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Movie Reviews: Day Watch, Mr. Brooks, Paprika

BAMAKO Drawing equally from declamatory African traditions and European modernist procedures, Bamako stages a kind of Third World Epic Theater. Set in a quiet corner of the capital of Mali, events unfold in a hot, hazy, gnat-filled courtyard that serves as a makeshift courtroom. White-wigged African judges preside over the proceedings. Witnesses take the stand and testify. Counsels for the defense and the prosecution (both white men) cross-examine and make statements. The crimes are immense and abstract; the defendant can be tried only in absentia. Bamako puts nothing less than economic injustice on trial, arguing the guilt of the World Bank, the IMF and the entire apparatus of First World economic domination for the crime of African oppression. One by one, witnesses for the prosecution (a writer, a professor, a farmer) eloquently unload woe: the injustice of debt, the consequences of privatization, the crippling effect of structural-adjustment policies. If it sounds like a chore, it plays out with charm, the didacticism enlivened by persuasive detail, the anger leavened by empathy. Bamako brings relief from the latest round of Africa chic in the media, reversing “the flood of information that flows one way.” It colors the Africa Problem from the inside out. (Nuart) (Nathan Lee)

CHEENI KUM The lovely early “meet cute” sequences in writer-director Balakrishnan’s May-December romantic comedy Cheeni Kum (“Less Sugar”) effectively adopt that dry, British style of humor in which laughs are detonated by a single raised eyebrow. Amitabh Bachchan is note-perfect as the 64-year-old Buddhadev “Buddha” Gupta, a maestro chef in a posh London Indian restaurant, who’s still single because he has never met a woman who could pierce the armor of his preening self-regard. Enter 34-year-old Nina Verma (deep-welled Bollywood veteran Tabu, recently seen as the mother in The Namesake), an educated modern woman for whom love and marriage Indian style are all but unthinkable. What we see dawning on these proud people as they gaze at each other is a befuddling sense of a possibility they’ve never imagined for themselves. Precisely because that section of the movie is so well executed, there’s a palpable feeling of disappointment when some extraneous Bollywood heart tugging is introduced in the form of a verbally precocious 9-year-old neighbor girl who is dying of leukemia. When the story later travels to India to depict the conflict between Gupta and Nina’s cricket-loving father (who is six years the chef’s junior), Cheeni Kum cleverly toys with its superficial resemblance to the Non-Resident Indian “yuppie” romances of the 1990s. (Here, assimilation is no longer a threat: As a chef who cooks better Indian food than most people in India, Buddha Gupta is an emblematic expat of the globalization era, able to find a niche in a new country without compromising his cultural identity.) This makes the movie interesting to talk about afterward, but not necessarily any more fun to watch. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)

DAY WATCH Part deux of Timur Bekmam­betov’s kinetic Moscow trilogy came with a critics’ goody bag, but it’s going to need a bigger “incentive” than that for me to give you a coherent plot summary for this dizzyingly busy sequel to the equally crowded — and equally adorable — Night Watch. If you’ve spent time in the lively mess that is post-Soviet Moscow, this sci-fi fantasy may strike you as something approaching a realist movie. Once again, the medieval forces of Light and Darkness duke it out on the streets of a Russian capital at once vibrant, alive, and knee-deep in material and symbolic garbage, with an ill-equipped Mod Squad trying to recover an ancient, talismanic stick of chalk, as well as an offspring who’s been repossessed by the enemy. Again, too, the influences are Tarantino, Corman, music video and all number of voluptuaries of early Russian cinema. But for all the vampires and blown-up cars, you’ll see no sadism for the hell of it, only an oddly sweet-tempered mix of hyperbole, understatement and profoundly Slavic philosophizing about guilt, freedom and responsibility. Stay tuned for Dusk Watch, whose Holy Grail will doubtless take the form of a fossilized iPod. (The Landmark; ArcLight) (Ella Taylor)

THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK When fresh-faced former U.S. Marine Brian Steidle traveled to Sudan in 2004, he expected to serve as an international observer to the recently announced cease fire in the troubled African country’s two-decade civil war. Instead, he found himself a witness (and ultimately a whistle-blower) to a new, even deadlier conflict just then erupting in Sudan’s Darfur region, where militias loyal to the predominately Arab government were engaged in a genocide against Darfur’s black African inhabitants. Armed only with a still camera, Steidle recorded the horrific sights that he saw, all the while the U.S. government — in an all-too-predictable case of Rwanda redux — hemmed and hawed about whether or not to intervene. Composed of grueling footage shot in the Darfur combat zone and Steidle’s plainspoken narration, directors Annie Sundeberg and Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came on Horseback offers a remarkable portrait of one man for whom “Save Darfur” became not just a slogan on a T-shirt, but a mission statement emblazoned on his soul. It is also a sickeningly effective call to action that asks how we in the most powerful nation on the planet can, even in the presence of a smoking gun, remain so loath to effect change. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)

 

EGOÏSTE Swiss-born Lotti Latrous did an unexpected thing not quite a decade ago — she left her three children in the care of her Cairo-based husband so that she could open an AIDS hospice in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan. For Latrous, the subject of director Stephen Anspichler’s documentary feature, caring for the shamefully neglected people of Abidjan is a higher calling, one that she says makes her not a saint but an “egoist,” a term she chooses out of the guilt she feels over having abandoned her family. On camera, Latrous ponders questions of faith, duty and familial love, while Anspichler offers wrenching footage of his subject providing a dignified death to horribly emaciated men, women and children. But while Latrous’ self-examination is undeniably authentic, it isn’t enough to sustain a 90-minute film, especially one that offers zero information about Abidjan, who runs it, or how this tragedy came to pass. Instead, the camera holds relentlessly tight to Latrous’ face, even though this remarkable woman would surely be the first to say that, given the context, her story isn’t the one that most needs to be told. (Music Hall) (Chuck Wilson)

GOLDEN DOOR An aural and visual feast, Golden Door is Emanuele Crialese’s poetic tale of a Sicilian peasant family’s emigration at the turn of the 20th century. Winner of the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the fable follows an illiterate farmer (a wonderfully expressive Vincenzo Amato), his mother and two adult sons who, after seeing doctored photographs of money growing on trees and gargantuan vegetables, set their sights on America. Clinging to their meager belongings as tightly as they do their Old World superstitions, they board the ship, shadowed by a mysterious Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Arriving at Ellis Island, bewildered passengers are treated like animals, poked, prodded and interrogated by an assembly line of white-coated doctors intent on weeding out “undesirables.” The film is a portrait gallery of faces, its long stretches of silence broken only by sounds of nature: the braying of donkeys, wind sweeping across rocky hillsides, the moaning of the ship as it lurches forward. With dialogue kept to a minimum, cinematographer Agnès Godard does not disappoint, confirming her status as one of the most extraordinary visual artists working today. (The Landmark) (Jean Oppenheimer)

GRACIE In what could be construed as a very expensive home movie, the Shues (siblings Elisabeth and Andrew, of the proud glares and somewhat less reliable acting ability) rally to tell the story of how soccer saved a family in the wake of an eldest son’s death. Directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), Gracie draws on several aspects of Shue family history, including the death of their older brother and Elisabeth’s determination to play soccer with the boys while growing up in New Jersey in the ’70s. The title character (Carly Schroeder) idolizes older brother and soccer star Will, whose death sends her family, particularly the father and coach (a valiant Dermot Mulroney), into a tailspin. Gracie’s dream is to play on her brother’s soccer team and score the big goal for him, but the men (and The Man) have other ideas. Firing on all formulaic cylinders, Gracie is heavy with tidy meaning and mealy morality; the most dubious idea here is that if you don’t let a girl play soccer, she just may turn to cigarettes, halter tops and sex with the starting forward. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

