Movie Reviews: Anton Chekhov's The Duel, Toy Story 3, I Am Love

THE A-TEAM Joe Carnahan's big-screen adaptation of NBC's 1983 midseason-replacement-turned-three-seasons-running-hit is convoluted, overstuffed, turned up to 11, and yet, somehow, deadly dull — in other words, white noise. Rather than a reinterpretation, it's a soulless, sloppy, smirky rerun that makes those Charlie's Angels movies seem positively nouvelle vague; at least Drew Barrymore and crew weren't just shouting bad impressions over the blasts. Liam Neeson is George Peppard as Hannibal Smith, cigar-chomping frontman of the band of wrongly accused Army Rangers; Bradley Cooper is Dirk Benedict as Templeton "Faceman" Peck, bullets bouncing off his perpetual smug grin; Quinton Jackson is Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, whose Mohawk still pities the fool; and District 9's Sharlto Copley is Dwight Schultz as Murdock, the howlin' mad pilot who crashes most everything he touches. To the mix, add in Jessica Biel as the Army captain charged with bringing down the boys (complicated by the fact that Face is her ex); Patrick Wilson as the CIA agent who may or may not be setting up the team (but totally is, duh); frequent video-game voice-over actor Brian Bloom as the icky leader of a Blackwater-style operation that's gone rogue, I tell ya, rogue; and Gerald McRaney as the world's worst best friend. The plot has something to do with counterfeiting plates, but it's just an excuse to blow shit up for two hours. How can something this loud be this boring? (Robert Wilonsky) (Citywide)

GO  8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION Grinning into the camera, a young Mormon in a Prop. 8 commercial highlighted in 8: The Mormon Proposition gushes that her activism around getting the ballot measure passed (to restrict the definition of marriage in California to opposite-sex couples) "makes me feel American." Diving into the grim irony of one group of Americans denying another group its rights under the guise of upholding American freedoms and ideals, director Reed Cowan illuminates how the Mormon Church played California politics like a fiddle, and how the church's homophobia has ruined the lives of its queer faithful. Cowan strikes a potent balance between heart and head, juxtaposing emotionally wrenching moments (a segment in which queer Mormons describe past suicide attempts is especially painful) with self-damning portraits of Mormon politicians and church officials, and hard-nosed journalism from reporter Fred Karger, who exhaustively outlines the church's role in conceiving and bankrolling Prop. 8. The film, whose low budget is underscored in cheesy dramatic reenactments, might have been strengthened had Cowan connected dots between the fact that at the same time California passed Prop. 8, Arizona and Florida also passed initiatives banning gay marriage. (He does show how the Mormons used Hawaii as a test run for what they'd achieve in California.) But the flaws pale against what's illustrated, which is not just how Prop. 8 passed, but also the sordid, cynical workings of our political machine. (Ernest Hardy) (Sunset 5)

GO  CYRUS This freakishly engrossing black comedy about excessively mothered men and the women who enable them, stars John C. Reilly as a middle-aged lost soul who can't believe his luck when he takes up with an enigmatic fox (the excellent Marisa Tomei). Until, that is, he runs afoul of her son the emotional terrorist, played by Jonah Hill, who cannily dials down the schoolboy hysteria that has defined his persona in the Judd Apatow oeuvre, into a lethally seditious calm. So begins a slow war of attrition as excruciatingly funny to watch as it is horrifying to be caught up in. Yet nothing is overplayed in a movie that wanders teasingly along the borders between sorrow and laughter. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, who come loosely associated with the mumblecore movement, Cyrus was made with Hollywood money (Ridley and Tony Scott, neither famous for the experimental method, are executive producers) and big-name stars. It still retains the meandering quality of the Duplass brothers' The Puffy Chair, but also has a satisfying formal coherence. How you read the ending of this wickedly ambiguous yet strangely tender parsing of modern relationships will depend to a degree on which genre you think the film falls into, but far more on whether you think there's such a thing, in this age of perpetual youth, as a grown-up. (Ella Taylor) (t/k)

