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Movie Reviews: Battle for Terra, Il Divo, X-Men Origins: Wolverine

BATTLE FOR TERRA A spiritual sequel to the equally hapless Delgo — which sold pacifism in animated form to an empty theater — Battle for Terra pits alien creatures against invading Earthlings in a detail-poor CGI landscape. Terra, to be fair, looks fairly clean, and the 3-D is totally passable but watching it will be no fun for either kids or adults. The creatures of Terra resemble nothing so much as myopic earthworms, the backs of their heads ripped off from The Fifth Element’s alien opera singer. Into their drab, hippie-esque world enters a fleet of invading humans — having destroyed Earth, Mars and Venus, they need a new pad. Inevitably, the human military wants to wipe the natives out and colonize, while dissenting voices call for peaceful interaction. It’s up to young alien Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) to bond with downed soldier Jim (Luke Wilson) and convince him that her species has value, etc. Battle for Terra so tirelessly harps on pacifism that it’s enough to make the most die-hard U.N. supporter long for some irresponsible ass kicking. And the alien dialogue (“Inventions that are against our teachings are not approved”; “Then, maybe our teachings are wrong!”) makes a good case for wiping the suckers out. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

BREAK Pretty early on in writer-director Marc Clebanoff’s hapless action-drama Break, it becomes clear that we’re in the midst of one of those truly God-awful cinematic experiences that inspires but one question: Is it going to be hilarious-bad or just bad-bad? (Spoiler alert: It’s both.) Frank Krueger plays Frank, an oddly unconvincing assassin hired by a terminally ill crime boss (Chad Everett), who wants Frank to plug him and his girlfriend so that she can’t fall for another man after his death. But once Frank discovers that the crime lord’s gal is a former lover (Sarah Thompson), he whisks her away while trying to elude capture. What’s most stunning about Break, beyond its pitifully amateurish production values and badly choreographed fight sequences, is that it actually has name actors in it — not just Everett but David Carradine, Michael Madsen and Charles Durning, too. Everyone delivers their lines with weary detachment, which is presumably meant to make the dialogue sound cooler but instead creates a perfect parallel to the film’s tired ideas about hit men, underworld heavies and noir atmosphere. As a dramatist, Clebanoff doesn’t have a single creative spark he hasn’t swiped from a better movie, and his lack of imagination extends to the character names, which include The Man, The Mysterious Brunette, The Associate and The Bishop. The Critic couldn’t wait for it to end. (Music Hall) (Tim Grierson)

GO EMPTY NEST Several years ago, the gifted Argentine writer-director and Jewish worrier Daniel Burman, then age 34, remarked in an interview that he was already fretting about being abandoned by his toddler children. In his new film, the dreaded day has arrived — or has it? Empty Nest seems to tell the tale of a midlife crisis endured by a comfortably situated intellectual couple, when the last of their three children emigrates to Israel with her new husband. The mother, Martha (All About My Mother’s Cecilia Roth), throws herself into a frenzy of activity, while her spouse, Leonardo (Oscar Martínez), a stalled playwright, retreats into contemplation of his accumulated fears, frustrations and desires, with dubious help from a bearded sage (Arturo Goetz), who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease. Like all of Burman’s existential comedies, Empty Nest comes thickly and pleasurably detailed with the minutiae of domesticity. Yet Burman toys mischievously with the way dreams move in to help us cope with — or avoid — the impossible changes that take us by surprise even though we’ve anticipated them for years. Dark and light invariably go hand in hand in Burman’s work, but this tender, goofily circular portrait of how we fill up the cavernous space once occupied by children begins and ends, beautifully, with an image of a man and a woman floating head to head on water — hapless, helpless, happy. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

EVERYBODY DIES A hit man and a hooker pursued by bad guys, dead bodies in Sunset Boulevard no-tell motels and shootouts in the desert — what could sound more conventional than the basic ingredients of writer-director Josh Evans’ Everybody Dies? As always, though, it’s what you do with the ingredients that counts, and Evans — who dwells in the ultra-low-rent ’hoods of indie filmmaking and has made everything from druggie movies to (believe it) a Che biopic — isn’t content with the conventional. The movie is a mess but an interesting one when viewed as a fractured, stream-of-consciousness memory piece. The fundamental storyline is so broken and split into multiple, dizzying time frames (at least six by the time things get really crazy) that it doesn’t even have a present tense — a fairly daring and surprising formal stroke for a down ’n dirty action piece stuffed with astoundingly crappy dialogue. Put it this way: We might not expect echoes of Godard and Resnais from a thriller in which the heroine, Charis Michelsen’s hooker Nina, complains to her gunman-protector Jake (Sergio D’Amato) that “I’m just a girl from Colorado, who got caught in the middle of some dark shit!” Whatever Jake replies can’t be understood by human ears, since D’Amato half-whispers his lines in one of the strangest polyglot Latin-inflected (or is it German? Or something else?) brands of English ever recorded on a film soundtrack. The fact that he does so with absolute intensity and dedication only heightens the sense that Everybody Dies is one memorable oddity. Still, the movie ends up being a cop-out of the title’s promise: Everybody, sadly, doesn’t die. (Fairfax) (Robert Koehler)

