Movie Reviews: Death In Love, 500 Days of Summer, Severed Ways


On the heels of his promising 1994 indie debut Fresh, Boaz Yakin delivered a hatefully stacked deck against Orthodox Jewry with A Price Above Rubies (1998). Then he went to Hollywood, and, by his own self-lacerating account, sold out. As it turns out, the workmanlike Uptown Girls and Remember the Titans were masterpieces of cinema compared with this misbegotten retreat into self-financed auteurism. Not since Liliana Cavani’s epically stupid The Night Porter has a filmmaker so wantonly ripped off the Holocaust for the unsavory purpose of strutting his unprocessed sadomasochistic fantasies. Yakin is a slick director of actors, which means that Jacqueline Bisset and Josh Lucas are disconcertingly good as a New York Jewish mother destroyed by a long-ago concentration camp affair with a Nazi doctor, and the charming but feckless son poisoned by her baleful influence. Masquerading as brave provocation, Death in Love is an incoherent stew of twisted sex, diabolical surgery, existential despair and oedipal rage, punctured by feeble excursions into genre with the absurd arrival of an elderly stranger given to throwing men off tall buildings. Someday, a wise and potent film will be made about the Holocaust’s legacy on succeeding generations. Posing as a study in evil, Death in Love is claptrap that confuses bile with art. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

Seemingly similar to most factory-made rom-coms, former music-video director Marc Webb’s first feature is actually far less interested in the will-they-or-won’t-they and more concerned with the why-can’t-they. Its lovers — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, natch — are perfect for each other, yet are perhaps still not meant to be. He is forever in search of his soulmate, influenced by too much mid-’80s Britpop and an incorrect reading of The Graduate’s finale. She insists she’s looking only for a commitment-free good time, no doubt the result of a childhood spent being the object of everyone’s affection. Webb, working from a screenplay by the men responsible for The Pink Panther 2, employs a storytelling gimmick to render his movie palatably unconventional. The director introduces us to Tom and Summer mid-breakup, then takes us back to the moment when they share their first glance, then back and forth and back and forth and beyond, till each glimpse is recontextualized and thus reconsidered. Very Sundance-y. But the real surprise of (500) Days of Summer isn’t the presentation — this isn’t exactly Steven Soderbergh or Alejandro González Iñárritu territory here. It’s more like a love story in a blender. What is unexpected is the sincerity beneath the modest conceit that, yup, love hurts. (AMC Century 15; The Landmark; Arclight Hollywood; The Grove) (Robert Wilonsky)

Either director Morgan J. Freeman (Hurricane, DesertBlue) has said his piece on the subject of young-adult dysfunction, or he’s just a hack for hire on this creaky boilerplate of a bad seed thriller, written by Katie L. Fetting with a seemingly insatiable appetite (“Look what you made me do”) for genre cliché. If nothing else, Homecoming should effectively squelch any movie-star ambition on the part of Mischa Barton, though the camera is more than usually attentive to her cleavage. Barton alternately glares and simpers as Shelby, a small-town barkeep so incensed by the return of her ex (Matt Long) with his shiny new girlfriend (Jessica Stroup) that she will stop at nothing — nothing! — to repossess her athlete hero. Glued together with shards from much better movies, the humorless plot offers no mystery about who’s doing what to whom, or why. Behind every bad girl is a rotten mother; beneath every good girl is a vengeful tiger; and I’d call misogyny were it not for the fact that the script takes such a dim view of all the characters, including the drippy object of the catfight, a hometown hero so dull of wit and void of spark that you have to wonder why the ladies bothered in the first place. (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

