Movie Reviews: Encounters at the End of the World, Finding Amanda, Wanted

Chuck Hodes

GO  ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD Werner Herzog has made a career documenting extreme landscapes and courting danger. Encounters at the End of the World chronicles his trip to Antarctica, and, perhaps because the director is approaching old-master status, skews toward the observational. Taking a military plane out of New Zealand, Herzog ponders his fellow travelers, wondering who they are and what they dream. As discovered (or scripted), the U.S. settlement at McMurdo Sound is populated by an assortment of geeks, vagabonds and loners. Herzog soon escapes to a research camp, where he is delighted to find a physicist engaged in a spiritual quest, searching for almost undetectable subatomic particles in a parallel universe. Herzog takes care to inoculate himself against New Age sentimentality and avoids feel-good anthropomorphism. Although not specifically mentioned, his bête noire is March of the Penguins. When he does visit penguin land, Herzog asks a painfully diffident scientist: “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? Could they just go crazy because they’ve had enough of their colony?” Before the scientist can answer, the filmmaker cuts to a single bird waddling away from its colleagues toward the interior mountains and, as Herzog notes, certain death. Herzog may loathe the projection of human attributes onto the animal kingdom, but he’s managed to find an antihero: There’s no mistaking his point that the doomed, irrational creature is us. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

Chuck Hodes



EXPIRED Despite Expired’s many flaws, give writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi points for gamely tackling an almost unworkable conceit in her romantic-comedy debut: the awkward courtship of two thoroughly incompatible people. Homely, withdrawn Claire (doe-eyed Samantha Morton) leads a dull life as a Santa Monica meter maid, until she attracts the attention of Jay (Jason Patric), a fellow parking official whose two most notable features are his bushy mustache and his raging paranoid misanthropy. Miniucchi intentionally refuses to justify the unlikely spark between her characters, and, consequently, Expired is a peculiar (though never dull) experiment that keeps its narrative momentum revving by continually asking: “What horrible thing can Jay do to Claire next?” Patric’s performance is a less-mannered variation on his sexist swine from Your Friends & Neighbors, and he manages to make Jay’s struggle to be both a pig and a worthy soul mate oddly honorable. But Morton has a harder time with the material’s snide tone, and it’s impossible to overlook Miniucchi’s condescending attitude toward her supposedly lovable losers. Expired pretends to be a valentine to society’s outcasts, but it’s just one more indie comedy that mocks its characters while sucking up to its knowing audience, assuring all of us hip urbanites that the romantic insecurities of “weirdos” don’t deserve our sympathy. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)


GO  FINDING AMANDA Drop a gambler into Las Vegas and of course he’ll lose his shirt, but the how and why of it remain underexplored even after — dare I say because of? — Leaving Las Vegas. In its modest but incisive way, Peter Tolan’s jaunty comedy highlights everything that was self-indulgent, grandiose and false about that overrated movie. As addicts go, second-tier television writer Taylor Peters (Matthew Broderick, roly-poly and wry) is low-key and small potatoes in everything but the dough he fritters away while trying to win back his long-suffering wife (Maura Tierney). This he attempts by traveling to Sin City to drag his niece (a terrific Brittany Snow), a seemingly happy and house-proud hooker, to rehab. Written and directed with brio and rueful firsthand knowledge of his subject by Tolan, executive producer of the acclaimed TV series Rescue Me, the movie never falls into the jargon of denial or sets us morally above its quietly hapless protagonist. Instead, Finding Amanda puts us inside the deluded but impregnable inner logic Taylor sustains from one self-inflicted calamity to the next. By keeping the tone light and the players human (Steve Coogan has a nice turn as a greasy casino host), and never, ever romanticizing the addict, Finding Amanda comes by its heartbreak honestly. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)


GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT Gunnin’ concerns a phenomenon proliferated by the broadband age: premature national-sports stardom at the high-school level. The destination point of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s doc is the Elite 24 invitational game, a stop-off along the way to the NBA for two dozen of America’s top teenage hoops ­phenoms, dropped in Harlem’s Rucker Park to dunk for the New York media. The venerable spinning-headline montage gets its update as the eight highlighted kids are introduced by piled-up browser windows (DraftTracker, and pixelated YouTube highlight reels. But as each player is run through the same routine, the burden of the formulaic structure starts to wear. Exacerbating the monotony are the subjects, who meld into an amorphous portrait of a “good kid” trying to “elevate his game” and “keep his nose clean.” They’re more articulate with a ball, leaving Yauch to mythologize his HS Titans in NBA Jams largesse, every pass soundtracked as incoming ordnance, with the wide-angle lenses placed under each hoop creating funhouse distortion and the illusion of an acre-long court. (Broadway 4) (Nick Pinkerton)



KICKING IT Vagrants apparently don’t need a home address to feel a patriotic duty to their homeland, or so attests Susan Koch’s goodhearted but artless ESPN-presented doc on the people who competed in the 2006 fourth annual Homeless World Cup. Organization prez Mel Young, who strives to help raise awareness and improve lives, claims that soccer “can be used to tackle some of the most difficult problems in society,” though that’s never actually verified in this game-footage-overloaded film. Whether coming from Young’s mouth or one of the optimistic players, the film’s wall-to-wall hyperbolic rhetoric never inspires, perhaps because there are too many characters here for any single one to register: There are a Kenyan, a Russian, an Afghan, a North Carolinian, a 62-year-old former bank robber from Spain, and a methadone-addicted Dubliner, who gives the title its dual meaning. It’s hard to imagine how Koch could have made her film any more heavy-handed: perhaps by adding U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the soundtrack or having the narration delivered by Colin Farrell — both of which, inevitably enough, she does. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)



GO  LIVE AND BECOME If Live and Become strikes you as a vague title, the young protagonist of Radu Mihaileanu’s film would despairingly agree. His mother’s parting words before she sends him off in the 1984 Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews contain none of the specific instructions the boy needs, considering the complexity of his situation. For one, he isn’t actually Jewish — he’s a Christian Ethiopian masquerading as a Jew so he can live in Israel with the French family that adopts him. The child is, as a fellow Ethiopian expatriate tells him, “condemned to live,” and this courageous film plumbs the complications of being so wonderfully and terribly lucky. Renamed Schlomo (and played, at various points, by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe and Sirak M. Sabahat), he lands in a supportive if imperfect family, including a sugary mensch of a mother (Yaël Abecassis), who licks his pimply face in a show of camaraderie when his school proves reluctant to welcome him — one instance of how xenophobia stifles his assimilation. Meanwhile, Schlomo yearns for his real mother, purveyor of that impossible advice. If the film sometimes feels overwrought — at once too long and too short — its subtle motifs and loud silences, as well as the enormity of its subject matter, keep us absorbed until the devastating end. (Music Hall; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Abigail Deutsch)


RED ROSES AND PETROL Dublin poet and university librarian Enda Doyle (a deceptively top-billed Malcolm McDowell, seen mostly in camcorder soliloquies) learns that he’s dying, and then does, so let’s meet his kin as they reunite at the wake to drink, quarrel, open emotional wounds and expose secrets, as all dysfunctional-family-at-a-funeral clichés are wont to do. Uptight daughter Catherine (Susan Lynch) has brought her milquetoast beau back home to meet her sister Medbh (Heather Juergensen), rattled ma, Moya (Olivia Tracey), and confrontational misfit bro Johnny (Max Beesley), whose gauzy flashbacks attest that he’s a jerk because Daddy smacked him around. Apparently lost in some whiskey haze since its AFI-fest premiere in 2003, director and co-writer Tamar Simon Hoffs’ bland-as-boiled-cabbage adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s play finally hobbles into theaters, reminding us every 15 seconds that even though it looks distinctly American and was shot in California, it’s a fookin’ Irish movie. Yet neither the backyard jigging, lap blankets, spots of tea, Gabriel Byrne name-check, nor forced colloquialisms (Johnny’s girlfriend is “still spreadin’ me balls on toast”) feel at all natural, and there’s nothing “grand” or “sound as a hound” about the cast’s chemistry, the limp dramatic twist or a most regretful gag about snorting cremated ashes. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Aaron Hillis)


