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Movie Reviews: Earth, The Garden, Obsessed

CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE A glue-huffing variant on the gimmick-noir D.O.A., 2006’s Crank was a riotous demonstration of the Actionvore’s Dilemma: The harsher the swill you consume — “swill” in this case meaning an all-you-can-eat strip-bar lunch buffet of mindless splatter, bone-jarring crashes, and beyond-gratuitous T&A — the harder it is to get high. The second time around, squinting at a bar they set themselves for skull-busting dementia, writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor aim for nothing less than permanent synaptic damage. The heart that served Jason Statham’s indestructible Chev Chelios so well in the original is literally yanked from his chest and plugged into a priapic Triad ganglord — David Carradine as “Poon Dong.” (The buckteeth are a classy touch.) That leaves Chev to jump-start his Cost-Cutter synthetic heart with bigger, gnarlier jolts of electricity as he chases down his ticker: jumper cables to the tongue, Taser to the nut sack, high-voltage towers, etc. The diminishing returns of shock value are the movie’s built-in joke, and it would be a lot funnier without the directors’ unforgivably bratty postsexist/postracist/posthuman showboating: It’s a 25-way tie as to which of the women characters (including Amy Smart’s inexplicably loyal girlfriend) is written, treated and photographed with the most contempt. At its most delirious, though, this is the Gremlins 2 of action cinema, ready to split its own seams at any moment with chat-show parodies, meta-manic video-game interludes and Tex Avery–style bloodshed. Call it the most expensive Troma movie ever made, with the Lloyd Kaufman cameo to prove it. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

GO  EARTH A big-screen, family-friendly (well . . . friendlier) version of the enthralling BBC/Discovery series Planet Earth, Earth follows three animal families — polar bears scavenging for food in the High Arctic; elephants trekking across the Kalahari Desert in search of water; a humpback whale and her young calf on their annual 4,000-mile migration — as they struggle to survive the unrelenting harshness of their disparate climates, a task made all the more difficult by a dangerously warming planet (a point repeated subtly throughout the film). State-of-the-art camera equipment captures images of startling clarity and proximity. There isn’t one frame of CGI. (Much of the material appeared in the television series, but 30 percent of the footage is new.) Death always occurs off-camera, but tension levels remain high: A leopard catches a young gazelle, but the camera turns away before the actual kill; the plight of a polar bear is left to the imagination (but proves heartbreaking nonetheless). Lighter moments also abound. Venturing outside their tre house for the first time, Mandarin ducklings test their tiny wings, only to drop straight down onto the ground. Their fall cushioned by a bed of leaves, they pop up and waddle off, none the worse for wear. (Citywide) (Jean Oppenheimer)

FIGHTING Like the Fast and the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider’s view of an illicit underground subculture that comes alive just as the city’s ordinary, decent denizens go to bed. Here, it’s the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club but simply because they enjoy it, or because there’s money to be made. The last is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city, whose pugilistic skills catch the eye of a sweet-talking ticket–scalper-cum–fight-promoter (Terrence Howard). Fighting director Dito Montiel, who won the Sundance directing prize for his erratic but absorbing 2006 debut feature A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie — he’s too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like backstory, character development and narrative tension, and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard (here playing an unholy cross between Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Miyagi) and Tatum (who may be the most sullen and inexpressive leading man this side of Josh Hartnett). So Fighting plays like an exploitation movie that thinks it’s an art movie, with lackluster fight scenes, a grafted-on romance, and no art anywhere to be found. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

GO  THE GARDEN The power of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s 2002 documentary OT: Our Town was in how Kennedy unobtrusively captured the racial tensions at Compton’s Dominguez High School, and in the ways students and faculty used art to celebrate difference, to transcend animosities. In his Oscar-nominated sophomore doc The Garden, power plays unfold along lines of backroom politics, race and poverty; nothing like the elixir of art saves the day. The film follows the years-long struggle over 14 acres of land between Latino farmers, on one hand, and L.A. city government and a powerful businessman on the other. From that David and Goliath setup, filmed in a straightforward style on a shoestring budget, emerge fascinating character studies that underscore both the best and worst of human nature. The farmers coalesce into a formidable political entity; community activists are revealed to be shady power brokers; the embattled turn on one another. What makes the film worth seeing is how Kennedy’s camera captures a complex assortment of real-life personalities and hidden motivations, which are made all the more staggering for being slowly unpeeled (although the film never drags). The Garden makes it clear that, regardless of the battle’s outcome, there is victory in the fact that the farmers fought at all. (Nuart) (Ernest Hardy)

