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Movie Reviews: Burma VJ, Up, What Goes Up

GO  BURMA VJ How we view the relationship between traditional and new media should forever be changed by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard’s terrific documentary about a loosely organized network of scrappy underground videographers who risked their lives photographing the abortive 2007 uprising against Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Spooked by memories of a similar rebellion in 1988, the government shut down the Internet and local media, and banned foreign journalists from covering the demonstrations, which were led by Buddhist monks and students with growing support from an emboldened public. Burma VJ takes us on a roller coaster of alternating hope and despair as the young guerrilla reporters, always on the lookout for ubiquitous informers, wade into the thick of the struggle with Handycams hidden in bags, then transmit the footage to a hidden colleague, who smuggles it out of the country via satellite. The raw, shocking images of courage and brutal backlash, here enhanced by added voiceover from two anguished young cameramen, were then broadcast, uncanned and unpolished, by the mainstream media. There was no happy ending, but if Burma VJ’s account of the efficacy of dictatorship threatens to crush you, the sight of a sturdy young back disappearing into the mountains, returning from a Thailand hideout for another round of bearing witness, should make your heart burst. (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

DANCE FLICK The Wayans clan peaked with their 1988 blaxploitation parody, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Their 2000 hit, Scary Movie, a parody of, umm, scary movies, begat a series of even broader, lamer send-ups the Wayans had nothing to do with (Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, et al.). Their new spoof of, umm, dance flicks almost seems laudable by comparison. Directed by next-gen newcomer Damien Dante Wayans and co-written with uncles Keenen Ivory, Shawn, Marlon, and cousin Craig, the movie merges the plot of Save the Last Dance — former ballerina and Juilliard hopeful, distraught by her mother’s tragic car accident, discovers street dancing and interracial romance at an inner-city school — with boob, fart and ghetto jokes. Shoshana Bush heads up a cast that includes Wayanses young and old (Damon Jr. as her love interest, his father as a loan shark in a fat suit) but, comically and literally, Bush is a pale imitation of Anna Faris. The gags themselves only marginally work when they stick to silly non sequitur; the random movie references are forced and flat, and the takeoffs of Dreamgirls and Fame songs would make Weird Al groan. Better than nothing, Amy Sedaris steals it as Ms. Cameltoe, a wicked teacher who beatboxes with her bulbous vagina. Yes, it’s rated PG-13, except it’s also inappropriate for anyone older than 13. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)

GO  DEPARTURES Trailing mostly justified ill will for having trounced the critical favorite, Waltz With Bashir, for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Oscars, Yojirô Takita’s stately Japanese movie Departures, a runaway hit at home, enters American theaters at a disadvantage. But this solemn chamber piece about a depressive young city cellist (former boy-band singer Masahiro Motoki) who discovers his vocation and his better self practicing the ancient art of corpse beautification in a provincial funeral parlor, has its minor charms. Initially disgusted by the stigma of working with the “unclean” dead, this remote, subliminally angry young man soon finds himself strangely moved by the stories of the dead and the gratitude of the grieving relatives, who gather to watch him spiff up their loved ones. Self-healing looms all too visibly on the horizon, but Takita’s unpretentious classicism and his candid delight in nature work their way into our sympathies, along with the plaintive cello pieces by composer Joe Hisaishi, who scored such Miyazaki treasures as My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. Amid the culture of cheating and heedless one-upmanship that has brought the globe to its knees, it’s a lovely thing to meet a movie that refuses to divorce what it means to be a professional from what it means to be a mensch. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

