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Movie Reviews: Broken Embraces, Paa, A Single Man, Armored

The Lovely Bones

ACCORDING TO GRETA The title character of According to Greta is a daughter of Juno, but even those who fell for the dubious charms of Diablo Cody’s airlessly overdetermined heroine will have a hard time warming to shrill, sulky 17-year-old Greta, played by former ’tween darling Hillary Duff. A difficult child dumped on her grandparents (Ellen Burstyn and Michael Murphy) by her exasperated mother (a wasted Melissa Leo), Greta arrives at her New Jersey “exile” with a foul attitude and flippant tongue, both of which she unleashes on anyone in her path. Forced by Grandma to get a job, she becomes a waitress in a seafood restaurant, where she meets Julie (Evan Ross, charming), an ex-con line cook who falls for her, and vice versa. Working from a psychologically trite script by Michael Gilvary, director Nancy Bardawil gets largely good performances from her cast — Burstyn is especially wonderful in a third-act monologue about the gains and losses of aging — even as she crams the soundtrack with songs that heavy-handedly underline every action and emotion as Greta moves toward healing the broken heart that’s at the root of her bitchiness. (Monica 4-Plex) (Ernest Hardy)

ARMORED A crew of working-stiff armored truck personnel decide to lift their own payload with a heist plan that no one would ever attempt outside a first-draft screenplay. Dramatis personae are introduced picking up their ID tag personalities, so that you can care when they’re eventually in harm’s way. (Milo Ventimiglia’s cop informs you that he has a dad; Amaury Nolasco’s gets a ribbing for his Bible.) The camaraderie in the Eagle Shield Transport locker room is strained stuff, despite a capable ensemble cast that includes Matt Dillon and Larry Fishburne — and Jean Reno’s sore-thumb presence as “Quinn,” an obvious bid for Euros. Director Nimród Antal shows the same weakness for augmenting action with swaggering beats that marked his debut, Kontroll (per Dillon’s character: “It looks like you’re overcompensating”), but he settles in once the crew arrives at the film’s set-piece destination: In a gutted factory to divvy up the money — Armored gives a good tour of industrial L.A. — a stand-off results when the new guy on the crew (that’s former dancer-choreographer Columbus Short) gets an attack of conscience. Antal is never much beyond serviceable here, but he does make a chase-duel between two entirely identical armored cars almost decipherable, which is no mean feat. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  BROKEN EMBRACES “Everything’s already happened to me,” admits Harry Caine, the blind, middle-aged filmmaker in Broken Embraces. “All that’s left is to enjoy life.” ¡Sí! His own sights set low these days in his latest movie, reformed bad-boy Pedro Almodóvar has at least hit on a vivid metaphor for his diminished condition. Indeed, three decades into his career as a name-brand fashioner of zesty soapers, Spanish cinema’s most beloved export could direct un film de Almodóvar with his eyes shut and still get a rise out of his fans. So who could blame the matador for letting the bull run the show this time? Channeling Audrey Hepburn, Penélope Cruz plays Lena, a Madrid secretary who moonlights as a hooker named Severine before turning full time to (what else?) film acting. Pretending to be in love with ancient Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), Lena is secretly carrying on with her director (Lluís Homar), who changes his name to Harry upon losing his eyesight in a car crash. Fourteen years after the accident, a gay, twice-married goofball who calls himself Ray X is identified by blind Harry as actually being Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), a filmmaker who ... oh, well, you get the idea. Equal parts comic melodrama and film noir, twice as fun as it ought to be, Broken Embraces splices itself together in the end. Maybe Almodóvar — blindly optimistic, confident enough to coast — still has it after all. (ArcLight Hollywood; Royal; Playhouse 7) (Rob Nelson)

