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Movie Reviews: Fame, Pandorum, Surrogates

Movie Reviews: Fame, Pandorum, Surrogates

THE BLUE TOOTH VIRGIN or anyone who has ever hated a movie because it’s too “arty” or “edgy,” here comes The Blue Tooth Virgin to agree with you and argue that anything remotely nonpopulist is crap. David (Bryce Johnson) is a successful magazine editor; his friend, Sam (Austin Peck), is a screenwriter whose career has stalled after a “critically acclaimed” one-season TV show (critical praise = kiss of death). Sam has written a screenplay about a woman who morphs into different people, aided by a hermaphrodite shrink and a mute detective. In case we don’t get that this is pretentious bullshit, Sam mentions how much he likes Bergman’s Persona. Later, to hammer it home, he admits that he’s been trying to be a cooler person by succumbing to peer pressure by seeing “art films” and listening “to certain bands that actually suck.” It’s true: Everything that isn’t popular is terrible! David discusses the script with a neighbor: “What’s it about?” “I don’t know.” “Are there characters?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, it sounds like an indie film.” OOH, BURN. Now, how will David tell Sam his script sucks? Comedy! To make sure this his whole endeavor doesn’t turn into something approaching “arty”/”edgy,” writer-director Russell Brown makes it like a dreary sitcom. This is self-vindicating L.A. narcissism that tries even less hard than usual. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)

THE BOYS ARE BACK In the Oscar derby for Best Actor, is it better to die or to grieve? Clive Owen opts for the latter route in this strained, sentimental adaptation of a memoir by widowed English journalist Simon Carr. His 2001 book — boozy, breezy and thoroughly unsystematic — was a precursor to the new laissez-faire parenting movement, which Owen’s sportswriter character describes for his two sons (teen and preteen) as “just say yes.” The approach is, let them play with sharp sticks, let them make a mess, let them stay up late, etc. In the gorgeous coastal province of South Australia, the results are like Lord of the Flies meets a J. Crew catalogue spread. Both star and producer (and a father offscreen), Owen is determined to present his gentler domestic side here: He cries and grieves and learns to juggle career and home life — all without the benefit of estrogen! (Mothers will roll their eyes at the spectacle of Owen fumbling with toast and laundry.) But this father and his film — directed by Shine’s Scott Hicks — are only fun to watch while the mischief outweighs the mending. Inevitably, this all-male household must come to terms with, ahem, feelings, which kills the testosterone buzz. Carr’s original anecdotes don’t supply much story line, so Hicks spans the gaps with golden-lit montages set to Sigur Rós. They’re a great advertisement for Australian vacations. And vasectomies. (The Landmark; ArcLight Hollywood) (Brian Miller)

COCO BEFORE CHANEL Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel gives us belle époque Coco, opening in 1893 with a grim scene of the 10-year-old waif and her sister unceremoniously dumped at an orphanage, and ending around World War I, a few years before the Chanel empire is launched. The Coco of Fontaine’s project, adequately performed by Audrey Tautou, dramatizes Chanel’s most fundamental contradiction: The proud, mythomaniac peasant who would liberate women from suffocating corsets, pounds of extra material and hats that looked liked “meringues” was able to do so by lying in the beds of rich men, namely millionaire racehorse owner Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and English industrialist Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). “Coco Chanel never married,” reads the first of the closing intertitles, which the film seems to honor as the designer’s most significant accomplishment. Aiming to be a tale of self-creation, Fontaine’s film more often plays as a dull romance, Chanel’s role as mistress somehow worthy of noble celebration. Coco Before Chanel concludes with an anachronistic coda: An older Coco sits on the famous steps of her couture house as contemporary models march past her, wearing Chanel’s Greatest Hits Through the Decades. The valedictory moment feels completely unearned in a film so strenuously devoted to the years before its subject’s fame. (Royal; Arclight Hollywood) (Melissa Anderson)

DIL BOLE HADIPPA! The title, which can be translated “My Heart Says Hooray,” is a blatant act of promotional rib-nudging: If you tell people how you want them to react, perhaps they will. Judging from the squeals of delight that burst forth at Little India’s Naz 8 cinema whenever rising star Shahid Kapoor’s shirt came unbuttoned, the filmmakers were wise to place this hot-dancing heartthrob front and center in this gender-bending romcom — even if Kapoor’s Rohan Singh, a world-class cricket player turned scratch coach grooming an Indian team in a Punjabi border town for an exhibition match against Pakistan, should really be a supporting role. To this standard underdog sports drama, the movie attaches a cross-dressing stunt lifted from the DreamWorks soccer hit She’s the Man, when expert female cricketer Verra Kaur (Rani Mukherjee) pastes on a false beard in order to try out for the boys team. Both thematically and in the boisterous zest of Mukherjee’s performance, this plot then becomes the movie’s driving force. All of the scenes in which Veera is riding high are great fun to watch, though, the outcome is beyond predictable. You could set your watch by the arrival of the tearful set-piece speech about letting gifted girls compete with boys. Ultimately, what’s most noteworthy about this middling effort is how aggressively un-contemporary it is. Rohan’s filial motivation for putting his star career as a player on hold to coach a match of pride is a throwback to old-school Bollywood conventions. And for fans of the form, the scattered musical references to past hits of the production company, Yash Raj, function as a sort of built-in trivia quiz. Rani Mukherjee could carry a lot worse than this one, even without the beard. But in the end, Dil Bole Hadippa! is a sad commercial place holder of a movie, a product of an industry that has treading water for some time, now, patiently waiting for the next big trend. (Naz 8) (David Chute)

