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Movie Reviews: Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Iron Cross, The Young Victoria

Jeff Bridges and his Crazy Heart

GO  CRAZY HEART Yesterday’s honky-tonk hero, Bad Blake, arrives at a Clovis, New Mexico, bowling alley. It’s another in a string of low-paying, low-turnout gigs with pickup bands half his age, grinding the Greatest Hits out of an old Fender Tremolux, including his breakout — with the chorus, “Funny how falling feels like flying ... for a little while.” Bad’s not flying these days; he’s dying slowly on a bourbon diet, holed up in motels, watching Spanish-language smut. Actor-turned-writer-director Scott Cooper adapted Crazy Heart from Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel (the title is a Hank Williams B-Side). Cobb wanted Waylon Jennings for Bad Blake; Jeff Bridges got the part, though the now-deceased Jennings and Bad’s other inspirations hang over it. It’s easy to forget, as Billboard’s Country charts fill with faintly twangy pop and lazy paeans to dogs and trucks, that this music has an atavistic darkness. Bad has just about bottomed out when a small-time journalist, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), meets him for a rare interview — and sticks around. Crazy Heart follows the slow recovery of atrophied emotional responses, which starts when Bad gets involved with Jean and her young son. The subject, rehabilitation, is old and resonant. (Says Waylon: “We’ve been the same way for years/We need to change.”) No scene feels obligatory, and Crazy Heart shows a pragmatic but tender understanding of the relationship between physical breakdown and the discovery of morality. It’s merely a well-done, adult American movie — that is to say, a rarity. (ArcLight Hollywood; AMC Century City)

GO  DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? Let’s be honest here: Did You Hear About the Morgans? is multiplex meringue compared to the meat-and-potatoes cinema at this most award-whoring time of year. Which is fine. Better than fine, frankly, as Hugh Grant yet again proves he’s the most reliable deadpan smart-ass this or that side of the Atlantic — and the actor Paul Rudd should aspire to be once he grows out of his bromantic period. Grant’s Paul Morgan is a Manhattan attorney who, along with his estranged wife (Sarah Jessica Parker as New York’s real estate goddess), witnesses a murder, is forced by U.S. Marshals into a relocation program, and learns how to love again. Their destination: Ray, Wyoming, where they share a log cabin with the sheriff (Sam Elliott and his mustache) and his deputy missus (Mary Steenburgen). At which point the comedy turns blue — as in, blue state versus red state, “real America” versus the one populated by liberal vegetarian New Yorkers and Brits who are probably real Jewish, too. While the story never strays from its formula (how will these battling Bickersons find love again after all that betrayal and ... oh, look, a bear’s chasing Grant!), it’s a thoroughly delightful throwaway — the kind of movie for which cable TV was made. Marc Lawrence writes and directs — as he did for Grant’s Music and Lyrics — and he sure knows his way ’round a snappy tune. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

DON’T FADE AWAY was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at laweekly.com/movies. (Music Hall)

FALL DOWN DEAD A straightforward, old-fashioned exploitation movie, replete with the usual gratuitous sex scene featuring no-name actors, gory set pieces and some clever stunt casting, Fall Down Dead is reasonably entertaining if unexceptional. Dominique Swain is the damsel in distress, Udo Kier the art-crazy serial killer, and the late David Carradine a comic-relief security guard; if this movie receives any notoriety at all, it will likely be for the fact that Carradine’s character meets his demise in a manner that’s uncomfortably similar to real life. Shooting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (which apparently has a Figueroa Street — who knew?), director John Keeyes (an Oscar nominee for the short Angela’s Body, and a maker of direct-to-DVD thrillers ever since) swiftly traps us in a downtown building during rolling blackouts, as a madman with a straight razor and love of Picasso corners a group of unlikely stragglers, none of whom — not even the plainclothes cops — seems to know how to use a gun properly. An unsatisfactory ending setting up for a sequel that will never happen is the most significant sour note; otherwise, there’s little here worth paying full price for or getting too upset about — unless you’ve read the press kit that tries to compare this schlock to Hitchcock. (Music Hall) (Luke Y. Thompson)

