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Movie Reviews: Bra Boys, Super High Me, Alexandra

Alexandra

The Cinema GuildAlexandra

GO  ALEXANDRA Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings. Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out of a transport train into a dusty station — presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs and faint melody. Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s, and is escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there’s a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it’s less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra’s trip to the front, he illuminates its reality. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

The Cinema Guild

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Alexandra

PICK GO ARMY OF ONE  A Russian grandmother visits the troops, and brings light to their misguided mission in Chechnya Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings. Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out of a transport train into a dusty station — presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs and faint melody. Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s, and is escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there’s a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it’s less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra’s trip to the front, he illuminates its reality. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

GO  BRA BOYS Russell Crowe narrates — and is reportedly developing a dramatic remake of — this compact history of Australia’s notorious Maroubra beach community, an economically depressed, inner-Sydney suburb so rough and tumble as to make the South Santa Monica of the Dogtown era look like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Maroubra also happens to be a breeding ground for expert pro-surfers, many of them — like the film’s director, Sunny Abberton — refugees from public housing and broken families. Abberton offers an absorbing overview of the historical clash between surfers and authorities, dating back to the British colonial era (when surfers were charged special taxes for their boards) before honing in on the story of his own family, its central role in the formation of the titular surf “tribe,” and the 2003 arrest and trial of his younger brother, Jai, in connection with the shooting death of a local underworld figure. Rudimentarily made as documentaries go — and more than a touch self-glorifying at times — Bra Boys is nevertheless intriguing for its insider’s perspective of an outsider culture steeped in tradition, male-bonding rituals, and intense localism. That the film refuses to get too specific about the details of Jai’s alleged crime is at once frustrating and entirely in keeping with the Bra Boys’ tight-lipped, Old West ethos. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Redondo Beach Cinema 3) (Scott Foundas)

 

CHAOS THEORY Who could lift the American screen comedy from a vast muck of sniggery boner gags and crap-pop bricolage? I’m pulling for Ryan Reynolds, the stud comic whose gouging inflection and tenuous arrogance have piloted such disarming fare as Just Friends and Definitely, Maybe. Marcos Siega’s Chaos Theory finds our man playing an uptight lecture-circuit efficiency expert, reasonably happily married (to Emily Mortimer), with a kid, when one blip in his immaculate schedule upends him down a steep tumble of coincidence and into the undiscovered world beyond his daily planner. From overly familiar beginnings — a wry bad-boy bachelor best friend whose idea of a good time is (head-slap) to “go to Rascals and play some blackjack” — the plot off-roads into almost free-associative happenstance. Reynolds, called to 180 from anal nebbish to feral beast, is beautifully committed, but he gets no help on the other side of the camera. The actors have to vie for attention with a bum-rushing soundtrack of emotionally instructive, anemic mope music and a director-cinematographer duo that seems more invested in creating outstandingly pretty setups that seem like a pitch for commercial work (the lighting is plush, the stained-teak Crate & Barrel interiors just so) rather than serving the scene or hustling for laughs. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

A FOUR LETTER WORD In praise of Larry Kramer’s Faggots, specifically its forked satire, author Reynolds Price wrote: “It offers us oddly entertaining, generally exaggerated copies of foolish or evil behavior in order to provoke our ridicule.” As a litmus test, Casper Andreas’ A Four Letter Word is equally useful, proving that the line between Kramer’s prickly tragicomedy and the gay minstrelsy of Showtime’s Queer as Folk may only be a matter of taste. Shot in and around New York City’s queer hot spots and brought to you in part by Manhunt, Andreas’ pun-choked rom-com asks only for our passive identification, preening on the same wavelength as Jesse Archer’s Luke, who sets out to prove that he is neither exception nor stereotype, only exceptional, after Stephen (Charlie David) — a hustler, professed top, and Luke’s future boy toy — calls him “a gay cliché.” “All our world sees of our community is you,” Stephen says, almost as if he were describing the film. Shrill to a most obnoxious extreme (“Let’s blow this joint,” says Stephen, to which Luke naturally responds, “I already have!”), the film’s sitcom-ish purview uncritically embraces the insularity of the queer community that it depicts, denying seriousness and replacing Kramer’s healthy self-deprecation with vulgar self-satisfaction. (Sunset 5) (Ed Gonzalez)