 

GO  IN A DREAM “I’m fascinated by giganticness,” reveals Santa-bearded mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, whose compulsive, nearly half-century-long mission to create candy-colored mazes of fractured tiles, mirror shards, paint and bric-a-brac has covered tens of thousands of Philadelphia’s square feet, including the home Zagar shares with wife, Julia. An inwardly distressed, self-absorbed eccentric who is unafraid to expose himself, both physically and emotionally, Isaiah bluntly admits that he was molested as a boy and attempted suicide in his 20s, and, midway through the film’s production, tells Julia on-camera that he’s been sleeping with his assistant. Where most documentarians would rest on the laurels of a great subject and riveting present-tense drama, director Jeremiah Zagar has observed too much of his father’s creative logic to cheat us with artless hagiography. In dreamily paced tracking shots, macro close-ups, time-lapse glimpses of Isaiah’s processes (the raking together of paint and cement is especially satisfying), archival footage, and animation, In a Dream exhibits as much beauty and sensuality as Isaiah’s work, while the unabashedly personal nature of the filmmaker-subject dynamic is as candid about familial madness as Tarnation, and captures more insight than those Friedmans did. (Music Hall) (Aaron Hillis)

THE INFORMERS The kids are most definitely not all right in The Informers, directed by Gregor Jordan from Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 novel and set in haute Los Angeles during the early years of the Reagan era. With its crass, sleek brand of alienation, the movie might have been shot back then as well. The Informers is mainly a spectacle of privileged, pretty young people (and youthful actors) acting badly. Nights of omnisexual anomie, days of robotic synth-music videos, druggy excess, teenage orgies, and (as this is an ’80s allegory) a virulent mystery infection: Are these kids truly depraved or just fucked up? Bad parents? Too much television? A toxic environment? Playing a tragically married couple of Tinseltown aristos, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger bring a weary measure of taut musculature and grown-up professionalism to the movie. Basinger’s erstwhile ’80s co-star Mickey Rourke is on hand as a dissolute prince of darkness; most lizardly in a leather porkpie hat, an orange tan, and some scraggly facial shrubbery, Rourke elevates the movie’s sleaze count even as he deflects his scenes toward narcoleptic comedy. Winona Ryder provides another odd flashback, in the role of Thornton’s newsgal mistress. In this lurid trash compactor, there’s plenty of incident, but not much plot. (Selected theaters) (J. Hoberman)

LIFELINES The poster for Lifelines slavishly imitates the Daniel Clowes drawing used for Happiness, accurately telegraphing its tabloid-level density of dysfunction (maybe not the wisest marketing move, given Todd Solondz’s bankrupt rep). Though both films feature punching-bag favorite Jane Adams, tyro filmmaker Rob Margolies at least aims for redemption rather than post–p.c. button-pushing in this taxing foray into psychopathological bookkeeping. A Saturday pile-on of therapy sessions for the Bernstein family provides the bleeding heart of the film, as well as its numbing formula of root causes for its characters’ mental makeup. Dad (Josh Pais) shuffles out of the closet, teen Meghan (Dreama Walker) verbally disembowels Mom (Adams) whenever possible, and stuttering eldest Michael (Robbie Sublett) recounts witnessing his smart-mouthed kid brother, Spencer (Jacob Kogan, a.k.a. Joshua), endure the sine qua non experience of suburban-set indies. Despite the switch-off response that this litany may trigger, Pais and Sublett wrestle down a couple of the impossible-to-deliver monologues, and there’s something to the flat, even bored exhaustion behind the traumas. But in addition to the opaque mother character (whose individual session with overwhelmed shrink Joe Morton goes unseen), the film’s befuddling direction and tone, queasy HD interiors and tin-eared, often preposterous screenplay prove disastrous. (Sunset 5) (Nicolas Rapold)