 

GO  IL DIVO Hard on the heels of the acclaimed Gomorrah, Italian corruption gets a much quieter but equally vigorous workout in Paolo Sorrentino’s highly stylized portrait of the country’s most enduring political leader, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Teflon doesn’t begin to describe the Christian Democrat who led one after another of Italy’s rapid succession of administrations and survived a major bribery and corruption investigation, while opponents and former allies dropped mysteriously dead around him. Il Divo plays like an elegantly ritualized black comedy, with Sorrentino deploying every formal tool in his arsenal to disrupt facile interpretations of Andreotti’s strategically opaque character. Toni Servillo plays Andreotti with brilliant restraint as a physically disconnected man whose curling ears and still round-shouldered gait hilariously — and pathetically — recall the desiccated food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille. We learn that Andreotti was a cultured wit with a gift — like this movie — for aphoristic quotation; that he suffered from debilitating headaches; that, in his way, he loved his wife, who, in hers, loved him back. His solitary, nocturnal strolls, surrounded by burly blokes with machine guns, offer one of the movie’s few clues to the price he paid for his obsessive lock hold on power. Aside from an imaginary “confession” in which he grows momentarily unhinged, Andreotti remains a properly unknowable monument on his country’s shadowy, shady political landscape. (Royal; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

LEMON TREE The asymmetrical border dispute in Lemon Tree feels instantly familiar, and, indeed, Israeli director Eran Riklis’ last drama, The Syrian Bride, also hinged on absurdities and indignities suffered literally on the dotted line. West Bank widow Salma (Hiam Abbass) is minding her own boundary-abutting business — namely, a lemon grove — when the Israeli Defense Minister Navon himself (Doron Tavory) moves in across the way. When his guards huff that the trees could become terrorist hidey-holes, fences and a watchtower are noisily erected, and the stage is set for the schematic face-off. Co-written by Riklis and journalist-documentarian Suha Arraf, the story touches on Salma’s fortitude, Navon’s hypocritical bluster, his wife’s tacit respect for their neighbor, and media attention. Promising parallels abound (not least between the two women’s burdens), but the direction is stubbornly flat-footed, especially with Salma’s frowned-upon dalliance with her well-traveled young lawyer (Ali Suliman). Her day in Supreme Court leans the film into the “We were here first” allegory that the filmmakers had, up until then, been genteelly tamping down with lighter moments, like a catnapping watchtower guard, or the fact that everyone loves lemonade. But it’s the moment Abbass’ face is made for — her noble lineaments could be stamped on a coin. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Nicolas Rapold)

THE MERRY GENTLEMAN Part of the likable routine Michael Keaton brought to his roles in the ’80s was patter — sometimes manic, sometimes balky. In The Merry Gentleman, he might be overdoing the walk back: As grizzled Chicago hit man Frank Logan, Keaton lurks under a newsboy cap and speaks sparingly, often with a stagey self-interrupting cough (another tic). Frank is the mysterious stranger who helps mousy new-in-towner Kate (Kelly Macdonald, Scots accent retained) with her Christmas tree. This triggers an hour’s worth of diffident dramatic irony involving his occupation, a persistent cop (Tom Bastounes) investigating a sniper murder near where Kate works, and a possible abusive ex in her past (who, spoiler alert, turns up to deliver a terrible monologue). Keaton, who took over directing duties from ill-stricken screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti before shooting began, inherited a stock-still story of two lonely souls and never develops their rapport. Macdonald is approachably appealing as ever but demurely sheds little insight on a character that needs some. Keaton’s directorial debut is by no means the most embarrassing in the past few years (Anthony Hopkins’s Slipstream still smarts), but the repetitive material hobbles the actor’s energies. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Nicolas Rapold)

 