GO  FOUR SEASONS LODGE Four Seasons Lodge has an elevator pitch — “A Catskills colony of Holocaust survivors is threatened with eviction after 25 summers together!” — that drew Albert Maysles on board as a cinematographer, and his instincts didn’t steer him wrong. What’s surprising about a documentary with such an obvious hook is its unforced but trenchant look at the crisis of faith dividing a small group of mostly Polish Jews who suffered through one of the most godless blights on human history. Of a hundred or so tenants, director Andrew Jacobs focuses on a half-dozen, several of whom have known each other since the war; having lost almost every relative they had, they sought out not only a new life but a new family in America. Jacobs, a New York Times reporter who discovered the colony while reporting on Catskills living in 2005, lets moments of peace, sadness and consternation play out gracefully among the elderly residents, who cajole and crab at each other like siblings. Survivors with increasingly numbered days (several have died since the filming), the most biting observations come from those, like groundskeeper Hymie Abramowitz, who still revel in Jewish culture but left God where God left them: at the gates of Auschwitz. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)

THE LOVELY BONES Cults collide as Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson tackles Alice Sebold’s best-selling New Age Gothic, the story of a rape-murder-dismemberment and its aftermath, narrated by its 14-year-old victim from Heaven. The movie, starring Saoirse Ronan as the teenage Susie, is horrific yet cloying, sometimes poignant and often ridiculous. Published in the aftermath of 9/11, The Lovely Bones was widely appreciated as a lyrical tale of grief and reconciliation, but it is also a malign fable of adolescent coming-of-age. Walking on air in anticipation of her first date, Susie is enticed down the rabbit hole that her serial-killing neighbor (Stanley Tucci, supremely creepy) has prepared as her death chamber. She leaves this world horrendously despoiled yet essentially innocent. Punishing sexual curiosity is not a foreign notion for Jackson, who broke into movies making gross-out horror flicks. Still, he has the tact to omit the gruesome details of Susie’s murder. Unfortunately, he shows no such discretion in literalizing the novel’s vague metaphysics. Here, all is subservient to the digital splendors of Susie’s heavenly abode — a constantly mutating realm of spacious skies, purple mountains and undulating amber waves of grain, not to mention crystal beaches, foggy forests and the peripatetic cosmic gazebo from which she observes her family and murderer’s doings. Jackson’s adaptation is a misguided tribute to the magic of the movies. But there is something to be said for representing the actual world. For an expanded version of this review, go to laweekly.com/movies. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)

GO  THE MISFORTUNATES A word of advice: Do not invite the Strobbe family over for Christmas dinner, as they’re likely to leave the house strewn with beer bottles and broken furniture. Malice-free and dumb as dirt, the four brothers (Koen De Graeve, Johan Heldenbergh, Wouter Hendrickx, Bert Haelvoet) who make up this working-class Belgian family love beer, bawdy songs and their long-suffering mother (Gilda De Bal) — in that order, or so it often seems. In adapting Dimitri Verhulst’s autobiographical novel, writer-director Felix van Groeningen and co-writer Christophe Dirickx observe Strobbe shenanigans through the eyes of 13-year-old Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden), a budding writer who can’t decide if he should pattern his own behavior after that of his drunken father and uncles. Deftly mixing the visual exuberance of Trainspotting with the familial pathos of Angela’s Ashes, the gifted van Groeningen offers gleeful depictions of drinking contests and naked bicycle races that gradually give way to a sense of moral peril for young Gunther. Watching him be fed beer for breakfast after nights spent in the same room with an uncle who has sex on the floor next to his bed, one becomes increasingly worried for the boy’s future. A series of flash-forwards to his life at age 27 suggests that there’s good reason to worry — and to hope. (Nuart) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  PAA The 64-year-old global superstar Amitabh Bachchan glues on an enormous, blue-veined, bulbous bald cap to play Auro, a 13-year-old schoolboy afflicted with the genetic accelerated-aging disorder progeria. And in a piece of only-in-Bollywood stunt-casting, Bachchan’s actual 34-year-old son, Abishek, has been cast as Auro’s father, a workaholic politician whose priorities undergo a predictable third-act readjustment. The OMG factor is mitigated somewhat by the modest scale of the production and by the carefully observed performance of the senior Bachchan, who submerges himself in a respectful portrayal of a bright, mischievous, potty-mouthed adolescent. The literal-mindedness of the makeup actually seems to help him: the effect is fairly uncanny when the actor lightens his famous baritone and lisps his dialog around a set of wayward yellow choppers. Paa (Dad) is more noteworthy, perhaps, for the stereotyping and bathos it avoids than for any startling insights it achieves into Auro’s terminal condition, but it certainly isn’t a crass tearjerker. The film owes much of its interest to the alertness and sincerity of the younger Bachchan and the luminous Vidya Balan as the anguished parents, and to the soft wash of the tasteful playback songs supplied by Ilaiyaraaja, a 68-year-old South Indian music master who has worked on more than 900 movies. (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)

