Movie Reviews: Dark Streets, Nothing Like the Holidays, Timecrimes
DARK STREETS So obsessed with mimicry it’s practically a tribute band of a movie, Dark Streets throws copious amounts of film noir style at the screen in the hopes that something will stick. Based on Glenn M. Stewart’s musical, The City Club, Dark Streets unfolds in and around a rollicking urban nightclub that, despite mounting debts, miraculously manages to keep delivering new, extravagantly choreographed and costumed song-and-dance numbers every night. As if owner Chaz (Gabriel Mann) weren’t busy enough keeping the place afloat, he’s also juggling the rival affections of his featured singer (Bijou Phillips) and a new chanteuse (Izabella Miko), while investigating a possible connection between citywide blackouts and the mysterious death of his father. Directed by Rachel Samuels, Dark Streets is less a narrative than a suite of original blues and jazz songs that occasionally pauses to allow for some convoluted exposition, replete with hard-boiled dialogue. Photographed with generically “moody” cinematography meant to emulate noir’s sultry sex-and-sin atmosphere — basically, it looks like Chicago and Moulin Rouge but cheaper. The film has its shallow pleasures, but once it becomes obvious that that’s all Dark Streets has going for it, the affected performances and forced tough-guy speak stop feeling playful and start to become oppressive. The filmmakers seem to think that if they ape their influences enough, maybe some of the grit and soul will rub off on their own project. It don’t work that way, toots. (Sunset 5; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Tim Grierson)
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL As in the original 1951 film by Robert Wise (and with little regard to Harry Bates’ original pulp short story “Farewell to the Master”), the arrival on Earth of a near-omnipotent being named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) is met with a trigger-happy response. Only the widowed Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) has faith that making friends with the alien might be in the best interests of humanity. But she may be wrong: Unlike Michael Rennie’s mostly benevolent Klaatu, version 2.0 is pissed at humanity for trashing the planet, and comes prepared to wipe us all out. The problem with this new The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t so much in the execution of director Scott Derrickson, who pulls off quite a few compelling sequences and, best of all, doesn’t screw around too much with Klaatu’s giant robot Gort (at least, until Gort suddenly turns into a cloud of tiny robot insects that arbitrarily eat whatever the plot calls for). No, the problem here is that there are no big ideas: The original Day was both a condemnation of Cold War military paranoia and an allegorical Christ tale, with Klaatu dying for our sins before being resurrected and ascending into the heavens, warning that he’ll be back with the apocalypse if humanity doesn’t shape up. There are plenty of ways to bring similar themes into play here: Klaatu as Bush figure, perhaps, invading because of our weapons of mass destruction? Instead, it’s never clear what his problem is. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
DELGO Ten years ago, the notion of a science-fantasy rendition of Romeo and Juliet starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt might have seemed like a sure-fire moneymaker, and the level of CG animation in Delgo might also have looked state of the art. Today, few are likely to pay much attention, despite a voice cast that also includes Malcolm McDowell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Val Kilmer, Anne Bancroft, Eric Idle, Burt Reynolds, Louis Gossett Jr. ... oh, and Kelly Ripa and Chris Kattan, alas. Set in a land called Jhamora, Delgo tells the tale of two races hoping to live in peace yet set on the brink of war. One is a race of reptile-people who can move stones with their minds; the other, winged sprites who ride dragons (seems redundant). All appear to have exactly the same face: a leftover Gelfling mask from The Dark Crystal, which simply gets re-colored ad infinitum. When fairylike Princess Kyla (Hewitt) saves the life of saurian dork Delgo (Prinze), the two stumble upon a conspiracy by an exiled queen (Bancroft) and a treacherous general (McDowell) to conquer both races. Will love save the day? You won’t care — more likely, you’ll just wonder why this isn’t a video game you can actually play. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