NAKED AMBITION: AN R-RATED LOOK AT AN X-RATED INDUSTRY Ladies and gentleman, may we present the most deceptive movie title of 2009. In the first place, this movie has not been rated by the MPAA. Secondly, it isn’t really a documentary about the porn industry but rather a documentary about the making of a coffee-table book containing posed photos of porn stars, fans and moguls. Director Michael Grecco is also the photographer making the book, so perhaps “infomercial” would be a more accurate description, given how often Grecco’s narration tells us how good he is at his work. For someone who boasts about the manner in which his pictures tell stories, Grecco is far from content to let the onscreen images do the talking. Both movie and book were shot over three days at the AVN convention in Las Vegas, home to a variety of colorful characters, including a Japanese rocket scientist, who now makes an expensive vibrator; and a guy named Grand Maitre de Valmont, who lives out his gimmick in an Edwardian mansion with sex slaves. If you’re hoping to learn anything about the adult industry beyond what you might find in a press release, you’re out of luck. To Grecco, Ron Jeremy is a “living legend,” Larry Flynt an “icon,” gay porn something that goes entirely unmentioned save a couple of brief images, and porn stars the ultimate self-expressionists. (You don’t have to be a porn-hater to point out that plastic surgery done to satisfy customer fetishes really isn’t particularly individualistic.) All the naked people on display here are certainly easy on the eyes, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that, as usual in Hollywood, the book is better than the movie. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (Luke Y. Thompson)

GO  NEWCASTLE Hunky young men and their tan-lined butts fill the screen in this slightly overlong but visually striking (and not just for the butts) surfing drama from first-time writer-director Dan Castle. After Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan), the rising surf star of the titular New South Wales beach town, screws up his chances to compete in a big tournament, he and his younger teen brother, Fergus (Xavier Samuel), head to a remote beach with their buddies and a couple of girls. These young characters and their problems would fit right in on one of those CW Network teen soaps, but Castle and his cast aren’t afraid to explore tough topics, including the awkwardness of sex (frankly staged) and the open homosexuality of Fergus. While it takes Castle too long to get Jesse and his crew to their private beach, their day of surfing leads to a long sequence that culminates in a rather riveting series of mishaps (the precision editing is by Rodrigo Balart). Teen angst aside, the aquatic photography, above and below the water line, by cinematographer Richard Michalak and an ace camera crew, is so exquisite that it made this viewer wish, momentarily at least, that he were still young enough to not be afraid of risking the big wave. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

OBSESSED How long does it take Sasha to get fierce in this almost-tongue-in-cheek Fatal Attraction retread? Too long — and even after Beyoncé Knowles (who executive-produced, as did her daddy) delivers the promising line “I’ll show you crazy!” to Lisa (Ali Larter), the predatory temp who’s been messing with her asset-manager husband, Derek (Idris Elba), what follows isn’t half as dramatic as what probably went down after she kicked LaTavia and LaToya out of Destiny’s Child. Obsessed is not without its guilty pleasures: Elba taking his shirt off, Christine Lahti’s no-nonsense detective (and her pantsuits). But the film’s anxiety surrounding interracial sex is so high that nothing, except for flirting, actually happens between Derek and Lisa; the white she-devil makes it all up. Even more suspect than Lisa’s skin color is the fact that no one’s yet put a ring on her finger. “A lot of these single gals see the workplace as their hunting ground,” one of Derek’s colleagues counsels. Where are Sasha and her Fosse dance moves when you need them the most? All my single ladies, now put your hands up: You’re under arrest. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE Without fail, the dullest installment in any superhero movie franchise is the origin story, during which audiences anxiously awaiting The Big Bad Guy have to suffer through scenes of childhood trauma, romantic tragedy and other expository effluvia, by which point the closing credits are fast approaching. Alas, the X-Men franchise takes a giant leap backward and off a cliff with its fourth offering — yet again starring now-co-producer Hugh Jackman as the scissorhands from Canada — by collapsing 30 years’ worth of comic-book back story into an altogether anticlimactic who-dat. Wow, so that’s how Jimmy Logan got those kick-ass razorblades in his knuckles. What else ya got? Not much: The filmmakers — among them Tsotsi director Gavin Hood and 25th Hour writer David Benioff, no joke — relegate the most interesting parts of Logan’s early story to an opening-credits sequence that dashes in a span of seconds from his 1845 childhood to the Civil War to Vietnam. Sooner or later, Logan’s on the operating table and being injected with the unbreakable adamantium metal that gives his skeleton a sparkly shine. And sooner or later we meet the familiar rogues: the villainous Sabretooth (Wolverine’s brother, this time around played by Liev Schreiber with “the fingernails of a bag lady”), the treacherous William Stryker (the Brian Cox character in X2, now recast with Danny Huston), even a certain Cyclops (a whiny teenager with bad eyes, in keeping with the franchise’s history of treating the X-Men’s longtime leader like a spindly punch line) and the inevitable cameo by a very familiar X-tra. Most of the action is a mere replay of a single sequence: Wolverine and Sabretooth galloping toward one another, two immortal bros locked in eternal combat. Certainly feels like it. And the filmmakers have further junked up the franchise with bit players from the comic books, among them the card-throwing Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and assassin Deadpool (whose comic relief shuts off around the time the moviemakers unwisely sew together Ryan Reynolds’ lips). Odd thing is, 2003’s expeditious X2 more or less covered the same ground in a matter of seconds, as opposed to 107 minutes that feel like almost as many hours. A suggestion: Wait for the bootleg. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


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