a classical pianist who evidently studied with Harvey Keitel in Fingers, Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk stars as the bereft daughter who channels her rage against the world’s evildoers — starting with the blue-eyed devil (Neal McDonough) who’s secretly holding her father hostage. Her vigilantism is sorely needed, given what passes for law enforcement in the movie’s crime-ridden Bangkok: a glamourpuss detective (Moon Bloodgood) whose deductive powers stop at observing, “Something’s going down!” when hundreds of people flee a nightclub, and a stubbly Interpol agent played by that international man of mystery, American Pie’s Chris Klein. Idiot plotting and dialogue are what you’d expect from a genre that typically rewards narrative development with a skip function. But the rote fight scenes are a disappointment: Fans will get far bigger kicks (and highs) out of the ka-razy Thai import Chocolate — although the appealing Kreuk invests even the movie’s Miyagi-speak with feeling. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

GO  TOYO’S CAMERA Among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans shipped to internment camps in 1943 on FDR’s orders was established photographer Toyo Miyatake. Behind barbed wire at Manzanar, Miyatake cobbled together a camera from a smuggled lens and chronicled a microcosm of cramped communal living (undivided cabins, row toilets) and small-town American activity (a basketball team that beat all comers). Equally concerned with the internment experience as with packing in as many Miyatake snaps as possible, Toyo’s Camera is more of a historical backgrounder and act of remembrance than an in-depth study of the photographer. (The Ansel Adams contemporary, who died 30 years ago, had a flourishing studio in Little Tokyo, where the Michio Ito dance company, Hideko Takamine and other visiting notables posed.) Despite the still-jaw-dropping facts of this history, the hale ex-internees interviewed by director Junichi Suzuki lend a respect-inducing calm, as if echoing shikata ga nai (“can’t be helped”) stoicism. Miyatake’s photos bring out ordinary camp dwellers’ resilience, though the spartan backgrounds, harsh desert glare and shadows at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas loom as reminders. Bumpy transitions and organization, along with New Age composer Kitaro’s temperamental soundtrack, prevent a sense of polish, but this Japanese-produced doc, which includes Reagan’s 1988 reparations, testifies with dignity and restraint. (Monica 4-Plex) (Nicolas Rapold)

GO  12 Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008, Russian actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterful, engrossing 12 is finally finding its way into theaters. A revamp of 12 Angry Men set in post-communist Moscow, 12 takes some liberties with both the original material and its new setting: The jury is now deciding the fate of a Chechen youth accused of murdering his adoptive father, a Russian officer, and the story adheres to the pretext of a unanimous vote, although the Russian system does not require it. Despite the abridgment of the title, however, Mikhalkov’s updated jury doesn’t include females — various sectors of modern Russian society are uniformly represented by late-middle-aged males, with Mikhalkov himself playing the foreman. It’s a fitting choice in that the working men, despite having adapted to both “democratic forces” and capitalism, also embody Russia’s past; over the course of a remarkably fleet 159-minutes, each one shares how that past has shaped him and his perspective on a case loaded with nationalist baggage. Miklahkov keeps 12 tops spinning at all times in the school gymnasium, which serves as their deliberation room, and though the speech/conversion pattern grows a little pat, the movement toward consensus raises the further, richly complicated question of how to decide not only what is right but what is best. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)

WATCHMEN Filming the most ambitious superhero comic book ever written, director Zack Snyder has managed to address the cult while pandering to the masses. The master of the vid-game aesthetic has successfully streamlined Alan Moore’s 12-part graphic novel and, even at a running time that tops two hours and 40 minutes, made it commercially viable. In its movie incarnation, Watchmen (which first appeared early in Ronald Reagan’s second term) could be most simply described as an apocalyptic sci-fi murder mystery cum love story set in an alternate universe where masked superheroes are real, albeit largely retired, thanks to Richard Nixon, who is enjoying his fifth term as president — in part because the greatest of the Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, a mutated atomic scientist who glows like blue kryptonite and possesses unlimited cosmic powers, settled the Vietnam war in a week. Watchmen doesn’t lack for self-confidence or even entertainment value. Its failure is one of imagination. Snyder’s movie is too literal and too linear. Social satire is pummeled into submission by the amplified pow-kick-thud of the sub Matrix action sequences; even character is ultimately eclipsed by the presumed need for violent spectacle. The philosopher Iain Thomson maintained that Moore not only deconstructed the idea of comic book super-heroism but pulverized the very notion of the hero — and the hero-worship that comics traditionally sell. For all its superficial fidelity, Snyder’s movie stands Moore’s novel on its head, trying to reconstruct a conventional blockbuster out of those empty capes and scattered shards. (J. Hoberman)


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