THE MUTANT CHRONICLES Scottish-born director Simon Hunter isn’t obviously related to his postapocalyptic indie actioner’s barrel-chested sergeant Mitch Hunter, though the latter certainly speaks for both of them when he growls: “I’m not paid to believe. I’m paid to fuck shit up.” Thomas Jane self-seriously zings more cheeseball one-liners as the aforementioned protagonist in this ultra-ultraviolent, faux-spiritual adaptation of a popular pen-and-paper role-playing game. (How idea-starved is the movie biz? Candy Land is currently in the works.) At the end of an Ice Age, the year 2707 sucks, as mankind is now ruled by four warring corporations. Amidst the feud — an overeager production designer’s World War I–meets-steampunk hell of grimy noir hues and candy-apple CGI plasma splatters — a long-buried seal is accidentally broken, releasing a near-infallible horde of Necromutants, former humans with bone scimitars for arms and a zombielike bloodlust. If I followed correctly, though a film this monotonous can make you zone out, Mitch and a motley crew of mercenaries (Ron Perlman as a badass monk, Anna Walton as a sword-wielding badass mute, et al.) must destroy “the Machine” to advance to the next video-game level. Our heroes are offed one by one, some shit definitely gets fucked up, and I dearly hope John Malkovich got paid handsomely for his two days of embarrassment on set. (Mann Chinese 6) (Aaron Hillis)

 

OBSESSED How long does it take Sasha to get fierce in this almost-tongue-in-cheek Fatal Attraction retread? Too long — and even after Beyoncé Knowles (who executive-produced, as did her daddy) delivers the promising line “I’ll show you crazy!” to Lisa (Ali Larter), the predatory temp who’s been messing with her asset-manager husband, Derek (Idris Elba), what follows isn’t half as dramatic as what probably went down after she kicked LaTavia and LaToya out of Destiny’s Child. Obsessed is not without its guilty pleasures: Elba taking his shirt off, Christine Lahti’s no-nonsense detective (and her pantsuits). But the film’s anxiety surrounding interracial sex is so high that nothing, except for flirting, actually happens between Derek and Lisa; the white she-devil makes it all up. Even more suspect than Lisa’s skin color is the fact that no one’s yet put a ring on it. “A lot of these single gals see the workplace as their hunting ground,” one of Derek’s colleagues counsels. Where are Sasha and her Fosse dance moves when you need them the most? All my single ladies, now put your hands up: You’re under arrest. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson).

THE SOLOIST An old-fashioned tale for a newfangled world, Joe Wright’s overwrought drama turns on a series of columns begun in 2005 by Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, an old-school vox populi whose writing about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, schizophrenic homeless black man on the city’s Skid Row, drew an outpouring of reader sympathy. Wright, who brought us the ghosts of upper-crust England past with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, seems an odd choice to direct a movie set in the Other Los Angeles, and he vulgarizes Lopez’s intelligent populism. Using local nonpro actors, he pumps up Lopez’s laconically described Skid Row into a Ken Russell hellhole of social outcasts, a florid backdrop for Lopez’s steep learning curve about the man he wants to save from himself. Screenwriter Susannah Grant has turned the happily married Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) into a barely socialized basketcase divorced from his wife and boss (Catherine Keener). Stalwartly resisting the overkill, Downey delivers his lines in a flat mumble that’s astutely complemented by Jamie Foxx, whose beautifully modulated performance as Nathaniel catches the way people with psychotic illnesses slip in and out of rationality. Foxx and Downey’s disciplined duet comes close to redeeming The Soloist from its visual excesses, but Wright leaves us with a parting shot of the dancing homeless that shamelessly exploits the very people he means to champion. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

GO  TYSON Director James Toback’s documentary about former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson isn’t a traditional nonfiction portrait so much as a feature-length interview in which the retired boxer remains front and center for almost the entire running time. The only talking head is his own, albeit one that speaks in multiple, sometimes self-contradictory voices. The movie covers a lot of ground: Even boxing fans who feel they know everything there is to know about Tyson may be surprised by the bracing candor with which he dissects his desire to fight, his penchant for overindulgence, his 1992 rape conviction and the infamous Evander Holyfield bout that ended with part of Holyfield’s ear on the canvas. Toback, a fellow traveler on the path of obsession and desire, wears down the calluses Tyson has built up over decades spent as a media punching bag, taking the ex-fighter explicitly on his own terms, even if those terms are constantly in flux. Much too smart to pretend to give us “the Mike Tyson we never knew” or any similarly reductive postulation, Toback doesn’t come to lionize or to demonize, to goad his subject into a tearful breakdown (though Tyson does cry) or climactic Frost/Nixon apologia. Instead, he gives us Iron Mike in all his monolithic multitudes and allows us, for a brief moment, to peer alongside him into the existential abyss. (ArcLight Hollywood; AMC Century City; Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)


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