DRAGON HUNTERS Based on a French animated television series that briefly aired in the U.S. on Cartoon Network, Dragon Hunters plays more like a demo reel than a fully developed cartoon fairy tale. Gentle giant Lian-Chu (voiced by Forest Whitaker) and his scheming pip-squeak friend Gwizdo (Rob Paulsen) are wandering mercenaries who volunteer their services to slay a fearsome dragon known as the World Gobbler, inspiring the admiration of a local girl (Mary Mouser), who thinks this oddball duo are dashing knights like the ones she reads about in her storybooks. Gwizdo wants to take their advance and make a run for it, but honorable Lian-Chu insists that they fulfill their obligation, and soon these three mildly adorable characters set out to confront the beast. Directed by Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak, this CGI-animated film is a pretty square affair, eschewing the wiseass cultural references of Shrek while borrowing its plot about unlikely heroes and fairy-tale revisionism. Those accustomed to the visual wonders of Pixar or the pop sheen of Dreamworks will find the animation decidedly second-rate, although the film’s universe of a floating kingdom littered with hovering islands gives the story a certain dreamlike quality. But rather than feeling refreshingly old fashioned with its lack of over-caffeinated antics, Dragon Hunters just seems boring, going through the action-adventure motions without much verve, save for Whitaker, who gives a charming performance as a reluctant hero with a penchant for knitting. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)
HANIA The supremely talented cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is now 0-2 as a director, and while the Warsaw-set weeper Hania could not be more tonally different from his 2000 debut, Lost Souls — a supernatural thriller that, you’ll doubtlessly recall, pitted Winona Ryder against Satan — it proves a similar point: There is more to movies than pretty pictures. And make no mistake, Hania is plenty pretty. Kaminski, who shot the film himself, has at least momentarily replaced the dark burnish of his work for Steven Spielberg with a bright, glossy style that emphases crystalline colors — especially red and green, appropriate for a story that’s clearly angling at becoming a Yuletide perennial. A chance meeting between good-natured Ola (Agnieszka Grochowska) and her ex-boyfriend Janek (Bartek Kasprzykowski, avec Santa costume) leads the latter to suggest she take one of the residents from his orphanage home for the holidays. Her sullen husband, Wojtek (Benjamin Lewandowski), isn’t thrilled with this plan, partly because he’s busy with work, and partly because it activates his anxiety about really settling down (not to mention it triggers flashbacks to his own unhappy childhood). A difficult situation, but it’s nothing that the kid — an obviously enchanted lad named Kacpra (Maciej Stolarczyk), who talks to trees and says he can fly — can’t handle: it’s only a few scenes before the trio is acting just like a happy family. Quiet, well-mannered and endlessly insightful, Kacpra is less a character than a handy relationship-saving tool. As such, the careful viewer probably wouldn’t want to bet on his making it to New Year’s — especially not in a film as shamelessly manipulative as Hania. (Music Hall) (Adam Nayman)
GO $9.99 The stop-motion animated puppets in Tatia Rosenthal’s beguiling first feature look like clay-mated slabs of glazed meat, at once unreal and hyper-real. Which makes them perfect carriers of the off-kilter existentialism of Etgar Keret, who co-wrote the screenplay for $9.99 with Rosenthal, based on his own short stories. With Keret you never know where laughter ends and heartbreak begins, and so it is with these lost souls (voiced by Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and other luminaries of this Israeli-Australian co-production) who keep colliding in a naturalistically evoked apartment building that could be found in any warm-climate city, whether Tel Aviv, Sydney or Los Angeles. Their gait is stiff, but they’re tormented by the full range of emotional incompleteness, from shame to lust to longing to confusion to plain old weariness with the struggle to stay afloat. There’s more fun than mawkishness, though, in the underachiever who evades his fiancée’s demands by cavorting with 2-inch-high frat boys, the suicidal (maybe) Guardian Angel (maybe) who’d rather be anywhere but here, the penthouse hottie who likes her men absolutely hairless, and the 20-something who seeks solace in a $10 life manual because his loving, single father has no time to listen. The cutrate how-to proves more potent than you’d think, which says something wise and wonderful about the way the material world can hold out ridiculous but transcendent spiritual release. I’m not revealing how, but let’s just say that $9.99 doesn’t end like that other movie about “the pursuit of happyness,” and all the better for it. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)
NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS The Rodriguez kids, spread far from their native Chicago, reunite for Xmas under the roof of their voluminous burgher patriarch (Alfred Molina). Spruce with superficial ethnic color — as opposed to intimacy with a specific social reality — and you’ve got yourself a real niche filler. Recast, with script retouches and plantains traded out for eggplant Parmesan or kielbasa, the movie would “work” just the same. Feasible family resemblance was no concern in negotiating together the supergroup of Puerto Rican (well, mostly Latino) actors. There’s John Leguizamo, a yuppie whose defensive prig wife (Debra Messing, recipient of “Oh, white people” eye rolls) refuses, to his parent’s horror, to lie down and multiply like a proper Catholic; Vanessa Ferlito, aspirant actress; and velvet-eyed Freddy Rodríguez, the returning Iraq vet who, with his welled-up, squelched hurt, seems a refugee from a better movie. Conflict is served up buffet-style, with portions of infidelity, impending divorce, career crisis, fatal illness, survivor guilt and gangbang blood fueds, with almost every scene according to a recipe done better elsewhere before. (Even when painstakingly explained, the central plot twist doesn’t make sense.) The cast is appealing enough, though, and moviegoers looking for seasonal warm fuzzies can find them, as predictably touching as a muddled-through “Auld Lang Syne.” (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)
GO TIMECRIMES Less a mind fuck on the level of 2004’s ingenious Primer than a sort of mental canoodle, this modestly diverting slice of shoestring Spanish sci-fi from writer/director/co-star Nacho Vigalondo proves yet again that time travel is an ambitious low-budget filmmaker’s jumbo Erector Set. Lured by a woman who mysteriously removes her top in his backyard woods, homeowner Hector (Karra Elejalde) is attacked by a bandaged, scissors-wielding maniac and runs for his life. Like a paunchy, middle-aged Alice falling down a temporal rabbit hole, he seeks shelter at a nearby estate and takes a tip from its nerdy inhabitant (Vigalondo) to hide inside an ominous fluid-filled chamber — the first of several instances where you’ll wonder how many brain cells time travel destroys, either by practice or contact. Where Primer reeled in viewers with its close observations, it’s the small details of behavior here that seem unconvincing: If someone stashes scissors in a purse, the gleaming points, not the handle, will protrude. (Time travel, we learn, is as confining as being shackled to genre conventions.) But even though Vigalondo’s obvious direction lingers over every carefully arranged tile in the toppling-domino plot — hey, you think that cryptic squiggle on the calendar actually means something? — there’s still some sinister amusement in watching them stack and fall. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)
WAITING IN BEIJING It would be a mercy to avoid going into detail about this one, a vanity project by a Chinese businessman, the cinematic equivalent of a hopeless self-published novel. How do you review something that’s barely even a movie? We could do it, but like kicking a one-legged dog, it would make us hate ourselves. The setting is Beijing in the early 1990s (thinks SARS and the first Gulf war), a weirdly globalized and de-natured Beijing in which everyone speaks English and earns a New Beetle and Ikea lifestyle working for a giant American corporation. The characters are sealed off from the day-to-day life of the city. They live and work in what appear to be furniture showrooms, spotlessly clean and containing no personal possessions, with occasional day trips to familiar tourist locales. Most of these sharply dressed English speakers eventually make a beeline for the 66 Club, where George (Kelly Nyks), an inexpressive big lug of an American bartender, pines handsomely for his Iraqi fiancée, who has been called home to the war zone. Meanwhile, the Chinese woman George considers his best friend (Song Li Ching) is beginning to fall in love with him. This ancient storyline, the one about the mournful prince (of industry, in this case) living incognito among the commoners, harks back to the dawn of melodrama — a ploy that could have been tasty if served with a dash of irony, which but is rendered flat and flavorless by the painfully earnest approach of writer-producer-director Alan Zhang. The first-time auteur is described in the press material as “a successful Chinese entrepreneur [who] does not speak or write English.” Honestly, we never would have guessed. (Grande 4-Plex) (David Chute)