GO  ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL Faithfully adapted from the Chekhov novella by Mary Bing and crisply paced by Israeli director Dover Koshashvili, Anton Chekhov's The Duel comes about as close to soap opera passion as the virtuoso of wistful lethargy is likely to get. Perhaps comic opera is the operative term: Adultery, betrayal, blackmail, drunken antics and all manner of peculiar impulse behavior enliven the summery indolence of a Black Sea backwater. Laevsky (Andrew Scott), an agitated, intellectual young wastrel, is frantically attempting to ditch Nadia (Fiona Glascott), the vain, lazily bovine married woman whom he persuaded to run away with to the wilds of the Caucasus. Laevsky and Nadia are perfectly ill-matched in their respective inability to cope with crisis. As the discarded mistress becomes increasingly lost, her disheveled lover grows hysterically dissolute. Meanwhile, their tragicomic floundering is observed by three professionals — a contemptuous zoologist with a particular animus for Laevsky; the kindly, if dim-witted, town doctor; and a timid deacon — each of whom embodies a particular moral position. The largely verbal drama is played out over a series of comic social disasters to climax with the eponymous affaire d'honneur — at once the height of irrationality and the logical culmination of the movie's ongoing narrative argument. Although co-producer Donald Rosenfeld is a longtime Merchant Ivory associate, this potentially middlebrow exercise is neither anemic nor unduly genteel. The period atmosphere is sensuous; the postcard setting feels lived-in. The Duel is the most successful literary adaptation I've seen since Pascal Ferran's 2006 Lady Chatterley. (J. Hoberman) (Music Hall, Playhouse, Town Center)


GO  I AM LOVE As unrepentantly grandiose and ludicrous as its title, Luca Guadagnino's visually ravishing third feature suggests an epic that Visconti and Sirk might have made after they finished watching Vertigo and reading Madame Bovary while gorging themselves on aphrodisiacs. That it works so well — despite frequently risible dialogue ("Happy is a word that makes one sad") and a notion of feminism that carbon-dates around the time Kate Chopin published The Awakening — is a testament to the film's loony sincerity and seductive voluptuousness. Guadagnino's "social melodrama" is anchored by the magnificence of Tilda Swinton, who plays Emma Recchi, the unhappy, unfulfilled Russian wife of a Milanese industrialist and mother of three adult children; her carnal desires surface after her son's friend, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), prepares her a plate of perfectly seasoned shrimp. There's nothing especially novel, of course, about exploring the soul-crushing emptiness of marriage to a titan of industry. But I Am Love may be the first film in which the lonely heroine finds inspiration in her daughter's lesberation. For all its corny social studies, I Am Love never forgets the lust that drives its narrative. Swinton and Gabbriellini make an extremely foxy couple, her translucent flesh complemented by his dark hair and beard. Their assignations are all action, little talk; when Guadagnino focuses solely on the primal, the effect is spellbinding. Only the words get in the way. (Melissa Anderson) (Arclight Hollywood, Landmark, Playhouse, Town Center)

JONAH HEX Bracingly inept, Chef Boyardee spaghetti Western Jonah Hex is the rare 80-minute movie that you can’t even call “taut.” Rather than teasing out curiosity about its outcast hero’s past, Jonah pelts the viewer with clumps of exposition, including a hasty comic-book–graphic origin montage illustrating the strange case of Hex (Josh Brolin), a former Confederate war machine whose near-death experience gave him the ability to talk to the departed — hardly utilized or meaningful, given the movie’s fatuous killing. We catch up with Hex roaming the steampunk Wild (Wild) West, now a heavy-ordinance bounty hunter with his face half-melted into a permanent growl, a reminder of the former commanding officer, Turnbull, who destroyed his life (played by John Malkovich, pulling his purring villain off the shelf). It’s 1876, and guess-who is plotting to construct a sort-of Doomsday Merrimack to sail into the Chesapeake Bay and level Washington, D.C., for President Grant’s July 4th centenary address. Grudgingly tapped to save the Union, Jonah gets help from strategic Black Friend gadgeteer Lance Reddick and strumpet gal pal Megan Fox, who looks like she’s waiting for the invention of clear heels. Metal outfit Mastodon’s sound track riffs never lock down a groove with the image, interesting actors flit by barely used, and franchise ambitions quietly expire. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