GO  EVANGELION 1.0: YOU ARE (NOT) ALONE Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno co-directs the first in a planned tetralogy that reboots (and spiffs up with gorgeously soft-lit 3-D CGI) his beloved mid-’90s anime series, which was seminal enough to earn more than $1.4 billion in revenue and, perhaps more tellingly, has been referenced by Homer Simpson. Set in Japan’s last surviving city, Tokyo-3, this apocalyptic action-drama focuses on the key players within NERV, a paramilitary force armed with piloted war machines (“mecha” to you anime novices) that protect their retractable metropolis by battling giant monsters called Angels. In the first 10 minutes, naive high-schooler Shinji is summoned by his long-estranged father, wanders into a firefight, is rescued by a flirty field commander, survives a bomb from inside a flipping car, and faces an ultimatum from NERV’s grand poobah (yep, Dad): Suit up in a prototype mecha, or civilization will be lost. This is mighty perplexing nerd kibble, its highfalutin philosophical and psychological banter way too outlandish to seriously engage. Yet as a visceral experience, it’s entrancing, especially during Shinji’s fight sequences, when his anxieties are cruelly exacerbated by having his body and mind symbiotically bonded to his father’s combat toy. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

FAME Baby, look at me. Gone are Leroy’s cornrows, short-shorts, and leg warmers: The anodyne adolescents in 25-year-old Kevin Tancharoen’s directorial debut (written by Allison Burnett) suggest not the charismatic, street-smart pupils at Performing Arts, but the Up with People squares. Don’t you know who I am? Like all good drama queens, the students in Alan Parker’s 1980 original, which unfolded during an unmistakably Koch-era New York, took up space (blocking traffic on West 46th Street) and disrespected authority (dropping f-bombs in class, smashing school property). They also did drugs, had sex (and abortions, if necessary), and stayed up past midnight. The new class at P.A. is strictly PG, sharing a chummy coffee with the vocal instructor (Megan Mullally) who takes them on a karaoke field trip to Lucky Cheng’s, where not one drag queen is visible. Light up the sky like a flame. Though his gayness was awkwardly shoehorned in, carrot-topped Montgomery was at least undeniably out in Parker’s film. His closest analogue — many of the kids in the remake are race and/or gender inversions of the original characters — merely alludes to homo leanings through emo, Efronesque bangs and a slightly swish carriage. Members of the class of ’80 struggled to stay in school despite homelessness and crime; the greatest crisis in ’09 finds a student’s Sesame Street work-schedule affecting her GPA. The sanitized moppets in the new Fame sing the body generic. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

I HOPE THEY SERVE BEER IN HELL Tucker Max got famous through a Web site detailing how being an asshole to women constantly got him laid, making him a hero to frat boys and a demon to everyone else who noticed. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, adapted from his magnum opus/blog, is pretty damn odious, mostly because it wusses out. Hell seeks to deflect preemptive attacks on Tucker’s misogyny by basically ignoring him for the first half. Though he’s there as the party instigator (played by Matt Czuchry, who redeems the character’s written smugness not one bit), the focus is on nerdy pal Drew (Jesse Bradford). After a bitter breakup with a cheating ex, Drew randomly threatens to carve a “fuck-hole” into any and all women who approach him until he meets a stripper (Marika Dominczyk), who can beat him at Halo. In the second half, Max realizes his sins (against his friends, not women) and redeems himself by hijacking another buddy’s wedding for a long, rambling confessional. Hell — Bob Gosse’s first film in 11 years since Niagara, Niagara — is visually incompetent to a painful extreme and almost never funny, but, worst of all, it doesn’t have the courage of Max’s unadulterated convictions. If you’re going to offend the easily offended, at least go big. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