Old wounds run deep through the gritty directorial debut of actress Lori Petty. The Poker House tells the story of Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence), a sardonic teenager explicitly based on Petty, who behaves like Juno tossed into darker, more realistic settings. Agnes and her younger sisters Bee and Cammie reside in the eponymous whorehouse together with their strung-out mother (Selma Blair in a performance precariously poised on the edge of camp), presided over by pimp Duval (an excellent Bokeem Woodbine). For all its claims to stark realism, the film alternates schizophrenically between romance, melodrama, black comedy and blacker tragedy, playing like a fragmented reel of Petty’s childhood memories. The first hour follows the three sisters through a day in their bleak lives, spiced up occasionally by quirky characters such as co-writer David Alan Grier’s incomprehensibly strange local drunk. Despite the jumbled structure and tone, Petty avoids most of the artistic flourishes that sidetrack many indie debuts — save for some desperately poetic narration from Agnes. The film’s final third abandons the two younger sisters to focus on a tragic turning point in Agnes’ life, and almost redeems the pedestrian hour which precedes it. The Poker House is one of the most personal, wounded films in years. That it is also one of the most confused reflects how deeply it springs from the psyche of its director. (Monica 4-Plex) (John Wheeler)


Most news reports about last month’s disputed election in Iran made mention of the late shah, but few if any mentioned the shah’s wife, Farah, who, as we learn in Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s first-person documentary The Queen and I, is alive and well and living in Paris. Thirty years after the revolution she watched unfold, Farah remains unapologetic about her husband’s reign — and this brief, intimate(ish) glimpse of her life is a meditation not just on the deposed Pahlavi dynasty but on the ability of monarchs to understand their subjects. Sarvestani was once one of those subjects: a poor communist and active participant in the 1979 Islamic revolution. What connects the two women today is years of exile and loss (Sarvestani fled after hardliners seized power in Tehran). In the course of the film’s 90 minutes, the filmmaker and queen forge an odd friendship — imagine Alexandra Romanov, had she escaped the Bolsheviks, teaming up to write a book with Leon Trotsky. The documentary is stylistically straight-forward, but Sarvestani makes the most of her limited time with a fascinating subject. Her access to Farah is what gives the film heft, so she wisely includes the drama of her own diplomatic chess moves to keep the cameras rolling — and her internal struggle to keep the film from becoming a flattering, royalist puff piece. The result is never less than an uneasy mix of journalism, memoir and docu-soap (“Stay tuned as sparks fly when the queen and former Marxist rebel go shopping!”), but it certainly is timely. Like its royal subject, The Queen and I is charming, elusive, frustrating and not easily forgotten. (Downtown Independent) (James C. Taylor)

GO SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA Werner Herzog meets Monty Python in writer-director-actor Tony Stone’s dreamy, deadpan saga — set to the thumping strains of Popul Vuh, Judas Priest, Morbid Angel and more — of (mostly) sublimated erotic obsession in the Old New World. Left for carrion on the shores of Newfoundland, a pair of lumbering, heavy-helmeted Viking warriors, identified in the credits as Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) and Orn (Stone), crash their way through to the forest primeval, killing lots of trees and Indians and smaller critters along the way (and, in one indelible moment, practicing the primitive rudiments of hair guitar). Despite some atrocious table manners and a brief if explosive bout with irregularity, all goes swimmingly — until, that is, Volnard encounters a pretty-footed Irish monk with conversion on his mind. Sparks fly, swords flash, and, for one hushed moment, the giggling subsides. A must-see. (Sunset 5) (Ron Stringer)

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s alarming Tony Manero — set in the dark days of the Pinochet regime and named not for its protagonist but rather his ego ideal, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever — is a study of a cinema-struck, solitary daydreamer in which an unsmiling 50-ish madman nurtures fanatical Bee Gees–fueled fantasies of disco glory. Played with total focus by stage actor Alfredo Castro (who co-wrote the screenplay), Raúl Peralta attends his favorite movie as if it were Sunday mass — sometimes bringing along his talismanic white suit as though it, too, needed to study Travolta’s moves. Raúl not only internalizes Tony’s version of the American Dream but he also memorizes Tony’s lines for use in the four-actor version of Saturday Night Fever he’s staging in a grungy Santiago cantina. Raúl’s obsession is complemented by a total disinterest in any human contact. Indifferent to Pinochet’s police state, this ferretlike wannabe stops at nothing in his quest to be Chile’s Tony Manero. He violently appropriates an elderly lady’s color TV, spontaneously rips up the cantina to create space for a glass-tile floor, runs amok when he discovers that the theater he frequents has replaced Saturday Night Fever with Grease, and, most grotesquely, befouls a rival impersonator’s white suit. Feasting on this bizarre fascist posturing, Larrain suggests that, with his sordid charisma, Raúl is a miniature Pinochet — reproducing the brutality of the state in his willingness to steal, exploit, betray and kill in the service of a fantasy. (Music Hall) (J. Hoberman)


