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Movie Reviews: Couples Retreat, The Damned United, Good Hair

GO  BELIEVE Sometimes appearances aren’t deceiving: As a cross-dressing comic and sometimes dramatic actor, Eddie Izzard is just as complex offstage as on. The compelling documentary Believe condenses the comedian’s fascinating life into 105 minutes of interviews, archive material and — most importantly to understanding any performer — several decades of performance footage. Believe, which was directed by Izzard’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Townsend, suffers from the problem inherent in most Hollywood biopics: Smashing a man’s life into a series of “very important moments” creates a schizophrenic tone. Townsend also abbreviates several of Izzard’s early street and standup performances, taking away key elements from her story’s arc — the development of Izzard’s onstage persona. Regardless, Believe contains a good deal of footage thrilling to anyone excited by the backstage and onstage workings of live performance. Izzard also gives several genuinely poignant interviews, saving the best — a reflection on how the loss of his mother influenced his desire to be a comic — for a strong emotional kick to punctuate the proceedings. The best moment, however, is the legendary performance in which Izzard appears for the first time in his trademark dress and pantyhose. This magnificent scene and others like it prove that, as with comedy itself, sometimes great material is enough to overcome merely average presentation. (Sunset 5) (John Wheeler)

BLISS If you missed June’s The Stoning of Soraya M., here’s another chance to be reminded of murderous misogyny in another Muslim community — this time, in Turkey. Based on a 2002 best-selling novel by Zülfü Livaneli, Bliss creakily illustrates the clash between ancient, abhorrent custom and modernity. Found unconscious by the side of the road in her village, 17-year-old Meryem (Özgü Namal) is held responsible for her own rape; a distant cousin, Cemal (Murat Han), is summoned to take her to Istanbul to perform the “honor killing” for having shamed her family. The conflicted brute can’t bring himself to murder Meryem, and soon, the two join Irfan (Talat Bulut), a sociology prof they meet while working at a fish farm, on his yacht in the Aegean (filmed quite prettily by Mirsad Herovic) so that enlightenment can be taught, as characters calcify into constructs. Though calling out the abominable oppression of women, even in a vehicle as didactic as Bliss, serves at least some redeemable purpose, that mission is more than a little compromised when it’s suggested that Meryem could find happiness with Cemal — the man who, after he decides not to kill her, settles on verbally and physically abusing her. (Music Hall) (Melissa Anderson)

COUPLES RETREAT Couples, retreat. In the latest from Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau (co-starring and co-writing), we learn that one compelling reason to make a life commitment is so you will always have someone to eat with at Applebee’s. The movie’s cumulative idea is that, forgetting the delusions of midlife panic, this is all there is, you’re already living the best possible life — a message of sedentary wisdom betrayed when the actual film is as undeniably dreary as a plate of gummy Chicken Parmesan Tanglers. Vaughn, Favreau (flagrantly shirtless), Jason Bateman, and Faizon Love are four buddies, just “regular guys” — meaning, as always, puffy, dull-minded lunks, with Vaughn increasingly being Jim Belushi’s heir apparent. They take their respective significant others on a group vacation to an island paradise, along with maybe 12 pages of sit-comic script outline, to be riffed out into feature length. Arriving at the Eden Resort, our beer-commercial heroes are menaced by enforced couple’s therapy and the resort’s staff of Speedo-wearing homo-macho Euro-Hispanic Others (Jean Reno, Carlos Ponce), who put them through yoga humpings and realityTV–type challenges intended to renew the spark missing from their relationships. The presence of Bateman begs comparison with the funnier-while-thematically-similar Extract, though Retreat also recalls Voyage in Italy, if Rossellini were to replace intimate human insight with lowest-common-denominator doody-boner-bare butt-jackoff haw-haws. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  THE DAMNED UNITED We call it soccer, but for the Brits, it’s football, and it’s damn serious business. From 1968 to 1974, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), a manager/coach from the tiny town of Derby, and his assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), turned a third-rate club into division champs. That success wasn’t nearly as sweet as getting to take over Leeds United, a top-tier team previously managed by Clough’s archenemy, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). In this terrific film, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and television director Tom Hooper (John Adams), making his feature debut, use a series of elegantly staged flashbacks to trace Clough and Taylor’s rapid rise to fame, and the hubris that led the former to stumble badly when he got to Leeds, while also wounding his lifelong friendship with Taylor. A movie about soccer that doesn’t spend a lot of time on the field, The Damned United, like everything Morgan writes, is an intimate character study, one that is enriched by a stellar ensemble of British pros, including Jim Broadbent as Derby’s team owner. These actors are good at what they do — like those soccer players who dodge and weave with effortless grace. (The Landmark; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Chuck Wilson)

 