GO  HOME The opening scenes of Home — a nighttime game of street hockey, a bathing session that turns into a five-way splash fight — establish the anarchic sense of play that defines the interactions of the film’s central family, while the casual nudity on display hints at the vaguely incestuous tensions in this uniquely insular clan. The rest of Ursula Meier’s confident, appealingly bizarre debut feature subjects these tensions to the hothouse environment of a self-willed isolation. When the five members of the family find their remote domestic paradise invaded by the reopening of the abandoned highway adjacent to their house, they resort to increasingly lunatic measures to block out the noise — it’s but a small step from earplugs to bricking up their house entirely. Eventually, paranoia and open hostility set in as a family defined from the start by too great a sense of closeness is forced into even closer proximity. Working with all-star DP Agnès Godard, Meier effectively communicates the sense of upended privacy, moving easily from the nighttime intrusion of brightly clad construction workers (the eye-straining oranges and yellows of their uniforms registering as a truly alien presence) to the incongruous sight of Isabelle Huppert tending her garden as blurry streaks of traffic zip by. (Monica 4-Plex) (Andrew Schenker)

 

IRON CROSS was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at laweekly.com/movies. (Town Center 5)

THE LIGHTKEEPERS was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at laweekly.com/movies. (Music Hall)

GO  MY SON, MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE Although based on the true story of an unstable actor, who, cast as Orestes in Sophocles’ Electra, so identified with the role that he actually killed his mother, Werner Herzog’s wacky My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done plays as one long, shaggy jape. Local police are coping with a situation in suburban San Diego: A matricidal maniac, Brad McCullum (played with total conviction by a glowering Michael Shannon), is holed up in the family ranch house with a couple of hostages. Brad’s clueless fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), sits around sipping coffee and regaling an absurdly solicitous detective (Willem Dafoe) with tales of Brad’s lunacy. Flashbacks show him ragging on his late mother (pop-eyed Grace Zabriskie, a favorite creature of executive producer David Lynch) and making a scene at the local naval hospital, where the staff objects to his plan to comfort the afflicted with embroidered gift-shop pillows. From time to time, Ingrid is spelled as a raconteur by Brad’s erstwhile director (Herzog’s countryman Udo Kier, amusingly epicene in his mimed concern). Non sequiturs proliferate — particularly on the family ostrich farm run by Brad’s uncle (Brad Dourif). Everything about this berserk, essentially static procedural is just crazy enough to be true. In any case, Herzog has gone beyond Good and Evil to reinvent himself as a candidate for the wiggiest director of comedy in America today. (Downtown Independent) (J. Hoberman)

OCEAN OF PEARLS Just saying “No” to the injustices of the American health system leads directly to spiritual enlightenment in this heartfelt but simplistic drama from first-time director Sarab S. Neelam, a practicing physician who is also a Sikh. Neelam’s stand-in in Ocean of Pearls is Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi), a brilliant doctor with lofty ethical standards, buff biceps and a turban that generates dirty looks from goons at airports and outdoor cafés. When Singh is lured from the civilized surroundings of Toronto to the big, bad U.S. of A., the hunky, sensitive surgeon immediately finds himself butting heads with incompetent doctors and greedy insurance companies. Worst of all are the corrupt hospital administrators, who strongly suggest that ditching the turban and cutting his religiously dictated shoulder-length hair is the best way to win friends and influence people in a post–9/11 world. Ocean of Pearls’ well-meaning but thoroughly predictable scenario asks a series of heavy-handed questions with easy answers. Will Dr. Singh shear his luxurious locks or hold his head high to the tune of a David Crosby anthem? Will Singh stick with the sexy American administrator with whom he’s been flirting or return to the nice Sikh girl back home? Will he succumb to the moral bankruptcy of a sick, soulless system or rediscover his roots, reconcile with his strong but silent Sikh dad and find true inner peace and happiness? Rest assured that all is resolved with a minimum of muss, fuss and imagination. (Sunset 5) (Lance Goldenberg)