The studios continue to dilute the meaning of “Asia Extreme,” and self-serious commercial pap like this Westernized fraud makes Dragonball: Evolution seem like high art. Korean actress Gianna Jun (formerly Jeon Ji-hyun, star of My Sassy Girl) is given little to do beyond titillating fanboys. She plays a 400-year-old Japanese half-vampire who works with a covert council to hunt other bloodsuckers in her ageless form as an undercover schoolgirl. As enticing as “Blade meets 21 Jump Street” might sound, Kiss of the Dragon hack Chris Nahon’s live-action adaptation of a 2001 cult anime film is unexciting, incoherent, lamely acted, and carelessly written. Slick wire-fu spectacles come courtesy of a Crouching Tiger producer, while the clunky monsters are Ray Harryhausen throwbacks, and the movie’s incessant, cheaply produced CGI splatters look like oil geysers. There will be blood, yes, because you, too, will be ready to fall on your samurai sword. (Aaron Hillis)


“For the first time in my life, I felt morally certain of having written a novel for which I need neither blush nor doubt,” Colette said of Chéri, her 1920 novel of the Belle Époque Parisian demimonde. Stephen Frears’s anemic adaptation, written by Christopher Hampton (who also folds in 1926’s The Last of Chéri), would most likely make the author nod off or plug her ears. Chéri, the most celebrated of Colette’s male characters, is a louche 19-year-old millionaire played by Rupert Friend, acting opposite Michelle Pfeiffer as Lea, a courtesan d’un certain âge who has a six-year affair with the insolent androgyne until he’s married off. Frears and Hampton’s missteps begin immediately, with the director providing pinched narration as he recounts, over so many cartes de visite, the histories of other famous ladies who made a handsome living on their backs. It’s the first of innumerable auditory assaults, continuing with Alexandre Desplat’s frantic score and the clash of English and American accents (especially puzzling in the scenes with Brit Friend and Kathy Bates as his retired-prostie mother). Pfeiffer, uncertain how to convey the older, wiser erotomane, resorts to sounding like Samantha Jones auditioning for Masterpiece Theater, her décolletage the only part of this movie getting any air. (M.A.)

Quick! Noel Coward: sage or supercilious bitch? No matter where you stand, Stephan Elliott’s deliciously cheeky screen adaptation of one of the satirist’s lesser-known jabs at the British upper crust will charm your pants off. The movie opens with a contemporary rendition of Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” impressively sung by Jessica Biel, her customary luminous self as a Roaring Twenties American race car driver who marries into British aristocracy and finds herself on the losing end of a war of words with the groom’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Though Elliott, director of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, gussies up the action with clever and lyrical visuals, words are what count in this scantily plotted piece (hard to believe that Hitchcock made a silent version in 1928), a light variant on Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan with the same libertarian message that the morally compromised inherit the earth while the self-righteous wither on the vine. A uniformly great cast (Kris Marshall is a scream as the eye-rolling butler) is upstaged by a hilariously WASP-ish Thomas, who strides away with the movie wearing sensible cardies, QE II hair, and all the best lines as Mummy Dearest, with Colin Firth modestly bringing up the rear as her war-ruined lush of a husband. Easy Virtue may seem like little more than a big, fat mother-in-law joke, but Elliott pointedly recasts it as a nail in the coffin of an increasingly irrelevant gentry. (E.T.)

