Movie Reviews: Chloe, Hot Tub Time Machine, Waking Sleeping Beauty
CHLOE Atom Egoyan's Chloe is posh, cool and never less than obvious. Work for hire, the movie was adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from Anne Fontaine's marital thriller Nathalie ..., a sophisticated Gallic shrug-fest hailed by some for featuring an adulterous triangle unimaginable in an American movie. Successful gynecologist Catherine (Julianne Moore) suspects, not without reason, that her husband, the distinguished professor, David (Liam Neeson), is having affairs with his students; in lieu of a detective, she hires the fresh-faced young hooker who calls herself Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to entrap him. Before long, the enigmatic child is giving Catherine a detailed account of her relations with David. The story doesn't make much sense, but the client is turned on, Moore miming arousal with the wide-eyed passion of a silent-movie queen. Asked by Catherine how she does her job, Chloe explains that she tries "to find something to love in everybody." I take that as a message to the critic. Egoyan seems to have accepted this assignment in the spirit of Douglas Sirk directing soft-core porn: Chloe puts quotation marks around its tantalizing nudity, caressing camera moves and rhapsodic music. The grotesque finale aside, it's all too soigne to be truly risible but, thanks to Egoyan's trademark mix of detachment and prurience, the fun is more cheesy than queasy. (J. Hoberman) (AMC Century City, ArcLight, Playhouse 7)
GO THE ECLIPSE The Eclipse is a curious Irish ghost story that fiddles with the recipe just enough to produce interesting results. Solidly built and middle-aged, Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) isn't the kind of vulnerable-looking nightgown-clencher usually cast to jump at bumps in the night — and it's a not-yet-departed spirit that first harasses him. Working for a literary festival in his hometown of picturesque Cobh, widower Farr begins a shy flirtation with a visiting authoress, Lena (Iben Hjejle), and winds up competing for her affections with best-seller brat Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn's enjoyment of playing such a lavishly awful American is infectious). Here are the makings of a poshly photographed grown-up romance — except, just as you're sufficiently becalmed by one of the recurring parentheses of choral music and solitary drift (director Conor McPherson's mood-setting feels suspiciously like padding at times), a bloodied ghoul jumps out. Michael shows Lena the local sights, and they form figures-in-a-landscape compositions before the low whorled clouds, clean waterfront houses, and the cathedral that towers over Cobh, as inescapable as the unarticulated guilt that shadows Michael. The Eclipse is the simultaneous revelation of a place and a man, with their shared history, and it plays by virtue of Hinds, his face a hewn and weathered monument to regret. (Nick Pinkerton) (Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center)
GAY.COM TRIPLE BILL II In its second rollout of a queer-film triple bill, Gay.com offers another mixed bag of fare. The weakest of the trio is Raúl Marchand Sánchez's insipid Puerto Rican farce Manuela y Manuel, in which a grating drag queen reluctantly agrees to masquerade as the boyfriend of his fag-hag so her macho father won't disown her — she's pregnant from a one-night stand with a soldier and can't bring a bastard baby home. Overstuffed with crudely drawn, broadly acted secondary characters (and tricked out with flat drag musical numbers), Manuela aspires to be about love, friendship, and good hearts triumphing. But it's actually a grim reminder that formulaic queer cinema is a global plague. Far stronger is James Bolton's Dream Boy, in which a couple of teen boys in a small, very religious Southern town navigate the pangs of first queer love. The film evokes tension right from the start, as the viewer waits for violence to rear its head; it eventually does, in ways expected and not. The film's biggest problem is that in trying to capture a laid-back Southern pace, it's often stilted, and the supernatural elements in the third act don't quite mesh. Still, it's good to see Diana Scarwid working, even if she's a tad too tremulous as an understandably anxious mom, and Max Roeg (as one of the boys) has something of the beauty and off-kilter screen presence of his real-life mom (Theresa Russell). Just Say Love, though marred by a groan-inducing wish-fulfillment ending and a thudding mid-film montage of artsy poses, is in some ways the most satisfying film on the lineup. That's due to the performances of its sole actors, Matthew Jaeger and Robert Mammana, as a brainy gay man and the macho, hetero construction worker he falls for. Based on a play, the film is shot on bare-bones theater sets, throwing character and dialogue front and center. Said dialogue is decent, occasionally insightful, and not especially remarkable, but the actors bite into it with relish. The film's real strength, though, is the palpable chemistry between Jaeger and Mammana, which smoothly and convincingly oscillates from lust to frustration to a love that throws both men off their game. (Ernest Hardy) (Sunset 5)
THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE Curing prejudice the old-fashioned way — through sentimental, high-minded storytelling — The Harimaya Bridge has a socially relevant lesson to impart, and it takes a very long time imparting it. Retired African-American photographer Daniel Holder (Ben Guillory) lives in San Francisco, still grieving over his artist son Mickey (Victor Grant), who died two years earlier while at a teaching job in Japan. Daniel's father was tortured and killed by the Japanese during World War II, so when he travels to the island nation to track down his son's paintings, he clearly also has emotional baggage to sort through during the trip. Like Mickey, writer-director Aaron Woolfolk grew up in the Bay Area before becoming an English teacher in rural Japan, a fact that underlines the intensely personal nature of this project. But in stark contrast to the film's gentle tone and relaxed, almost glacial pace, its message about forgiveness and cultural tolerance couldn't be less gracefully delivered. (The characters have an unfortunate habit of sounding like position papers when they bicker.) To be fair, this heartfelt drama, executive-produced by Danny Glover, doesn't have a cynical or self-satisfied bone in its body. Still, between Daniel's predictable character arc and Kazunori Maruyama's overdone, here's-where-you-should-cry piano score, The Harimaya Bridge is less interested in examining the corrosive effects of prejudice than it is in assuring the audience that, deep down, we're all really nice, good people. In other words, The Harimaya Bridge is a movie about racism that's pretty narrow-minded in its own thinking. (Tim Grierson) (Music Hall)
GO HOT TUB TIME MACHINE A fundamentally lazy comedy that will probably make you laugh like an idiot, Hot Tub Time Machine was ostensibly directed by Steve Pink. But it was really born from the collective unconscious of the 34-to-45 demographic — the viewers for whom the movie will deliver the most reliable pleasure, as they tease out the embedded references to Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead. Though the sweetness and cheer of its inspirations are, by the strictures of contemporary R-rated comedy, supplemented with violence, barfing and hate-fucking, it's still a funny, worthwhile tribute to an era of filmmaking that will not live long in the annals of cinema. Sad-sack friends Lou (Rob Corddry), Nick (a standout Craig Robinson) and Adam (John Cusack) head to the mountains, where, 24 years earlier, they spent an epic weekend. Soon, via the eponymous plot device, they're young again at Winterfest '86, an absurd wonderland of lime-green ski suits, casual sex and Nagel prints. Hot Tub Time Machine pays homage to the essential disposability of '80s entertainment, while also using its own faithful cruddiness as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Important plot points get glossed over; scenes are cut together clumsily; it features the least-convincing skiing shots ever committed to film. But as long as you're the sort of viewer who will derive pleasure from the simple on-screen credit "and introducing William Zabka," it'll work. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON The 3-D wasn't working at the screening I attended, but, honestly, it would take several more dimensions to craft something special out of this adequate but unremarkable animated tale of a skinny Viking nerd-boy (voiced by Jay Baruchel) named Hiccup who befriends fire-breathing dragons, hoping to impress his father (Gerard Butler), a beefy Norseman with a Glasgow accent and triceps like tree trunks. Based on a children's novel by Cressida Cowell and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon struggles to rise to the challenge of hitching a red-blooded fantasy action-adventure to a huggy-kissy message that covers all antiwar and eco bases. Father and son, though inevitably scheduled for reciprocal self-actualization (brain, say hello to brawn, and vice versa), spend much of the movie at loggerheads because junior would rather fly around on, instead of slay, his newfound scaly friend, whose cute, big poonim bears an incongruous resemblance to the critter from Lilo & Stitch. Intentionally or not, all of the dragons are built more for stand-up comedy than for terror, which means that aside from two fine battle scenes that bookend the movie, we have to make do in the drama department with the wan love that blossoms between Hiccup and a feisty young Vikingette voiced by America Ferrera. Better is some funny business when fledgling killers-in-training meet baby dragons-in-training, supervised by the deliciously hectoring voice of Craig Ferguson. (Ella Taylor) (Citywide)
