Movie Reviews: Blood Into Wine, Bulletproof Salesman, The Girl on the Train, My Name Is Khan
GO AJAMI A contemporary crime drama edged with Greek tragedy, Ajami is an untidy, despairing, oddly exhilarating joint venture by writer-directors Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Set on the tinderbox margins of a run-down quarter of the Tel Aviv–adjacent city of Jaffa, the movie’s multiple plots and unwieldy, mostly non-pro ensemble of Arabs and Jews might better lend themselves to a television series. Yet it teems with life, energized by fierce formal ambitions. Barely held together by chapter headings, the action — which opens smack in the middle of its converging story lines with a mistaken drive-by shooting — switches dizzyingly between time, place, and point of view, and the fact that you can’t tell one kind of Semite from another works its own sadly ironic magic. The bleak future Ajami projects for peace within and across Israel’s borders can be hard to bear, but this sympathetically humanist movie takes its place among a new generation of Middle Eastern films that measure the terrible toll of war not only in dead bodies, but also in the very fabric of everyday life, for Arabs as well as Jews. (Ella Taylor) (Monica 4-Plex, Sunset 5, Town Center)
BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME Based on Duke professor Timothy Tyson’s titular memoir/recounting of the 1970 murder of an African-American Vietnam vet by three white men in Oxford, North Carolina, Blood Done Sign My Name is an earnest, if inert, civil rights docudrama clearly shot on the cheap (many of the wigs appear to have been borrowed from the Black Dynamite set). The film opens with 10-year-old Tyson’s preacher dad, Vernon (Rick Schroder, pleasingly paternal), trying to integrate his lily-white parish. Across town, Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) returns to the Tar Heel state to teach high school English, impressing the kids when he says he knew Stokely Carmichael. The parallel stories are dutiful, dull recapitulations of the call to righteous leadership: Chavis (who would preside over the NAACP and organize the Million Man March in the ’90s) leads roughly 1,000 men, women and children from Oxford to Raleigh to protest the sham trial of the three cold-blooded killers. Director and fellow North Carolinian Jeb Stuart, who also adapted Tyson’s book (other writing credits: Die Hard, Another 48 Hrs.), tries to address thornier issues of violent versus nonviolent protest, but too often, the film props up caricatures and constructs in its superficial gloss on history. (Melissa Anderson) (AMC Magic Johnson, Beverly Center)
BLOOD INTO WINE Early in Blood Into Wine, Tool front man and aspiring vintner Maynard James Keenan is asked why he thinks people like to drink wine. His deadpan response is to compare grapes to the Supreme Being as played by Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, deeming the complexity of the finished product a testament to the divine potential of the seemingly humble grape. Wine documents Keenan’s quest to start a vineyard in the high desert of Arizona, one of the more unlikely locations for such a venture. Directors Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke detail the challenges faced by a beginning winemaker, who, in this case, happens to be a famous, enigmatic musician who fled the city to pursue a less frantic lifestyle. The film flits between serious insight into the history of vineyard cultivation and the intricacies of turning a passion for sustainable agriculture and wine into a functional business (provided by Eric Glomski, Keenan’s mentor and business partner), and self-mockery, via a fake talk-show interview with two hostile hosts (played by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show fame) lamenting being stuck with Keenan after Keanu Reeves abruptly canceled his appearance. Collaborators and fans of Keenan also weigh in, including comedian Patton Oswalt, Primus drummer Tim Alexander and Milla Jovovich, out of Supreme Being guise and fiddling nervously with her scarf. The film entreats the viewer to follow his passion, whatever it may be. Fitting, as enjoyment of Blood Into Wine will likely be determined by one’s passion for winemaking, or for Keenan himself. (Brendan Whalen) (Sunset 5)