 

ORTHODOX STANCE Dmitriy Salita is an up-and-coming boxer, a Chabadnik who won’t fight on Shabbat, and a sweet and decent young man from Brooklyn via Odessa. This is a newsworthy enough combination to have gotten him an invite to George Bush’s Hanukkah party, which made his day. But it’s not quite enough to qualify him for colorful-character status let alone fill up the center of Jason Hutt’s mildly absorbing vérité trot through the pugilist’s quest for a junior title, which will put him on the pro-boxing map. Hutt followed Salita around for three years, diligently trying to tease out a theme from the threads of this impeccably well-brought-up lad’s devotion to the sport, a calling that saw him through his mother’s premature death. Jews were the dominant ethnic minority in U.S. boxing between the world wars, so it will hardly do to position him, as Hutt does, as something new in the history of sporting Semites. What’s more, Salita is such a careful, reined-in fellow that one comes away wanting to have seen much more of the men around him — the grizzled African-American trainer who shows such tender respect for his protégé’s religious observance; the red-headed rabbi who doesn’t quite get his disciple’s dedication to beating the crap out of human flesh; the quiet handler who whips up kosher meals in Vegas hotel rooms; and the charismatic Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu, who frequently warms up for this likable but stolid young boxer and could teach him a thing or two about grandstanding. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

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PROM NIGHT This gore-free PG-13 slasher film bears the same title as a fondly remembered and very bad 1980 horror movie that starred Jamie Lee Curtis. It wasn’t her finest hour, nor is this quasi-remake likely to do much for Brittany Snow, who stars as Donna, a Connecticut teen who witnessed her love-obsessed high-school teacher (Johnathon Schaech, deserving better) butchering her family to death. Three years later, Teach is on the loose and hiding out in the fancy hotel where an unsuspecting Donna and friends celebrate prom. As the night crawls along, an assortment of maids, bellboys, and horny-but-nice teens gets stabbed to death in moments of violence that director Nelson McCormick stages with a minimum of blood, but also, regrettably, a minimum of suspense. He and screenwriter J.S. Cardone don’t have one original thought between them, but they do appear to share an obsession with characters opening hotel-room closets in which the steel hangers gleam ominously. There’s nothing scary in there, but here’s a shudder-inducing fact: McCormick and Cardone are currently collaborating on a remake of the witty and nearly perfect 1987 thriller, The Stepfather. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

 

REMEMBER THE DAZE Call it Slow Times at Wilmington High. In Remember the Daze, first-time director Jess Manafort sluggishly charts a day-in-the-life of North Carolina high schoolers — but it feels like a whole semester. Manafort’s visual style and pacing fail to evoke the excitement of students on the brink of summer (and the rest of their lives), while her script is weighted with overwritten monologues that feel cribbed from rejected drafts of valedictory speeches. A ponderous piano score and slow camera pans evoke similar youth portraits by David Gordon Green and Gus Van Sant, but Manafort’s eye and ear show little attention to detail, nuance or wonder. The casting also belies the film’s inclinations toward a natural indie vibe. The gaggle of young, attractive Hollywood actors (including Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester and Spy Kids’ Alexa Vega) feels less like real Wilmington teenagers than polished 20-somethings from Studio City. Remember the Daze has the irony-free, instant-nostalgia earnestness of your high school yearbook, but watching it is not likely to conjure your own youthful emotions — it’s more like flipping through the generic memories of a complete stranger. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (James C. Taylor)

 

GO  THE RUINS If you turn the first page of Scott Smith’s The Ruins, a friend said astutely, you won’t put it down — but if you know what it’s about beforehand, you won’t pick it up. So let’s just say that if this reworking never approximates the abandon-all-hope ferocity of Smith’s hair-whitening source novel, it’s still a superior shocker with a mood-altering edge of hallucinatory madness. In an absurdist setup that resembles Beckett by way of EC Comics, five tourists (four American, one German) are forced to climb to the top of a remote Mayan temple, where they face two options: a quick death from the armed villagers who have surrounded the site, or a slow death from the snaky, insatiable tendrils of the ruins’ entrenched resident. What follows is a study in situational ethics, destabilized group dynamics and existential panic, as each new choice between the lesser of two evils only brings greater evils. Though Smith adapted his own book, the briskly paced, neatly telescoped movie is too short to recapture its grinding psychological devastation, leaving a gory but strangely slight allegory of America’s dependence on creature comforts. But first-time feature director Carter Smith, working with resourceful cinematographer Darius Khondji, pulls off the neat trick of using the wide screen to claustrophobic effect. And the actors give such a convincing display of starvation-fueled fear that they deserve their own private craft-services table. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