GO SWEETGRASS Though the breathtaking vistas of Big Sky Country in Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's unforgettable sheep-herding documentary come close to heaven, it's telling that AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" can be faintly heard over the sound of the electronic contraptions that hired hands yield to shear the docile creatures, one of the preparatory stages before the roundup begins. A record of the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture, Sweetgrass captures the arduousness and the awe (not awww) of a vanishing way of life. Animals strike curious poses: One of the white, fluffy sheep stares right into Castaing-Taylor's camera as the film begins, a moment played not for critter cuteness but for ovine empathy, immediately setting the patient, unsentimental, observational tone. Just as you begin to distinguish the sounds of different bleats, you witness the absurd force of the sheep en masse as they run past a Radio Shack on a small-town street. High up in the mountains, they become unwieldy, leading enraged herder Pat Connolly to string together the most inspired blue streak ever uttered against ewes. Sweetgrass reminds us of the stupefying magnificence of its setting — beautiful for spacious skies and mountain majesties — while never letting us forget its formidable perils. (Melissa Anderson) (Nuart)
GO VINCERE According to Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, Mussolini was nearly as much of a bully in the bedroom as he was in office. Il Duce would eventually get busy with the Pope, but in the mid-1910s, he screwed — and screwed over — one Ida Dalser, who becomes this epic melodrama's nobly suffering Jeanne d'Arc. Bearing Mussolini a son, Dalser was banished to an insane asylum for the rest of her days. Hell hath no fury, indeed: Complete with thunder and lightning, sex and street riots, booming music and fascist slogans splayed across the screen, Bellocchio's immodestly mounted production is an operatic critique of the violent force with which a woman was written out of His Story. This is nothing new for Bellocchio, whose best films of the past five decades — beginning with Fist in His Pocket in 1965 — have trafficked at the intersection of history and family. Vincere, though, is his stylistic knockout. In the hands of the fiercely committed Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Dalser goes from being the recipient of Il Duce's thrusts (and a funder of his fascist paper) to a towering figure of sorts, tough as nails even when incarcerated. Its title translating as "win," Vincere is a victory for the doomed Dalser in the sense that she's finally gotten a camera's attention. "You're my woman," Il Duce (Filippo Timi) tells his secret lover early on in the movie. "So be quiet." Her refusal to do so is Bellocchio's cause for celebration — and our good fortune. (Rob Nelson) (Playhouse 7, Royal, Town Center)
GO WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY Last fall saw the release of the documentary Walt & Grupo, about Walt Disney and a team of his most talented animators trekking to Latin America in 1941 for both artistic inspiration and to act as cultural ambassadors for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was enjoyable hagiography most likely to be valued by hard-core Disney aficionados. Waking Sleeping Beauty is something else entirely. A documentary about the lucrative rebirth of Disney's animation arm between the years 1984 and 1994, it's a warts-and-all tale of clashing egos and the eternal war between art and commerce, wrapped inside Hollywood's favorite self-stroke material: the comeback. Directed by Don Hahn, a former Disney Young Gun, the film (distributed by Disney) teems with amazing behind-the-scenes footage (including of a young Tim Burton at work) that illustrates everything from the animation process and the business of selling movies to the brutal fallout from the changing of the guard. Filled with enough bloodletting and male bitchiness to be endlessly entertaining, the film glides into tearjerker territory when addressing the brilliance and loss of songwriter Howard Ashman. Tying it all together is Hahn's transparent love for the art of animation, and for Disney — its history and once geek-heavy in-house culture. Hahn balances that love with a critical eye that allows him to sing the praises of unsung heroes while letting the assholes hang themselves. (Ernest Hardy) (AMC Century City, AMC Burbank)
GO WEST OF PLUTO Maybe I'm overconditioned by The Office and all those Christopher Guest mockumentaries to find deadpan humor everywhere, but I thought that a lot of this very cinema vérité film about francophone high-schoolers in Quebec — maybe more than intended? — was pretty funny. (Two guys, discussing names for their band, suggest Never Break My Nose and Microwave Distortion; assigned in class to give an expository speech about his passion, one kid chooses peanut butter.) It's not a documentary, but it looks like one, mainly because nothing in the lives of these middle-class kids is exaggerated. They're bored and alienated, but not melodramatically so. The few adults depicted are not clueless and malignant. No one's implausibly beautiful (actual acne and unfortunate midpubescent attempts at facial hair can be seen). And the dramatic incidents are merely the sorts of things dumb, underentertained kids do, not jolting bloodbaths. The camera just follows around a dozen or so characters, from a day at school to a parents-out-of-town, beer-and-make-out party that gets out of control. Except for the absolute absence of cell phones — what year is this? — every second is believable and compelling. (Gavin Borchert) (Downtown Indie)
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