Chuck Close calls them the mascots of the art world. Christo and Jeanne-Claude once offered them a drawing in exchange for taking care of their cat, Gladys, for a summer. The passion for minimalist and conceptual art that aging Manhattan collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel have shared for nearly a half-century is sweet—if obsessive enough for a 12-step program—and has yielded one of the world’s major contemporary collections on a modest income. How did a retired postal clerk and librarian manage to accumulate thousands of important works (Picasso, Pollack, Schnabel), particularly when one of their buyers’ rules of thumb is that everything must fit in their rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment? Former journalist Megumi Sasaki’s warmhearted celebration of these adorable do-gooders—shot as the Vogels negotiated with the National Gallery of Art to take their collection for free (as one artist notes, asking the couple to sell even a single piece is like asking him to cut off a square yard from his painting)—cements their significance to the art world and introduces them to the rest of us. With no curatorial training beyond an instinctual “We like what we like,” watching the Vogels mull over art without fully understanding it only makes their delight more infectious. (A.H.)


Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days), the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker is a full-throttle body shock of a movie. It gets inside you like a virus, puts your nerves in a blender, and twists your guts into a Gordian knot. Set during the last month in the year-long rotation of a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad, it may be the only film made about Iraq that gives us a true sense of what it feels like to be on the front lines. It’s an experiential war movie, but also a psychologically astute one, matching its intricate sensory architecture with an equally detailed map of the modern soldier’s psyche. The Hurt Locker belongs to that subset of Bigelow’s work devoted to the ethos of hyper-masculine communities and the men who emerge as their leaders. Staff Sergeant William James (the brilliant Jeremy Renner) is one such character—a secular god with a penchant for reckless bravado who inspires equal amounts of envy and contempt in the men under his command. Some have heralded Bigelow’s film as an “apolitical” war movie, which is really a way of saying that it arrives mercifully free of ham-fisted polemics. Instead of setting out to prove a point, it seeks to immerse us in an environment—something Bigelow does as well as any director at work today. (S.F.)

The Bollywood-gone-Hollywood Kambakkht Ishq makes a convincing argument that the problem with comparably cheesy American romantic comedies is that while they’re equally predictable and manipulative, they don’t have enough fun. Los Angeles stuntman Viraj (Akshay Kumar) is a lady-killing stud who is about to encounter the one woman immune to his machismo: Simrita (Kareena Kapoor), a jaw-droppingly beautiful young surgeon who (get this) used to model professionally to earn enough money to pay for medical school. Director Sabir Khan treats Simrita’s ludicrous backstory with the same straight-faced delight that he approaches the rest of Kambakkht Ishq’s rampant foolishness, making for a sexy, dopey film that believes that all you need for an entertaining night out are copious amounts of dancing, singing, broad clowning, and gorgeous people. The upscale L.A. locations occasionally lend this romantic comedy the look and materialistic worldview of a rap video, and at nearly two and a half hours, Kambakkht Ishq struggles to maintain its ferociously ebullient tone. But neither extraneous subplots nor awkward (yet improbably crucial) cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards can keep Kumar and Kapoor from charming the audience as thoroughly as they beguile each other. Be warned: You are going to hate yourself for falling for a film this shameless in its attempts to win you over. (Tim Grierson)