 

SMART PEOPLE Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid, beneath a greasy moptop and a brushy beard) is a misanthropic college prof who, when he’s not willfully forgetting his students’ names or altering clocks to duck office hours, is out peddling a pissed-off rant to publishers totally disinterested in his treatise on how he’s right and every other literary critic in the history of words is wrong, wrong, wrong. He’s also a crap single dad who has no idea what his children (Ashton Holmes and Ellen Page) are capable of: Cue Chuck, Lawrence’s adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church), who enters to loosen things up with a little THC, followed by more appropriate doses of TLC. Then add to the mix Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), Lawrence’s former student, who still has a thing for the prof. The film progresses apace: Bastard meets beauty while heart meets brain, and the hard widower is slowly softened into something more easily recognized as “human.” But the movie never really gives us a reason for his evolution toward softydom: It just sort of, kind of, barely happens — not because it has to, not because the film has shown anything approaching a love so great as to be life-altering, but because it’s supposed to, this being a movie about dumb-ass brainiacs obsessed with their own navels finally forced to consider someone else’s bellybutton. (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

STREET KINGS Though conceived as yet another sobering frontline report on law enforcement’s ever-expanding gray area, director David Ayer’s grim police thriller mostly plays as one long dick-measuring competition. Keanu Reeves (blank as ever) is Los Angeles detective Tom Ludlow, an ethically slippery, alcoholic lawman reeling from his wife’s death. When his estranged partner (Terry Crews) is gunned down in a seemingly random liquor-store holdup, Ludlow goes on a one-man crusade to track the killers, despite Internal Affairs’ growing interest in his past indiscretions. Ayer, who rose to prominence writing megamacho pictures like S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious, demonstrated a flair for subtler examinations of male power relationships with Training Day and his 2006 directorial debut, the underrated buddy drama Harsh Times. Unfortunately, Street Kings’ screenwriters (James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss) have no time for subtlety, assaulting the ear with an arsenal of dull tough-guy dialogue as the male characters take turns mowing down each other’s manhood and delivering hard-boiled pseudoknowledge about the nature of evil. The film is so concerned with kicking ass and taking names that the infinitely more complex drama that Ayer could have made drowns in all the testosterone. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

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SUNFLOWER In 1976, when Gengnian (Sun Haiying) returns from six years of brutal re-education, he finds that his son, Xiangyang (Zhang Fan), has become a full-fledged urchin, hurling rocks at passersby along with his colorfully named buddy, Chicken Droppings. Gengnian struggles to tame the boy, forcing him to become an artist rather than a laborer, as Xiangyang wishes (somehow this scenario doesn’t ring true). Director Zhang Yang (Shower) has a sociologist’s grasp of the games and taunts of boyhood during China’s Cultural Revolution (“Give him a washboard to wash his underwear!” seems to be the Chinese equivalent of “Chicken!”), but his development of plot and character is correspondingly weak. He constantly introduces what should be extraordinarily dramatic events (earthquakes, floods, abortions), only to drop them after a desultory scene or two. As the action shifts abruptly to 1987 and then 1999, the characters become drippy and out of focus: Gengnian’s stoicism turns into dazed blankness, while the boyishly defiant Xiangyang is just plain old sullen at the age of 30. As father and son argue and reunite every few minutes, accompanied by veeery slow violin music, Sunflower plays less like the epic it aspires to be than an episode of Full House: Beijing. (Grande 4-Plex) (Julia Wallace)

 