TRUMBO Based on Christopher Trumbo’s play about his hell-raising pop, the Spartacus screenwriter sentenced to prison for refusing to play ball with the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, Trumbo the movie feels stage-bound, despite its use of archival interviews with the eloquent titan of the Hollywood Ten. This is no knock: The readings of Dalton Trumbo’s letters to family and friends are starkly rendered — famous faces (Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, so forth) recite rousing missives without the aid of sets or props of any kind, save for Trumbo’s own thunderous proclamations in defense of free speech. And there are copious scenes from Trumbo’s work, in which his characters lay down his law: Say everything, but rat out no one. (“I’m Spartacus,” damned right.) Still, the actors steal the writer’s movie, as they wring from his epistles every last drop of blood and sweat spilled by a man punished for believing his country was better than its behavior. (The Landmark) (Robert Wilonsky)



THE UNKNOWN WOMAN Remember Giuseppe Tornatore, who made the overrated but harmlessly cute Cinema Paradiso, about the grumpy projectionist who made him the fabulous filmmaker he is today? Meet the filmmaker that he is today — sadomasochistic fantasist, exploiter of women and cheesy Hitchcock imitator. It doesn’t help that The Unknown Woman, which traffics (I use the term in its precise sense) in hot-button topics like forced prostitution and baby-making for profit, comes sanctimoniously wrapped in a twisted tale of feminist revenge. Or that the lead actress, Russian film and television star Xenia Rappoport, is terrific as a Ukrainian ex-hooker who insinuates herself into an Italian family and gradually reveals herself as the housekeeper from hell. Pretentiously framed as a woo-woo thriller complete with aerial shots of desperate deeds on spiral staircases and the requisite surreal circus scene, The Unknown Woman is liberally sprinkled with softcore bondage sequences and dappled with sunlit flashbacks to happier-hooker days. Extravagantly vulgar psychology about evil rebounding to haunt both victim and oppressor offers still more opportunities for scenes of torture, this time with a defenseless little girl in the victim seat. Tornatore has the unspeakable nerve to present this as character building, which leaves us to wonder not only what the parents of child actress Clara Dossena were thinking but also how this repellent piece of garbage managed to win no less than five Italian Oscars. (Music Hall; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)


WANTED  Of the summer’s many revenge-of-the-nerd fulfillment fantasies — from The Incredible Hulk to The Foot Fist WayWanted stands the best chance of dislodging Fight Club from fanboys’ Facebook pages. It has the same dizzying flipbook style, the same kicky ultraviolence, the same undeniable appeal of punch-clock payback — and best of all, no irony! Fed up with your shit job, your slut girlfriend, your shriveled manhood? Do what Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) does: Get inducted into The Fraternity, a secret society of assassins who preserve order (and apparently do a lousy job) by snuffing undesirables. Even with a well-deserved R rating, Wanted is the most juvenile of the summer’s comic book movies, and in some ways the most up-front about its stunted playground machismo. This is a boy’s, boy’s world, where the battle cry is, “Grow a pair!” and no more blood-boiling insult exists than being called a pussy. (Which is bizarre, because its most lethal ass-kicker is Fraternal member Angelina Jolie, whose dehumanized take-no-prisoners sexuality transcends gender the way a thermonuclear warhead overrides boundaries.) The director, Timur Bekmambetov (Day Watch), thrives on kinetic hyperbole: Cars flip like flapjacks, a speeding train plunges down a 1,000-foot gorge only to go faster. But the appeal of Bekmambetov’s style — that everything exists for sensation; logic and natural law be damned — is also its limitation. Even this Grand Theft Auto admirer can watch blood slung across the screen in fetishized slow-motion globules only so many times. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

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