Movie Reviews: Children of Invention, Mother, The Art of the Steal

AMERICAN RADICAL: THE TRIALS OF NORMAN FINKELSTEIN Noam Chomsky reveres him. Leon Wieseltier hates him. Alan Dershowitz called him an anti-Semite and applied successful pressure to deny him tenure at DePaul University. All of this will give you a rough idea of where political scientist Norman Finkelstein stands on the political spectrum, though "American radical" may be a misnomer for an intellectual whose life has been forcefully shaped by a mother whose concentration-camp experience turned her into a fiery booster for every available underdog. Directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier mean to redress calumnies heaped on Finkelstein, author of the book The Holocaust Industry, which accuses Israel (whose existence he supports) and its Diaspora Jewish supporters of playing the Holocaust-victim card in order to divert attention from the oppression of Palestinians. Finkelstein is partly right, but American Radical shows — albeit with great reluctance — how a formidable intellect partnered with an absolutist disposition can get you absolutely nowhere. With the eyes of a suffering fanatic, Finkelstein calls Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust "an extortion racket" and announces to a delighted audience of Arab students that "it was a good thing Hezbollah delivered a huge defeat to Israel" in 2006. It never seems to occur to this born martyr that his overkill might lose him the support of Israeli peaceniks like Yoav Shamir, whose 2009 documentary, Defamation, shows sympathy for Finkelstein, until Shamir catches him on camera summing up Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman with a Nazi salute. (Ella Taylor) (Music Hall)

GO  THE ART OF THE STEAL Matisse called the Barnes Foundation "the only sane place to see art in America." But the clamor over moving one of the world's foremost collections of impressionist, postimpressionist and modern art from its small, intimate home in the bucolic suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, to center city Philadelphia (4.6 miles away) has been anything but reasonable. Unapologetically on the side of those who oppose the relocation (executive producer Lenny Feinberg is, like many of the doc's impassioned interlocutors, a former student of the Barnes Foundation), The Art of the Steal presents its aesthetes versus Phila-stines argument cogently and engagingly. Director-cinematographer Don Argott digs deep to recount the struggle for control of this legendary institution, founded by cranky, liberal physician Albert C. Barnes in 1922 solely for educational purposes. The film makes clear that arguments about the foundation's inaccessibility in Merion are disingenuous at best — that moving the collection to the city represents the triumph of money and power not just over the express wishes of one man, but the public's opportunity to have a singular experience with an astonishing array of art in its original setting. The Art of the Steal's thorough research makes it one of the most successful advocacy docs in recent years and may prompt some firsthand investigating of your own. (Melissa Anderson) (The Landmark, Sunset 5, Town Center, Playhouse 7)

GO  CHILDREN OF INVENTION The young director Tze Chun is not a flashy filmmaker, but he understands the vulnerability of immigrant workers in the sleazy sub-rosa economies of a floundering 21st-century America. Tze has lived that life, and observes it with acuity in this straightforward tale of Raymond and Tina (played by the enchantingly solemn Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu), two Asian children trying to look after themselves while their single mother (Cindy Cheung) becomes embroiled in an illegal Boston pyramid scheme that leaves the undocumented family equally exposed to exploitation by some who mean well — and others who don't. Children of Invention was edited (on her living-room floor) by Anna Boden, co-director with Ryan Fleck of Half Nelson and Sugar, and Tze's movie is infused with the same quality of (mostly) unsentimental mercy, and the same sensitivity to the way in which being placed at risk without basic rights invariably breeds more and more risk. In the children's creative response to their apparent abandonment we see — only a little wistfully — the capacity of kids to fashion a viable world out of the materials available, as well as a rueful homage to American dreams both wonderful and warped. As a bonus, there's no spurious uplift. (Ella Taylor) (Downtown Independent)

GO  GREEN ZONE Better late than never — a bang-bang pulse-pounder predicated on the Bush administration's deliberate fabrication of WMDs in Iraq. Paul Greengrass' expertly assembled Green Zone has evidently been parked for some time on Universal's shelf. Had the movie been released during the 2008 election season, it might have been something more than entertainment. Easily grasped as an amalgam of Greengrass' artfully vérité docudramas, Bloody Sunday and United 93, and his Bourne thrillers, Green Zone is set in the early months of the Iraq War and seen through the eyes of Matt Damon's chief warrant officer, parachuted in to find Saddam's hidden weapons of mass destruction. After three successive sites yield nothing but mobs of looters and calcified pigeon shit, Damon is pissed; what's more, he has the guts to stand up at a mass briefing and complain. Boldly asking for the intel source, he's slapped down by the brass, brushed off by his C.O. and told by a Pentagon smoothie (Greg Kinnear) that "democracy is messy." Then, following a tip by a friendly Iraqi (Khalid Abdalla), Damon begins to get the picture and sense the fix. Damon's two-fisted, patriotic megarogue Boy Scout cum investigative soldier is a far less likely figure than the thrill-crazy hero of The Hurt Locker — grabbing Kinnear by his collar and hissing, "Do you have any idea what you've done here?" That kiss-off is a bonanza of false consolation that transports the movie into the fantasy zone of Inglourious Basterds. (J. Hoberman) (Citywide)