The so-called Bollywood strike that has kept new Indian commercial movies off international screens for the past two months was more like a lockout. Exhibitors on the new urban “multiplex” circuit demanded a larger percentage of the gross, and the major production companies retaliated by withholding their masterpieces. It’s a wonder the home audience is still willing to put up with these tantrum-throwers, especially when the hiatus is broken by the likes of Kabir Khan’s New York, a predictable, brow-furrowing drama (sadly songless except for a couple of Sunday-in-the-park montage sequences) about the effects of 9/11 on some South Asian immigrants living in New York. At the outset, the movie promises something much more interesting, when Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a Manhattan cab company owner, is framed on a weapons charge and blackmailed by the feds into cozying up to a suspected terrorist. The rub is that, a decade ago, the accused sleeper cell organizer, Samir (John Abraham), was Omar’s closest college chum, and is now happily married to Maya (Katrina Kaif), the paragon whose romantic choice broke Omar’s heart. When the couple invites Omar into their home, the atmosphere should be an emotional maze worthy of Hitchcock—or, at least, De Palma. Quite apart from the fact that none of these performers is capable of smoldering with conviction, there’s no terror or sensuality in director Khan’s images. He’s a specialist in redundant visual prose, in underlining the obvious. (David Chute)

Soul Power documents the three-day music festival that accompanied the iconic 1974 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match in Zaire. Culled by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte from over 125 hours of footage that was shot by Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Roderick Young, and Albert Maysles, and then relegated to the vaults after director Leon Gast didn’t use it in his Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, Soul Power features performances by Celia Cruz, the Spinners, Fania All-Stars, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, and more. The concerts were meant to be a cultural exchange between African and African-American musicians (the late, great Cruz fiercely reps Cuba in a movie-stealing number), but were briefly imperiled after a Foreman eye injury forced a postponement of the fight. When finally mounted, the shows became the stuff of pop culture folklore. Given the ferocious power of many of the artists, and the dreary state of modern Black pop (the recent death of Michael Jackson, not to mention Vibe, only underscoring the situation), Soul Power itself might well be subtitled When We Were Kings. (Ernest Hardy)


For those ambivalent about whether stoning women to death is an cruel punishment or not, here’s The Stoning of Soraya M., a dutifully plodding if watchable dramatization of a real, particularly appalling application of sharia law in small-town Iran. Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) refuses to divorce abusive husband Ali (Navid Negahban), because he won’t leave her enough money to feed her children, so he teams up with their village’s mullah to start a rumor that she’s committing adultery, punishable by death. Events take their inevitable course, with Soraya’s BFF (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) narrating, and Soraya gets to live out the title in a bloody and prolonged sequence reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ—which is appropriate, since Jim Cavaziel pops up here, speaking creditable Farsi as the journalist who blows the whole thing up. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh gives the proceedings more flair than is usual for the explicitly didactic: If his ideas (the camera rocketing on the stones thrown at Soroya, as if they were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ arrows all over again) are bad, at least he’s trying. But this is basically self-congratulatory fare for people who feel more “politically conscious” when reminded that women in the Islamic world can have it rough. Right now, you’re better off just watching the news. (Vadim Rizov)

AP Photo hall-of-famer Eddie Adams is a textbook immortal for one Pulitzer frame: his snap of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s expedient point-blank execution of a Viet Cong captive. Director Susan Morgan Cooper’s tribute to Adams embellishes on original interview footage of the man, who died in 2004, seen here perambulating near his East Village studio. What comes across is a professional, self-effacing, and no B.S. guy. (Disappointed by a charity book collaboration with Caroline Kennedy: “Speak Truth to Power? What the fuck does that mean?”) The shame is that there isn’t enough candid Adams to quite fill out a film. Infinitely more interesting than listening to antiwar platitudes from the likes of Morley Safer is watching Adams negotiate with his own conscience and an empathy for cut losses that bypasses political righteousness—for the retired Gen. Loan (over his perceived demonization of whom Adams carried a burden of guilt), for the Vietnamese boat people of his 1977 photo essay, and so on. The drama, inevitably, slackens when documenting Adams’s move off the war-of-the-week beat to paychecking for the likes of Penthouse and Parade. No slight to Cooper—aside from some misguided musical cues, this is solid work, if essentially PBS/American Masters material. That said, watching oblivious Lilliputian “rocker” Dave Navarro show off his mural of the famous execution (“a reminder of human suffering”) for some Cribs cameraman is pretty priceless. (N.P.)

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