KNOCKED UP  See film feature

MR. BROOKS Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a successful, happily married Portland businessman who sometimes, on his way home from the office, stops off to kill a few people just for the hell of it. Like any good serial psycho, Mr. Brooks has a signature: After offing his victims, he rearranges their bodies into artful tableaux and applies their bloody thumbprints to a visible surface. So fastidious is he about detail that he’s never been apprehended, despite the efforts of a wealthy heiress (Demi Moore) who moonlights as a homicide detective to reel him in. (No doubt this is because of the sage advice Mr. Brooks receives from his own id, a.k.a. Marshall, played by William Hurt as a kind of snickering, sinister Jiminy Cricket.) Then one night, Mr. Brooks gets careless and gets caught (bloody) red-handed, not by Moore but by an amateur photographer (Dane Cook), who, instead of calling the cops, asks Mr. Brooks if he’ll pretty-please-with-ice-cream-on-top teach him how to be a killer too. Monumentally terrible but far too bizarre to be boring, Mr. Brooks was written by the team of Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (of Cutthroat Island and Jungle 2 Jungle infamy) and directed by Evans, hereby breaking the Kubrickian hiatus that followed his 1992 Christian Slater debacle, Kuffs. The movie has the air of a project that kicked around Hollywood for years earning periodic praise from bleary-eyed script readers duped by its labored quirkiness and from former matinee idols eager to reinvent themselves as brooding method actors. Now it has been financed independently by a bunch of folks (including Costner himself) who really should have known better. You can see the writing on the wall here — literally — right from the hilariously portentous opening epigram: “The hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks’ brain.” At least, unlike pretty much everyone else involved in this lamentable production, he still has one left in his head. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

 

PICK  PAPRIKA Based on a serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, this loopy anime from director Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress) isn’t a movie that’s meant to be understood so much as simply experienced — or maybe dreamed. Here’s what I know for sure (and plotwise, it isn’t much): Our psychotherapist superheroine Paprika, a.k.a. Dr. Atsuko Chiba, learns that her laboratory’s dream machine, the DC-Mini, has gone missing. So she goes looking for the errant device, digitally jacking into her colleagues’ dreams and discovering clues that include menacing geisha dolls and the recurring nightmare of a guilt-ridden police detective — who happens to hate movies. Like the best work of Kon’s compatriots Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Paprika is a film in which, minute to minute, basically anything can happen; the narrative is almost completely unbound. But Kon wouldn’t be his genre’s supreme self-reflexivist if he didn’t insist on revealing frames within the frame — which here include not just characters’ dreams, but movie and laptop screens, plus a Planet Hollywood–esque elevator that stops on floors devoted to Tarzan and James Bond. At once cinephobic and cinephilic, Kon’s heady cure for blockbuster blues couldn’t have come along at a better time. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Rob Nelson)  See film feature

PIERREPOINT – ENGLAND’S LAST HANGMAN See film feature

SHOOTOUT AT LOKHANDWALA After a successful, bloody raid against Pakistani terrorists circa 1991, legendary Mumbai police detective Aftab Ahmed Khan (Sanjay Dutt) creates a new, SWAT-like unit designed to attack the mobsters who are terrorizing the city, transforming crime scenes into free fire zones. Based on actual events, director Apoorva Lakhia’s tumultuous Shootout at Lokhandwala has a neat genre-flick premise that recalls the Johnny To media-circus crime thriller Breaking News: Hundreds of cops surround a downtown apartment building containing six of the city’s most-wanted thugs, while the resulting gun battle becomes a live TV spectacular. The movie is a slapdash piece of work that cries out for a few more weeks of editorial fine-tuning. Worse, it’s morally incoherent: It never decides whether to portray the cops as slo-mo manly heroes or as prisoner-executing fascists. (As a result, they are both and neither.) But Shootout at Lokhandwala may still be a rush for action fans because it never slows down long enough to become even remotely boring. The flamboyant hand of producer Sanjay Gupta, the genre-movie gourmand who directed Kaante and Musafir, is unmistakable in jet-propelled action and chase sequences that feel like the mutant offspring of John Woo and Costa-Gavras. And there are crucial grace notes in the performances: The actress Amrita Singh, a Bollywood vamp in black leather back in the 1980s, does a beautifully creepy turn as the movie’s scariest character, the chief gangster’s mother, whose supportiveness is decidedly unhealthy. Is Sanjay Gupta channeling White Heat here, or did he just get lucky? (Naz 8) (David Chute)

SHOWBUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY Movie buffs who don’t know their way around the Great White Way will be struck by the endless parallels to Hollywood in this Broadway documentary: There are star-powered mega-productions (like the $10 million Taboo, produced by Rosie O’Donnell) and smaller, hipper projects (the $3.5 million Avenue Q); shows designed to draw the largest possible audience (Wicked) and more personal, intellectual ones (Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change). The film’s producer-director Dori Berinstein knows her way around a Broadway show — she’s produced 11 of them, including her latest, Legally Blonde — and her insider status no doubt helped secure behind-the-scenes access as she tracks one season in the life of four musicals. It also explains the unusual level of intimacy between interviewer and subjects, including a sampling of New York’s theater critics, who, unlike their film-watching brethren, have a much stronger influence on the bottom line. Still, their inability to predict the winners at the box office (who would see Avenue Q?) or at the Tonys (what could beat Wicked?) shows Broadway’s inherent unpredictability, which makes for good entertainment in any art form. (The Landmark) (Matt Singer)

 

SIX DAYS Short on insight and artistry, Six Days takes a dry approach to the hottest of conflicts. Detailing 1967’s Six-Day War, Ilan Ziv’s doc reiterates hashed-over history: With an unprepared and outmatched military, Egypt’s Abdel Nasser foolishly forced Israel into battle; rocking an eye patch, Moshe Dayan took every opportunity during the short war to expand Israel’s borders, nabbing east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, pulling back just miles from Damascus. Yes, historical accuracy and collective memory matter, but if there’s one thing the region needs, with the last of Israel’s founding hawks lying comatose in a hospital bed, it’s imagination. Instead, we get the suffocatingly conventional — narrated footage, talking head, repeat — though Six Days does make a strong, likely unintentional argument for people over power: Nasser and Dayan left their citizenry in the dark, wielding strategic misinformation to keep hate alive in the street. Young Diaspora Jews poured into Tel Aviv, eager to help their brethren, who, unbeknownst to anyone but the commanders, didn’t need a hand (Israel’s air force wiped out Egypt’s, Jordan’s and Syria’s capacities in just hours), all as the Egyptians celebrated false news reports of the Jews’ crushing defeat. Four decades later, pan-Arabism has given way to religious fundamentalism and the conflict over land still rages, but the war’s lasting legacy may well be deliberate delusion on both sides. (Grande 4-Plex) (Allison Benedikt)

WHAT THE SNOW BRINGS The exotic hook in this compelling, if conventional, “How you gonna keep them down on the farm?” family drama is the vanishing culture of draft-horse racing as practiced in the frigid northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. Into this provincial milieu of outsize equines, bumptious stable hands and grueling training routines straggles the incongruously well-heeled Manubo, a once-prosperous Internet trader now keeping one step ahead of his creditors. Both a representative modern figure and the biblical archetype of the Prodigal Son, Manubo throws himself on the mercy of his older brother, stable owner Takeo, who has sacrificed personal happiness at the altar of the family business. Such mercy comes with strings attached, as the chastened wastrel is put to work shoveling manure and grooming Unruyu, a Clydesdale champion past his prime and headed for the sashimi factory . . . and yes, the formula begins to smell a bit like Seabiscuit. The saving difference comes in director Kichitaro Negishi’s skill at working a naturalistic setting for its comic — even slapstick — potential, and in cinematographer Hiroshi Machida’s fascination with the stop-and-go spectacle of giant horses struggling through the dirt and over the ever-steepening grades that stand between them and the victory that will buy them one more year of hard conditioning. The racing is more about strength and endurance than about speed — the sparse, cheering crowd at the rail has no trouble keeping ahead of the horses — which makes it a potent symbol for the internal struggles of the film’s essentially, if not immediately, likable characters. (Music Hall) (Ron Stringer)

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