GOOD HAIR Don Imus’s hateful, racist 2007 remarks about “nappy-headed hos” underscored the immense fear of and fascination with the hair follicles of African-American women. Chris Rock, the host, co-writer, and co-producer of first-time director Jeff Stilson’s Good Hair, never mentions Imus’ outburst; his interest in the political, social and sexual entanglements of the tonsorial stem from the more personal — specifically, when one of his two young daughters plaintively asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” Rock, affable as ever, queries a few black actresses (Nia Long providing the most candid responses: “Weave sex is a little awkward”); visits beauty salons; oversees an experiment by a scientist, who demonstrates the corrosive effects of sodium hydroxide, the main ingredient in hair relaxer; travels to Chennai, India, where women sacrifice hair that ends up in weaves costing thousands of dollars in the U.S.; and stares in disbelief at the Paris Is Burning–like competition at the annual Bronner Bros.–sponsored “Hair Battle” in Atlanta. Rock is certainly a sympathetic and curious observer, though including Ice-T’s remark that “a real pimp can tell what a woman looks like baldheaded” betrays some of the gender politics that remain vigorously unexamined in this breezy, superficial doc. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

THE HORSE BOY There’s a moment in the documentary The Horse Boy when the father of its subject, an autistic child named Rowan, explains his son’s intrinsic understanding of nature by showing how he has organized his animal toys by species. The dad marvels that Rowan has grouped biologically close rhinos and pigs in the same box — while ignoring the ostrich figurine that’s also in there. This selective filtering of information is typical of the film, a quest toward an inevitable inspirational destination, continuing the recent trend of using precious theater space as dumping grounds for a-cinematic PBS also-rans. Mom and Dad take 6-year-old Rowan, whose jagged tantrums are best relaxed by contact with horses, on a riding tour of Outer Mongolia, to consult tribal shamans in the hope of untangling his mental blocks. It’s fun to imagine how The Horse Boy’s intended audience, the nontraditional-therapy crowd, would react to the same film if the parents took Rowan to exorcists in papal Rome — just imagine a priest bringing up “haunted wombs”! — but the Third World Otherness does wonders. The Horse Boy may excuse itself as a “raising awareness” tract on autism, but the exotic travelogue isn’t a practicable care option for most cases, and it certainly isn’t worthy cinema. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO  MR. RIGHT For Londoner Louise (Georgia Zaris), the man of her dreams (Jeremy Edwards) turns gay when she least expects it, which may actually be Louise’s fault — all her friends are gay men, and as the makers of this well-crafted romantic comedy slyly suggest, gay may indeed be contagious. Co-directed by the sister-and-brother team of Jacqui and David Morris (he wrote the script and plays a small role), Mr. Right smoothly tracks the romantic lives of Louise’s friends, which include her BFF, Alex (Luke de Woolfson), whose relationship with a TV producer (James Lance) is derailed by a hunky hustler (Benjamin Hart), who in turn has grown weary of his own sugar daddy (Morris). There’s also a single-parent art dealer (Rocky Marshall) who’s afraid to introduce his new boyfriend (Leon Ockenden) into his daughter’s life. If that sounds like a lot of characters to keep up with, it is, for a while, but one gradually sorts out who goes with whom. When nearly all the couples break up at a midfilm dinner party, the Morrises and their likable, grounded cast manage to steer clear of silliness and shrill melodrama. In a refreshingly adult manner, love eventually finds its way back to almost everyone, though poor Louise might do well to just throw up her hands and go lesbian. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY For Katie (Katie Featherston), a San Diego college student, things have been going bump in the night since she was 8 years old and a ghost attached itself to her. The unseen being that has been benignly haunting her for years thrills Katie’s loving but skeptical boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), who sets up a video camera to capture any supernatural goings-on. For his debut feature, reportedly shot in seven days at a cost of 15 grand, writer-director Oren Peli works wonders with stationary camera footage of the sleeping couple: The bedroom door moves, slightly; lights in the hallway go on and off; a shadow passes the bed. As the nights pass, the presence, seemingly annoyed at being recorded, begins upping the ante, and soon it appears that poor Katie is on the verge of channeling her inner Linda Blair. Grounded by strong performances by newcomers Featherston and Sloat, who pretty much have the movie to themselves, Paranormal Activity, which demands to be seen in a crowded theater, is refreshingly blood-free — the fact that its old-school scares caused seemingly jaded 20-somethings at a recent midnight screening to squirm in their seats suggests that there’s hope for the world after all. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Chuck Wilson)

 

PETER AND VANDY Middlebrow Sundance product is the scourge of American independent cinema today — those innocuously “arty,” totally commercial and barely-left-of-mainstream films that trick the masses into feeling smarter and edgier than deserved (see: Little Miss Sunshine, Juno and dozens of titles aiming to be both). Jay DiPietro’s modest directorial debut, Peter and Vandy, is at least impassioned, but if the film hadn’t been adapted from his 2002 play about a strained romance chronicled out of temporal sequence, we’d dismiss it as a cut-rate (500) Days of Summer — itself a cut-rate example of the aforementioned fest genre. Temperamental and passive-aggressively inarticulate, downtown NYC 20-somethings Peter (Jason Ritter) and Vandy (Jess Weixler) confess their love, cruelly project their insecurities during inane fights over how to make a PB&J sandwich, meet for the first time, and on and on through the back-and-forth span of their relationship. Ritter and Weixler do share an easy-at-being-uneasy chemistry, mostly because his performance is downright distinguished compared to her blandness, but DiPietro’s screenplay is emotionally myopic. His sharpest written exchanges — and there aren’t many — are buried under his inexplicable need to embrace the nonlinear conceit. Did we mention there’s indie rock? (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

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