GO  MOTHER Mother, Bong Joon-ho's follow-up to his killer killer-tadpole allegory The Host, is a more subtle yet no less visceral horror-comedy. Opening as tumultuous slapstick, this tale of a 27-year-old village idiot Do-joon (Won Bin) and the local madwoman who is his single parent, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja), quickly darkens once someone bludgeons a schoolgirl. Do-joon is accused of her murder and easily confused into signing a confession. With the simpleton packed off to prison, Hye-ja's hyperaroused maternal instincts drive the movie. She campaigns for her child's release and attempts to pin the murder on Do-joon's only friend. Pushing Mother into a realm beyond routine policier is the giddy realization that there may be no lengths to which Hye-ja won't go to establish Do-joon's innocence — and that, although he might indeed be innocent, the mother-son dyad is founded on its own guilty secrets. The two share a bed, and Hye-ja shows a marked interest in her son's virility. While in jail, Do-joon has time to think about the past and, rather than provide the evidence Hye-ja hopes for, he confronts her with a recovered memory that allows the movie to pivot into psychological (or perhaps just Psycho) drama. It would hardly be surprising if Hollywood attempted a remake — although it will be a rare studio movie with the nerve to re-create Mother's final reel, an ending that leaves its protagonist stranded in a moral netherworld, applying her acupuncture needle to the spot that "unknots the heart." (J. Hoberman) (Landmark, Playhouse 7, Sunset 5)

MYSTERY TEAM Just because you're a hit on YouTube doesn't mean you should be making movies. Case in point: the three likable NYU grads who perform Internet sketches as Derrick Comedy. Two or three minutes is fine, but 105 minutes is excruciating. Riffing on the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown, the trio of Donald Glover, D.C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes plays overgrown boy detectives now shunned by their high school classmates. For good reason: The three überdorky 18-year-old virgins are oblivious to girls ("Yuck!"), an embarrassment to their parents, and weak on their powers of deduction. A rash of murders breaking out at the lumber mill provides them with the opportunity to visit a strip club, score some coke and drink dog urine (don't ask), all of which is even less funny than it sounds. The forced Napoleon Dynamite naiveté was already tired by that movie's 90th minute, and Mystery Team feels more than six years past its sell-by date. A late-film appearance by the always-reliable Matt Walsh (The Hangover, Upright Citizens Brigade) confirms the movie's core problem: It's more fun to watch adults knowingly misbehave than innocents unwittingly bungle. (Brian Miller) (Nuart)

OUR FAMILY WEDDING An unconvincingly broad culture-clash comedy whose Latino and African-American ensemble might've made for a progressive film if director and co-writer Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar) hadn't pandered to the lowest common denominator with brainless screwball laughs, this sitcom-grade competition of paterfamilial egos is essentially Meet Los Fockers or My Big Fat Black Wedding. Afraid to tell their folks about their new engagement, law-school dropout Lucia (America Ferrera) and her bland do-gooder beau, Marcus (Lance Gross), drop the bomb while out to dinner, fueling an alpha-male rivalry between their respectively out-of-touch dads — married, working-class clown Miguel (Carlos Mencia) and womanizing radio personality Brad (Forest Whitaker). "I'll be right black," mocks Lucia's pop, setting the tone for more casually racist sniping and pathetic displays of one-upmanship as wedding compromises are made to accommodate both Miguel's traditional views and Brad's more unorthodox ways. A few of the sentimental scenes, especially between Brad and the best friend he should settle down with (Regina King), hint at the sweet movie hiding within, but then he's nearly raped by a goat hopped up on Viagra. (Aaron Hillis) (Citywide)