SUPER HIGH ME After making a joke about Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day fast-food-eating experiment as seen in Super Size Me, stand-up comedian Doug Benson approached filmmaker/comic Michael Blieden (The Comedians of Comedy) about doing a similar experiment with pot smoking (strictly for scientific purposes ... as if). Benson, named the number-two pot comic in the United States by High Times magazine, decides to stop smoking out for 30 days, then indulge constantly for the following 30, to see how his body and mind hold up, all the while studying the current medical marijuana laws and how they’re enforced. (He ostensibly circumvents them by having a doctor’s prescription for back pain). As a political statement and an experiment, the movie’s a bit of a muddle and not particularly enlightening; but for those of us who miss Dave Attell’s Insomniac TV show, it’s fun to merely watch, once again, a dingy comedian stumble bleary-eyed around various cities with a cameraman in tow. Turns out Benson is funnier when going through withdrawal than when he’s high — proof, perhaps, that pain creates laughter. And has no one involved realized that saying the movie’s title aloud sounds like an anti-Semitic slur? (Regent Showcase) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 

THE TAKE Felix De La Pena (John Leguizamo) is an East L.A. armored car driver who cares deeply for his wife, Marina (Rosie Perez), and their two kids. After he’s shot in the head by a robber (Tyrese Gibson) who gets away, Felix must fend off suspicious federal agents (led by the ever-terrific Bobby Cannavale) while struggling with brain injuries that leave him enraged at the world. The first half of this debut feature from director Brad Furman, written by Joshua and Jonas Pate, details the effects of Felix’s injuries on him and his family, and in these sequences, Furman draws superb performances from Leguizamo and Perez — two actors whose hyperactive energy has often been a distraction. Here, they’re centered and completely believable as a hardworking couple whose life has been turned inside-out. Their warmth holds The Take together even in the predictable home stretch, when the screenplay shifts into revenge-thriller mode and sends Felix out across the city to hunt down the gunman (a role so underwritten that the usually charismatic Gibson is left to glower like a central-casting hood). Furman stages the final foot chase with brio, but one wishes that he’d found a way to stay at home with Felix and Marina, who don’t need guns to thrill. (Mann Criterion) (Chuck Wilson)

 

YOUNG & RESTLESS IN CHINA As China makes the headlines daily with each new threat of an Olympic boycott, doc filmmaker Sue Williams might believe that her four-year survey of Chinese Gen-Xers is being released at an opportune time — but, if anything, the coincidence will only remind the news-literate that her story places China’s neglect for human rights in the background. In 2004, Williams and her crew began filming nine ordinary souls across the country, including a handful of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, migrant workers, an activist lawyer suing for harmful power-line construction, and a hip-hop street performer turned DJ (the latter a justification for a Chinese pazz-and-jop soundtrack). Straining for depth in depicting the “surprising twists and turns of their lives...stories of ambition, conflict, love and confusion [that] took us inside the generation that is transforming China” (as excessively narrated throughout by ER’s Ming Wen), Williams’ multithread portrait is fascinating only as a scattershot time-capsule sampling of those whose lives were defined by the Tiananmen Square protests. It isn’t that her integrity should be questioned, but for a film that assumes its audience is cultured enough to know of the Chinese government’s abuses, why condescend by giving the subjects clueless English voice-overs instead of subtitles, when many of them speak of how they’ve Westernized in order to succeed? (Grande 4-Plex; One Colorado) (Aaron Hillis)

 

GO  YOUNG @ HEART From the washed-out images to the twee voiceover (courtesy of director Stephen Walker), this British television documentary about the titular Massachusetts-based senior citizens chorus so slavishly embodies the creakiest clichés of British television documentaries that you begin to wonder if it’s not all a big put-on — if Christopher Guest didn’t direct the damn thing under a pseudonym. Fortunately, Walker’s subjects — nearly all in their 80s and 90s, with a greatest-hits collection of medical ailments and a set list that runs the gamut from the Beatles to Sonic Youth — more than carry the day. Set over the six weeks leading up to the chorus’ latest concert, Young @ Heart adopts the will-they-pull-it-all-together-by-showtime formula of so many backstage docs, with the caveat that, for these performers, neither time nor Father Time is on their side. The film’s appeal is at once sentimental and perverse: It’s not every day that you get to see a 92-year-old woman soloing on “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” Not surprisingly, a feature remake is already in the works. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Scott Foundas)