PUNCTURED HOPE “Trokosi” translates as “brides of God,” but in cruel practice it means the ritual enslavement of young virgins in West Africa. Filmed on location in Ghana, Punctured Hope aims to both dramatize and denounce this horror, which thrives to this day. Director Bruno Pischiutta — known in Italy for his politically engaged, provocative theater work — uses nonprofessional actors to reenact the true story of Belinda Siamey, who plays herself. At age 13 (she is now 23), Siamey — a top student planning on a university education — was forcibly surrendered by her family as a virgin sacrifice extorted by local priests to settle an uncle’s debt, an ordeal (genital mutilation; relentless rape) carefully related here in words, not pictures. The acting, sad to say, is stagey and amateurish to the point of often painful distraction (despite our ready sympathy for what Siamey suffered), while the didactic dialogue — styled to make sure we’re never lost as to what this or that custom means — is further hampered by the actors having to speak it in English instead of their native Ewe. Despite such near-fatal drawbacks, Punctured Hope fulfills the stated ambitions of Pischiutta and producer Daria Trifu to teach and inspire discussion. The black-magic ceremonies we witness aren’t slick Hollywood numbers but the stuff as it is lived. The same is true of Siamey’s performance. Initially, when playing herself as “innocent,” she overacts, but as she undergoes catastrophe and (in a moving directorial choice) addresses us directly, what she lived through pierces the heart. (Monica 4-Plex) (F.X. Feeney)

 

GO  UNDER THE EIGHTBALL Angry passion and visual high energy define this extraordinary muckraking documentary. The anger and rage that ignite it stem from the puzzling illness that overtakes Lori Hall-Steele, sister of Timothy Grey, who co-directed the film with Breanne Russell. At first, the diagnosis would seem to be chronic fatigue, but the symptoms (muscle failure, paralysis) begin to wildly contradict each other, alternately suggesting lupus, Lou Gherig and Lyme disease. Hall-Steele’s doctors mask their cluelessness in smug tones; one even tells her, “Everybody dies.” More infuriating are the indifference and outright hostility of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality when Grey discovers a freakish outbreak of identical illness in the area, one that aligns with the high degree of toxins in the local well water. This would be powerful, galling stuff in itself, but instead of limiting Under the Eightball to one woman’s plight, Grey and Russell instead confront the history of Lyme disease and its origins in the U.S. government’s decades of medical experiments (using captured Nazi and Japanese scientists) to develop biological warfare. These experiments were practiced on all of us, Grey and Russell assert, and they make a persuasive case. What might have been dull charts and talking heads are instead clever reenactments and quick cuts, with key words and footnotes superimposed in well-chosen graphics. A wealth of information is thereby processed in kinetic leaps, yet we are never lost. Grey and his sister were born and raised in Flint, Michigan, which makes it tempting to reference Flint’s other native documentarian, Michael Moore, with whom they share a crusading ferocity. Such glib comparisons burn away fast, however: The heartbreak that informs the universal reach of Under the Eightball is uniquely personal. (Sunset 5)

THE YOUNG VICTORIA Man, British heritage cinema can be dull and boring when assembly-lined for the export market. Laboring under lamp-shade millinery, hair that looks like cake, and more sumptuous banqueting than we should ever have to sit through, Emily Blunt is cute, sassy and wildly improbable as the titular majesty-in-waiting, who, in life, was a short, dumpy policy wonk and energetic social reformer. Biding her time to get out from under her vixen mother (Miranda Richardson, as always) and manipulative adviser, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany, a perpetually raised eyebrow), who wages war with other pols over her head, the willful young minx makes eyes across the water at hubby-to-be Albert (Rupert Friend, a total stiff well-cast for once as the earnest Teuton who would sire nine children with Victoria). Sagging beneath reams of expository dialogue by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the far naughtier Gosford Park, The Young Victoria reproduces the premise of The Queen (she outsmarts her worldlier advisers) with none of that movie’s cheek or verve. Plodding from one brocaded talkathon to the next, director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) makes an unannounced left turn into action with a slow-mo assassination attempt that looks like a commercial for something, then proceeds, as planned, to the inevitable nuptial hour. (The Grove; AMC Century City) (Ella Taylor)


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