GO BULLETPROOF SALESMAN War is sell for Fidelis Cloer, a German salesman who travels to battle zones to peddle armored vehicles — or, as he puts it, “sell a good feeling” to contractors and civilians stuck in the middle of conflict. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary Bulletproof Salesman begins shortly after the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when Cloer and his team arrive in Baghdad just as “feelings” are beginning to turn bad. “The reason we went to Iraq is because we expected the situation to worsen pretty quickly,” Cloer says. “And it did.” The filmmakers ride along as Cloer makes cold calls around Baghdad, where it quickly becomes apparent that the German is cashing in on American incompetence. Cloer’s booming business is based on capitalizing on a worst-case scenario — an inevitability in war, he says — that the U.S. soldiers on the ground seem unable to predict and unprepared to prevent. Iraq has “desert, there’s blue sky, and it’s hot,” but otherwise Cloer initially sees it as just like Bosnia or any other war zone he’s entered. But five years later, when the filmmakers catch up with Cloer to record the talking-head monologue that structures the film, the war is not only still going on but the method of warfare has made the notion of a bulletproof vehicle obsolete. When the enemy’s main weapon is an exploding car, a product designed to protect one from guns seems quaint. Cloer’s Euro cool and sly charisma make it easy to forget that he’s the epitome of a war profiteer — and thus, in the conventional discourse on the Iraq War, A Bad Guy. As if heading off criticism that the film could be perceived as an infomercial, Epperlein and Tucker formally foreground Cloer’s talent, regularly branding the screen propaganda poster-style with Cloer’s sales slogans, such as “Chaos is an opportunity.” It’s a profile of a salesman, rendered in his own language. (Karina Longworth) (Downtown Independent)
GO THE GHOST WRITER It’s hard not to picture Polanski under house arrest in Gstaad editing his diverting new thriller, in which a former British prime minister dodges extradition while having his memoirs rewritten. Then again, when your life is like a mash-up of the History Channel’s entire catalog of shock programming, autobiography will probably influence your fictions, and Polanski seems inspired, as he maintains implausible momentum with a cloudy premise. Ewan McGregor diffidently plays the so-called ghost to exiled politician Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), living in cushioned seclusion off the gray New England coast. The writer is hacking through the bombast left by his (dead) predecessor when Lang’s past war-on-terrorism overstepping raises Blair-style static. Saved by often delightfully bitchy British dialogue, the movie sees McGregor’s (arbitrarily written) seminaïf stumbling onto conspiracies and dueling with Lang’s wife and mistress (Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall, both sharp). What actually happens is less important than the barest glimmers of that old Polanski magic: ambient paranoia (aided by the Cul-de-Sac-y land’s-end setting) and uneven power struggles (one involving a very crafty Tom Wilkinson as an old Lang associate). The wrap-up is one strange, ah-fuggit mess, on top of Google-powered plot moves, but Polanski’s work therapy could have been a lot worse. (Nicolas Rapold) (Arclight, Landmark)
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN For better or worse, there isn’t a human experience that French director André Téchiné can resist lathering into a tone poem. Tackling a 2004 incident whose sociopolitical ramifications can hardly be ignored — a young gentile woman set off a media storm by falsely claiming to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack — Téchiné has his work cut out for him. From a stage play based on this incendiary event in a nation known for extreme jitteriness toward its Jewish citizens, Téchiné has made two films. The one that palpably engages him is the densely populated backstory that mines a bunch of opaque possible motives for Jeanne, played by the enchanting Émilie Dequenne (who made her name in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta) and sympathetically portrayed as a pleasure-loving screwup on Rollerblades who’s desperate for recognition from her loving but coolly detached single mother (Catherine Deneuve) and a boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle) she’d be better off without. Fanciful and emotionally overheated as it is, Téchiné’s beguiling first tale gives us more to chew on about the private and public construction of French identity — liar or not, this confused airhead is more willing than most of her countrymen to identify with the Jew as persecuted victim — than does his dutiful, perfunctory dissection of the national scandal whipped up over the incident. (Ella Taylor) (Playhouse 7, Sunset 5, Town Center)