GO  THE LOTTERY The ginger stepchild of President Obama's election platform, it seems that this country's broke-ass education system is finally stepping up for its media moment. On the heels of a recent 60 Minutes piece on the SEED school in Washington, D.C., and New York Times Magazine cover story focused on education reform comes The Lottery, a precise, impassioned look at the battle between zone and charter schools in Harlem. Director Madeleine Sackler interweaves the stories of four charter hopefuls and their families with an exploration of an issue whose politics have grown so complex that they squiggle even partisan lines. Sackler finds personal, persuasive points of entry for key factors in the debate: Statistics contrasting the annual amounts spent on a child's education and a prisoner's housing are followed by the account of a school lottery entrant's incarcerated father, who laments his lack of choice as much as the choices he made. An electrifying community meeting finds Harlem Success president Eva Moskowitz both vilified and heralded as "our Obama" by local parents, as the unions depend on such poorly understood class and neighborhood tensions to maintain the status quo. Sackler reframes education reform as a moral issue, and it's impossible to look at the fallen faces of kids turned away from a school — of all things — and disagree. (Michelle Orange) (Music Hall)


RAVAAN was not screened in advance of our deadline, but a review will appear here next week.

STONEWALL UPRISING In the early-morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, at a dive on 53 Christopher Street in New York City, the homosexual intifada began — an event that remains surprisingly underdocumented. Homo history is bifurcated pre– and post–June '69, evident in the titles of the documentaries Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999). The value of Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's poorly structured doc Stonewall Uprising is that it focuses on the during, assembling minute-by-minute recapitulations of those who were there. Their memories are undeniably powerful, their fury still white-hot 41 years later: "Our goal was to hurt the police. I wanted to kill those cops," remembers John O'Brien, one man on the front lines. The inclusion of some talking heads, however, remains highly questionable: For a film that celebrates the courage of the long-marginalized who fought back, who ushered in the whole concept of gay pride, is Ed Koch really someone you want to talk to? And, tellingly, it's not the queers, but a cop — Seymour Pine, the 90-year-old retired NYPD morals inspector who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn — who gets the last word. (Melissa Anderson) (Nuart)

GO  TOY STORY 3 Fifteen years after ushering in a new era of CGI animation, and 11 years after a colossally successful pre-millennial sequel, the Toy Story franchise returns to a changed world. Its irresistible conceit and snappy good humor remain largely intact, though now it also hauls a saltier and more anxious sensibility. Inanimate figurines don't age, but they do get nicked up and discarded, and that tension between immortality and irrelevance remains the central conflict in Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3. Andy is all grown up and about to drive off to college, leaving the fate of his toys uncertain. Will they be stored in the attic, left on the curb for sanitation pickup, or delivered to the local day-care center? All of the above, it turns out, as the whole gang gets caught in an odyssey of compounded indignities. Fears of the unknown, of neglect and abuse, are gradually eclipsed by the threat of disposal. Identifying with plastic figures has always been essential to the series' playfully perverse, aptly adolescent allure, but here, that empathy mutates into macabre existentialist dread. How many kids' movies lead their protagonists to the precipice of a flaming pit of hell? (Eric Hynes) (Citywide)

WAH DO DEM A couple days before cashing in on a free Caribbean cruise for two, dorky Brooklyn hipster Max (Sean Bones) is dumped by his girlfriend (Norah Jones, in a tiny cameo) — perhaps because he has no personality and his mouth hangs open like half an idiot — but takes the trip alone anyway. Strutting around the ship's senior citizens in a daze, he barely talks to anyone, and eventually docks in Jamaica, where he naively gets in a car with the first stranger who smokes weed. Through a series of increasingly dumb-ass decisions, Max loses his money, passport, clothes and his boat ride back home. Meanwhile, TVs and newspapers in the background hint that Obama is about to win the U.S. presidency, but our superficial hero can't be bothered to notice in filmmakers Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner's glorified vacation video. The two wrote this slight, handheld-shot drama around a free cruise Ben won, then upped their indie cred with supporting players from Yeasayer, MGMT, Suckers, and the Congos. If Max had been knifed to death for his oblivious behavior (the threat does exist), the film might've been a critique of ugly Americans embarrassing themselves to indigenous folks, but methinks we're meant to actually feel sorry for this privileged twerp in neon sunglasses. (Aaron Hillis) (Egyptian)


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