A SINGLE MAN A triumph of art direction over actual direction, fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut feature is nothing if not a master class in sartorial excellence, freshly exfoliated skin, and modern Southern California architecture. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man encompasses one day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British ex-pat professor mourning the death of his longtime lover and companion, Jim. Over the course of George’s day, he endures the casual homophobia of his suburban neighbors and the disinterest of his students, drops in for dinner with his gin-swilling divorcée confidante (Julianne Moore), and ends up drowning his sorrows in the company of a fair-haired, flirtatious student (Nicholas Hoult) who seems interested in a little extracurricular activity. Ford has said he was “moved by the honesty and simplicity” of Isherwood’s tale. Simplicity, however, is not his strong suit on the big screen any more than it was on the fashion runway. Gussied up with enough stylistic fireworks for several Fourth of July parades, A Single Man, with one significant exception, gives us only a series of immaculate poses substituted for actual meaning and emotion. The exception is Firth, who manages to convey a real human soul stirring beneath George’s petrified façade, despite Ford’s best efforts to turn him, too, into another piece of movable scenery. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

TRANSYLMANIA Humping the vampire trend, straight-to-DVD director bros David and Scott Hillenbrand get some multiplex action by shoehorning their usual teen-sex farce into a hoary Draxploitation spoof. Won’t audiences be confused if they haven’t followed the antics of these wasted college kids from National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 1and 2? Franchise, schmanchise — we’re all gonna get laid! Spending a semester abroad in a Romanian castle that doubles as a rave-ready campus, the usual gaggle of horny losers, potheads, sluts and “brainy ones” get loaded with silicone-enhanced vamps, a pint-size dean hiding a diabolical scheme to fix his daughter’s humpback, and all the filthy, sleazy locals with ridiculous accents you can stomach. The jokes are mainly of the slamming-your-dick-in-a-laptop variety — think Porky’s with ’00s references — and predictable innuendos about biting and sucking. There is, however, something surprisingly old-timey about the perfunctory screwball plot points: When a demonic music box is opened, a reawakened sorceress possesses a busty cheerleader; a fratty blowhard is forced to become a vampire hunter after pretending to be one; and the evil Count is an undead ringer for the lead virgin. With stronger actors and real writers, this might’ve been a vintage comedy you could sink your ... nope, not going there. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)

UNCERTAINTY David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s Uncertainty opens on the Brooklyn Bridge. A young couple (engagingly played by Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is seen from afar, discussing some problem we’re not privy to. Then he takes out a coin. She says, “We can’t,” but they do, and then run at breakneck pace, each in opposite directions. It’s the sort of sequence the Irving Thalberg character in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon could have had in mind when explaining the movies to a snotty newcomer from the East. In spite of his hauteur, the playwright can’t help asking  the mogul: “What happened to the dime?” What happens to Bobby and Kate, depending on whether they rush off to Brooklyn, or to Mahattan’s Chinatown? In many ways, this small, well-crafted picture is also a flip of the coin for its authors. Let’s call them SM, as not many filmmakers, frustrated by too many deals gone south and stalled productions (in this case a kidnapping movie they were going to make in Istanbul with Ben Kingsley), have had the nerve or the folly to take a leap meant to restore their own faith in movie magic — and maybe themselves. They scripted and shot this small-budget film, which is also a viusal paean to New York and summer in the city like you’ve never seen before, literally in a matter of months. Just as the Manhattan-side story is mostly mayhem, and the Brooklyn-side story is about family ties and creating new ones, SM could also be talking about themselves as filmmakers: Siegel has even said that one day he’d like to make an action film, and the duo does demonstrate a surprising nimbleness in the shoot-out and pursuit sequences. Uncertainty, SM are quoted in the press book as saying, is about decisions and their consequences, but could it be the two were also thinking about the uncertainty (and consequences) of career moves? Uncertainty’s premise is not unlike the even larger conceit that made SM’s first feature, Suture, so arresting. You either swallow it and learn to love it, or you start running. (Fairfax) (Philippe Garnier)

UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US The subject of Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s documentary is Norwegian Black Metal, a scorched-earth subset of thrash that materialized around 1990 and gained international attention when churches started burning. Until the Light Takes Us defines Norse Black Metal as a combination of image (morbid corpse paint), philosophy (rejection of post-A.D. 600 history; anti-Judeo-Christian, pro-Odin), and music. As with any sect, arguments supersede doctrine — and the primary divide is illustrated via two elder statesmen: Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, drummer for the long-lived Darkthrone, and “Varg” Vikernes, of the equally venerable one-man-band Burzum. Fenriz is supposedly apolitical, an aesthete who compares his music’s dredging horror to Edvard Munch. Varg is the hardcore lived-it Thoreau of the movement’s early years, a self-styled ultranationalist prophet, interviewed while in prison for arson and internecine murder. Since this film’s completion, Varg has been released and announced a new album, The White God. The cover art is borderline Tom of Finland; unfortunately, the homosocial/homophobic schizophrenia of Black Metal is herein unexplored. (As is the actual music.) Maybe the filmmakers “don’t judge their subject,” but in giving Varg a soapbox, while being too timid to dare him out of his comfort zone and push him to articulate the less palatable aspects alleged of his philosophy (enthusiasms for Quisling, eugenics, etc.), they only indulge his cult of personality, letting Varg — and the audience — off easy. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  THE VICIOUS KIND It’s a telling detail that indie film’s premier misanthrope, Neil LaBute, has an executive producer credit on writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s scathing, dysfunctional-clan dramedy. Meet small-town Connecticut construction worker Caleb Sinclaire (Adam Scott, blistering), a sleep-deprived misogynist who maliciously projects his bitterness and insecurities on anyone foolish enough to come near. “All women are whores,” he schools his younger brother Peter (Alex Frost), who has come home from college for Thanksgiving, bringing along his new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow). Reminded of the ex who cheated on him — and also his estranged father (J.K. Simmons) and late mother’s split over adultery — Caleb is convinced Emma is no better. This dude is messed up: First, he’s threatening to kill her if she hurts his bro, then he’s apologizing, flirting and stalking her. So emerges a twisted, most unexpected love triangle. Implausible? Well, who are college girls more likely to want: the sweet virgin or the disturbed bad boy? Inevitably, the film devolves into weepy catharsis, but with slick cinematography and colorfully cruel dialogue for Scott to chew up and spit at every member of this fine ensemble. The Vicious Kindis the most entertaining LaBute movie he never made. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

YESTERDAY WAS A LIE The pitch “a metaphysical noir about a beautiful alcoholic detective searching for the key to understanding nonlinear time” must have been too dizzyingly high-concept for the producers of Yesterday Was a Lie to pass up. But James Kerwin’s film can’t hope to live up to that premise, and it doesn’t. The film follows Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown), a female detective on a hunt for a master guide to understanding the way time fits together. Playing on that theme, the film jumps around aimlessly, repeating dialogue and images of Hoyle’s search while using non sequitur discussions of Dali and Eliot to justify its often impenetrably surreal structure. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and lit by some extremely competent artisans, Yesterday Was a Lie looks like a higher-budgeted version of the noir film every film student tries to make. But like many postmodern noir films (think Rian Johnson Brick), all that style swirls around a hollow core. Between its New York–style cabs and its palm tree–dotted L.A. skyline, the film never grounds us in time or space — which is probably, obnoxiously intentional — and the anachronistic reveal of Brown researching on an expensive-looking Mac is a real howler. Yesterday Was a Lie deals with some heady themes, and Brown strikes some nice notes on her character’s frustrated journey, but the film is finally too disjointed and incomprehensible to be enjoyed as much else besides an exercise in style. (Sunset 5) (John Wheeler)