GO WERE THE WORLD MINE Tom Gustafson’s queer-centric take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream teeters between banal conceptualizing and inspired execution. When high school homo and jock punching bag Timothy (Tanner Cohen) is cast as Puck in his all-boys school’s production of Midsummer, he stumbles upon a love potion that causes life to imitate art, creating a queer upheaval in his small town. Beneath a trite imagining of what would happen if raging homophobes suddenly turned gay (most, apparently, would become mincing stereotypes), the film articulates some age-old but still pressing truths about bigotry (Prop. 8, hello), social justice and romantic longing. Gustafson pulls uniformly wonderful performances from his cast, especially Cohen and Judy McLane, as the boy’s bewildered mom, struggling between her own homophobia and her love for her son. The musical numbers, filled with old-fashioned melodic singing, and choreography that wittily references classical Hollywood musicals, put the prefab High School Musical series to shame. When the film narrows its focus from big questions addressed through overly broad strokes and instead zooms in on one-on-one interactions and the emotional power of a well-made musical sequence, it taps into a winning sweetness and poignancy. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)
WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU Cuddly recidivism marked Mark Ruffalo’s first attention-getting role in You Can Count on Me, squirming within family ties and into our hearts. In the equally ill-titled What Doesn’t Kill You, he’s a backsliding Southie hood, passing his wife and angelic kids on the way out to petty shakedowns. Like his desperately zealous partner, Paulie (Ethan Hawke), Brian (Ruffalo) has outgrown his life but with nothing to replace it. Ex-tough Brian Goodman, who plays their local crime boss, directs his own screenplayed memories, double-timing through the duo’s gambits and their prison stint into Brian’s recovery trudge from coke. For a “before” stage of rhinolike oblivion, Ruffalo draws on his knack for summoning an incongruous brooding bulk from within, and the result almost sucks the air from Hawke’s rangy routine of nerves and sinewy smiles. In the straight-and-narrow struggle postclink, Ruffalo lacks rapport with Amanda Peet, as the long-suffering wife. (Donnie Wahlberg, who co-wrote the script, also drives by now and again as an on-to-you sergeant.) Goodman’s movie tends to limp along, but he naturally gets Boston in winter and steers clear of Gone Baby Gone grotesques: An opening helicopter shot centers on a resolutely boring apartment building. (Mann Chinese 6; Majestic Crest) (Nicolas Rapold)
GO WHILE SHE WAS OUT The emotionally bruised air that’s frequently made Kim Basinger tabloid fodder is also a defining characteristic of her acting style. Writer-director Susan Montford, adapting Edward Bryant’s short story, exploits (in the best sense) Basinger’s wafting fragility and unleashes its latent fury, using the latter quality to drive this surprisingly enjoyable female revenge tale. Della (Basinger) is a doting, harried mom and an easy target for her abusive, faded-jock husband (Craig Sheffer) in their gated-community home. While doing last-minute Christmas shopping, Della unwittingly makes herself another target — this time for a laughably check-listed, multi-culti band of thugs (Asian? Here! Latino? Here! Afro-Am? Here!), led by the scruffy, deranged Chuckie (Lukas Haas). Making a series of the foolish choices upon which these types of movies hang, Della redeems herself, as she battles the miscreants in an isolated forest setting. Montford circumvents cliché by filling the film with witty asides, and expertly milks tension from such mundane moments as Della’s search for cigarettes in a glove compartment. The film, executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro, hinges on a first-rate performance by Basinger, who imbues Della with a fire that makes the film’s basic thesis — both the domestic sphere and the larger world are dangerous places for women — seem something more than boilerplate. (AMC Marina Marketplace; AMC Burbank Town Center) (Ernest Hardy)
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