THE CRY OF THE OWL The grass isn't always greener on the other side, which the sad-sack hero of The Cry of the Owl learns to his horror in writer-director Jamie Thraves' promising but ultimately frustrating adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's suspense novel. Robert (Paddy Considine) walks through his days shell-shocked, unable to accept the fact that his wife is divorcing him. His miserable life's only ray of light comes from the illuminated kitchen window he stares into every night after work — behind it lies a young woman (Julia Stiles) whose happy domesticity Robert tries to absorb from afar. But when she spots him one evening, she doesn't recoil, instead introducing herself as Jenny and instantly exhibiting a weird, almost unhealthy affinity for him. What follows is, at first, quite enjoyably odd: Thraves keeps the audience off-balance as we observe these two people's unlikely burgeoning friendship and Jenny's unexplained abandonment of her longtime boyfriend to spend more time with Robert. Unfortunately, The Cry of the Owl starts to unravel once a murder occurs and Robert is fingered for the crime. Considine proves quite adept at playing the patsy, but Stiles overdoes Jenny's emotional fragility to such a degree that her growing craziness seems to affect the film's storytelling, which becomes increasingly nonsensical and melodramatic as the twists and revelations fly. All of this is almost redeemed by a nicely ironic final shot that, belatedly, reestablishes this thriller's priorities: forlorn characters over red herrings. (Tim Grierson) (Music Hall)


REMEMBER ME Putatively a new romance starring Robert Pattinson, Remember Me begins like a vigilante movie: A Brooklyn subway platform, 1991; a racially charged stickup; an 11-year-old girl watches her mother be shot. It's the first sign that here is a film that won't be content to just chart the little measures by which two people become able to love — in fact, it'll barely do that at all. Flash-forward 10 years, to the halcyon days of the Strokes and whatever other significant events happened in NYC circa 2001. Pattinson is histrionically depressed Tyler Keats Hawkins, a coasting, scruffy NYU student coming up on his 22nd birthday. Meanwhile, that little girl on the subway platform has grown up to be not Batman but fellow NYUer Ally (Emilie de Ravin), whose still-bereaved, overprotective cop dad (Chris Cooper) busts Tyler one night. Some coincidences later, Tyler will pick up Ally on a revenge dare, ensuring an eventual variation on the ever-popular teen-movie "Was I a bet?" breakup. There's an insult-to-injury quality to a plain bad movie with a "seize the day" message (Remember Me's tagline: "Live in the Moments"), which heckles you with all the other things you should or could be doing while you're marking time waiting on the credits, wondering if the movie will ever end. Well, it does — oh, mama, does it ever, with a crazy long bomb heave toward epochal significance. (Far be it from me to spoil the surprise; let's just say Robert Pattinson dies in 9/11.) (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE This isn't entirely without its selling points, chief among them T.J. Miller, who's a cross between Seth Rogen and Jason Segel — paging Judd Apatow, now. Miller plays Stainer, a mop-topped giant and best bud to Kirk (Jay Baruchel, an Apatow player from way back), a TSA lackey and a "hard five" who catches the eye of Molly (Alice Eve), a lawyer turned party planner who's a "hard 10" and, natch, out of Kirk's league. Molly, burned by her hunky flyboy ex, wants safe and sweet. Stainer, burned by his own former flame, is aghast at the coupling; short on self-esteem himself, he insists it'll never work, and it doesn't for long stretches precisely because Kirk buys Stainer's sincere rap — he doesn't want his boy hurt. Stainer's the real goofy, damaged soul of this slight comedy, directed by Jim Field Smith, who tries with modest success to blend the sticky-sweet with the plain ol' sticky (the first time Molly grinds on Kirk, he's a bit early on the draw — and, look, here comes the dog to lick his pants). Baruchel's bit is the same one he's been perfecting since he enrolled in Undeclared — puppy-dog pouty and cute and clever and good God, he's this close to turning into Michael Cera. Miller's the find. He's out of this movie's league. (Robert Wilonsky) (Citywide)

TOE TO TOE Spreading social awareness is a valuable pursuit, naturally, but when filmmakers take it upon themselves to don the cape of an activist hero while constantly reminding audiences of their nobility, the message feels cheap. Anthropology-minded writer and director Emily Abt unintentionally exuded that attitude in All of Us (her heartfelt but po-faced feminist doc about African-American women with HIV), and while her first narrative feature shows improvement, it still straddles the line between progressive exploration and self-congratulatory melodrama. On the lacrosse fields of a D.C. prep school, the rich, white, troubled and therefore slutty Jesse (Louisa Krause) befriends, partly out of novelty, Tosha (Sonequa Martin), a determined black girl on full scholarship, who wants to escape her inner-city neighborhood. The camaraderie quickly sours — or, at least, develops love-hate complications and believable class and racial tensions — when a handsome Muslim horndog (Raising Victor Vargas' Silvestre Rasuk) comes between them. The performances are top-notch and occasionally moving, but Abt nearly smothers it all with some embarrassing coming-of-age teen-angst false notes, plus clichéd Ivy League ambitions, a cartoonishly neglectful mother, STDs, unfair expulsion, martyrdom for both the rich and the poor and a nonreciprocal lesbian crush. Adolescence sure gets harder every year. (Aaron Hillis) (Sunset 5)

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