GO  DRAG ME TO HELL Often a drifting virtuoso in the years before finding his Spider-Man gig, with Drag Me to Hell director Sam Raimi defaults to the horror romps that made his name (namely, the Evil Dead trilogy). Drag Me has a serendipitously timely victim: Playing a bank loan officer, Alison Lohman bears the brunt of the film’s supernatural humiliations. Lohman’s Christine Brown is putting the finishing touches on her self-reinvention as a young professional: eye on a promotion, renting L.A. hillside real estate, and heading toward marriage with an up-market boyfriend. One day, smothering her conscience to impress her boss, Christine refuses to take pity on an ancient Gypsy woman about to lose her home (Lorna Raver, with a malevolent dead eye, horking up neon phlegm). The hag hisses a hex, and Christine’s life plan is derailed by a chain of diabolical interventions: She spouts a geyser nosebleed at work, is ambushed by hallucinations while meeting potential in-laws, and starts studying animal sacrifice. A visit to a psychic confirms Christine’s had a demon sicced on her, and, if it isn’t appeased in time, she’ll get the title treatment. Still, being bonged on the head with a cross for forgetting the Golden Rule doesn’t indicate a particularly nuanced moral vision. Does Raimi — who began his career on a shoestring in the Tennessee woods and now commands $300 million bonanzas — actually believe professional ambition should be punished with eternal damnation? (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

GO  UP The 10th feature-length film from the Pixar studios suggests what Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino might have looked like if, instead of standing his ground, Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski had simply attached a few thousand helium balloons to his ramshackle craftsman and lifted off into the atmosphere. That’s precisely the course of action taken by Up’s own cantankerous septuagenarian widower, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner, channeling Walter Matthau), after a physical altercation with a man half his age threatens to land him in a retirement home for the rest of his days. Carl even comes complete with his own Asian-American protégé in the form of pudgy, diminutive Russell, an 8-year-old Junior Wilderness Explorer who ends up accompanying him on his intercontinental journey to the jungles of South America. There, Carl plans to deposit his flying house at the edge of the waterfall he had always intended to visit with his late wife, Ellie — an act of noblesse oblige that recalls the cross-country tractor journey undertaken by the title character of David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Up, which was directed by Monsters, Inc.’s Pete Docter, doesn’t put forth an entire worldview like the films of Ratatouille director Brad Bird, or employ the sort of formal invention of last year’s WALL-E, but it is hardly without its own novelties and pleasures. For starters, it’s one of the only animated films in which the main characters are all ordinary human beings who inhabit a recognizable real world devoid of superheroes, fairy-tale princesses and giant green ogres. It’s also unexpectedly ambitious in its use of period, with an opening act that stretches from the 1930s to the present, neatly encapsulating the triumphs and tragedies of Carl and Ellie’s marriage (including what I’m quite certain is the first Pixar miscarriage) in one dazzling montage sequence. Even the movie’s somewhat more programmatic second half, in which Carl and Russell square off against an eccentric explorer (Christopher Plummer) hell-bent on capturing an exotic species of local fauna, proves to be a far more rousing Indiana Jones–style caper than last season’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And there is one flash of authentic comic genius: a pack of hunting dogs equipped with high-tech collars that translate their thoughts into human voices. Finally, Up emerges as a gentle hymn to adventure of both the soaring, storybook variety and the smaller, less obvious kind — the perilous, unpredictable and richly rewarding journey of ordinary, everyday life. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

WHAT GOES UP Shed a tear, if you will, for Hilary Duff. Having finished her stint as Lizzie McGuire five years ago, she’s too old for the Disney Channel factory and can’t compete with shinier, newer models like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. But this is rock bottom: I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies in the line of duty, but What Goes Up might be the only genuinely unreleasable one. Co-writer/director Jonathan Glatzer makes dark allusions in the press kit to losing much of his budget and shooting time just a few weeks before starting. I feel for him. But the result is that a movie starring Hilary Duff is nearly as cubist as, say, Alain Resnais’ Muriel — and almost as hard to follow. I think this was supposed to be a standard-issue Sundance comedy, but I have no idea what’s going on. Suffice it to say that Steve Coogan is a cynical reporter who comes to a small town and starts lusting after teen girls and tries to get into Duff’s pants in a parody of the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene, and is redeemed. Or something. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Vadim Rizov)

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