THE GOOD GUY In a world full of muscled hunks who claw their way up Wall Street by lying and cheating on two office phones at once, how does a dimpled, eco-responsible sweetheart (Alexis Bledel) in search of true love sort the wheat from the alpha-male chaff? Writer-director Julio DePietro has worked in this environment and seen a lot of romantic comedies, so he has the options down. Bledel’s Beth can ask her all-girl, multiculti book club, whose reading list runs to Nabokov rather than Austen (ergo, “He’s hot — if you don’t do him, I will”). Or, she can attend to her nobler instincts, which kick in for a jug-eared but promisingly barrel-chested Pride and Prejudice reader (Bryan Greenberg) after much ostentatious waving from the script that her current squeeze (Scott Porter) may not be the popular go-getter he seems to be. I’d like to tell you it’s more complicated, but it really isn’t, despite the endless detours to Manhattan bars, bookstores and trendy streets in pursuit of a love mystery that isn’t. DePietro is no cynic, and he means well — but he also means to corner the coveted Dear John demographic, which, in turn, means that The Good Guy suffers from the dreary want of imagination about the specificity of 20-something life that has sunk so many other specimens of this battered genre. (Ella Taylor) (Criterion, Mann Chinese)
HAPPY TEARS Continuing both his bad filmmaking and his obsession with lethal orifices, Mitchell Lichtenstein follows up Teeth, his clumsy debut about a dismembering vagina, with a voluminous explosion of poop. The brown-out is produced by Joe (Rip Torn), a dementia-addled horndog whose two daughters, environmentalist Laura (Demi Moore) and married-into-money Jayne (Parker Posey), return to Pittsburgh to hose him down and warn him of the dangers posed by his crack-addict bedmate (Ellen Barkin). The castration myth of Teeth is replaced by dad anxieties in Happy Tears: Lichtenstein, son of pop artist Roy, named the film after one of his father’s paintings, which serves as the movie’s poster; Jayne’s husband breaks down when he can no longer manage the estate of his recently deceased, famous-painter pop. Other than the guest-starring appearance of Cy Twombly canvases, nothing distinguishes this poor relation of The Savages from all the other emotionally fraudulent Amerindies about familial dysfunction and reconciliation. There is talk of “pain” and “truth”; the ghost of Dead Mom looms large. Posey is required to deliver more quirks than usual, drifting off into weird reveries, while Moore struggles to be a credible tree hugger. The pleasure Torn takes in slurping a Schlitz, however, seems genuinely authentic. (Melissa Anderson) (Sunset 5)
MY NAME IS KHAN If autism can reboot Claire Danes’ career, can it guarantee Bollywood’s biggest star crossover success? Shah Rukh Khan (known as the “King of Khan”) plays Asperger’s-afflicted Rizwan Khan, a Muslim who leaves Mumbai for San Francisco after his doting mother dies. There he will meet and marry single mom Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu hairstylist. The World Trade Center collapses, an Islamophobic tragedy strikes the Khans, and Rizwan must crisscross the country, by bus and on foot, to deliver a message of tolerance to the president (first Bush II, then Barry) — but not before being incarcerated Gitmo-style and saving a Georgia town from Katrinalike conditions. Khan’s disorder, clearly used to make our hero a pure-hearted naif, comes dangerously close to being exploitative (which may explain the opening-credit disclaimer that flashed for two seconds about attempting to accurately depict Asperger’s). And for a movie that preaches cultural understanding, it sometimes seems a little too comfortable perpetuating ethnic stereotypes. But now the excesses of Karan Johar’s film are being outdone by the real-life drama surrounding My Name Is Khan’s release in Mumbai, where a radical right-wing Hindu party has vowed to disrupt screenings, protesting Khan’s recent remarks that Pakistani players should have been chosen for India’s cricket teams. (Melissa Anderson) (Beverly Center, Fallbrook)
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS Sounding more like a prog-rock concept album than a kid-lit fantasy franchise, this CGI-congested origin episode — adapted from Rick Riordan’s five-book series — imagines a world in which director Chris Columbus never left the Harry Potter franchise after the first two installments. J.K. Rowling’s empire-building formula clearly comes to mind in the American guise of Percy (pretty boy du jour Logan Lerman), a New York City teen with a bleak home life, who is unaware that heroics and special powers run in his blood. His deadbeat dad is Poseidon! Sorry, wizardry lovers, this is Greek mythology not-so-cleverly contemporized (i.e., Hermes’ winged sandals appear as Chuck Taylors) — though if you squint, Camp Half-Blood could stand in for Hogwarts, hellhound owner Hades would be Voldemort, satyr buddy Grover and Athena’s daughter, Annabeth, are the new Ron and Hermione, and so on. Some of the cameos along the hydra- and minotaur-filled odyssey are unexpectedly amusing (Rosario Dawson plays Persephone as an unsatisfied sexual predator; Uma Thurman slinks more than the snakes in her Medusa coif), but, like Percy himself, the film doesn’t have any traits that qualify as having an actual personality. Even so, as long as the kiddies aren’t too upset by the major liberties reportedly taken with the source material, it might be enough to distract them until Harry returns. (Aaron Hillis) (ArcLight Hollywood)
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