GO  THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS Daniel Ellsberg was an ex-Marine, trusted analyst and Cold Warrior under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who, “from the entrails of a bureaucratic war machine” — per a latter-day peacenik cohort — converted to antiwar dove. Leaking 7,000 Xeroxed pages of the Pentagon Papers study to newspapers, Ellsberg gave the world an alternate history of five administrations’ policies in Southeast Asia, and spurred a breached White House into paranoid espionage ending in presidential resignation. Ellsberg has been resurrected as an “Eternal Left” hero in recent times, publishing a memoir in 2002 and being played by James Spader in a 2003 TV movie. Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith approach their subject as though burnishing an icon — he withstands the homage well. In old age, Ellsberg is still an articulate interviewee; seen in his years of infamy, he resembles a wiry amalgam of the Cassavetes regulars. The impressive roll call of assembled talking heads includes “Plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, who authorized the burgling of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office; and Anthony Russo, Ellsberg’s recently deceased accomplice and RAND Co. co-worker. Most Dangerous Man makes a few distracting embellishments — reenactments (some shabbily animated), melodramatic cloak-and-dagger scoring — but in the main, it’s a professional job, standing above the crowd of politico documentaries that proliferate like kudzu over arthouse screens. (Monica 4-Plex) (Nick Pinkerton)

PANDORUM Despite too many cheap, sound-cue scares and a slow-boil plot that veers between tension and tedium, Pandorum — a dead-serious, horror/sci-fi pastiche that unimaginatively borrows from everything from Alien to WALL-E — gets sort of interesting. Flight engineers Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) awake from a years-long “hyper-sleep” aboard the Elysium, a massive spacecraft launched from the increasingly uninhabitable planet Earth in 2174. With no memory of their mission, they find themselves in an abandoned wing of the craft, a predicament they discuss at great and scintillating length (“It’s cold in here!” Payton declares. “It’s fucking dark in here!” Bower retorts). Eventually, Bower ventures out to get the 411, encountering mummified corpses of his fellow crewmembers and then the gooey, writhing mutants marauding through the craft in search of human flesh. A team slowly materializes out of the terrorized survivors Bower meets on his way to try and reset the craft on its course to Tanis, an Earth-like planet. Much slimy mutant-battle ensues. Director Christian Alvart clearly attended horror’s new paint-shaker school of direction (motto: shaky = scary!), but the script’s twisty, end-of-the-world intrigue saves this otherwise leaden film from total self-destruction. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

GO  SURROGATES A montage of news footage crisply introduces the not-too-distant future, where the world’s white-collar professionals live vicariously through plastic-smooth swimsuit-cut surrogate bodies, psychically remote-controlled by flesh-and-blood selves abandoned to storage and pallid vegetation. These super-durable avatars are free to live in (somewhat timidly imagined) consequence-free hedonism. No real victims means no crimes, hence not much work for our FBI agent (Bruce Willis), until an unheard-of murder draws him to the ghettos of the offline human minority. As he investigates, director Jonathan Mostow takes the tired anti-authoritarian formula of dreadlocked granola resistance against well-equipped state thugs, and knots it in noir-ish contortions. Surrogates are played by human actors with the slightest emotional attenuation, recalling all-CGI movies that spend untold millions reinventing life. Willis is fine, both as his blond action figure (Zack Morris hair) and actual self, in trusty bruised palooka mode. Mostow does good meat-and-potatoes genre work, coherent even when reckless — which is why you probably don’t know his name. His Internet-era smash-up Fahrenheit 451 comes in nice and lean, with room for a couple of cherry action pieces — that surrogate bodies can be guiltlessly plowed over liberates his car chase, and Radha Mitchell does fine acrobatics in high heels. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

THE VANISHED EMPIRE Moscow, 1973: Not a wild and swingin’ era, but veteran director Karen Shakhnazarov tries out the standard coming-of-ager anyway. Unable to take his Marxist history classes seriously, Sergey (Aleksandr Lyapin) runs around picking up girls while rocker pal Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) introduces him to weed, and their mutual, homely friend, Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky), does nothing in particular except be the third point of a love triangle with Sergey and his girlfriend, Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina). Most of The Vanished Empire’s appeal (as its title less suggests than shouts) is its evocative production design and some unique Brezhnev-era set pieces: When Sergey wants to buy a Pink Floyd record for Lyuda, he heads to a park, where nervous young men sell their pop-music “contraband” in hushed voices. But the dead-end, on-again-off-again courtship between Sergey and Lyuda bores (there’s no reason for the unstoppable horndog to worry so much about his obviously nonexistent future with a girl who has her shit together), and the standard adolescent travails take up most of the screen time. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)

WANTED The bulging extremities of aging gym victim Salman Khan hang suspended in midair, surrounded by glittering beads of sweat and chunks of broken crockery — the defining visual cliché of global action cinema in the post-Matrix era. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Salman is trying to emulate the success that Aamir Khan had with last year’s Ghajini, a remake of a Tamil-language Memento clone for which Khan pumped up, shaved his head and whole-heartedly embraced the sledgehammer excess of the South Indian action aesthetic (with highly enjoyable results). Salman Khan has imported from Chennai the great dancer and choreographer-turned–barely competent director Prabhu Deva, in order to remake Deva’s 2007 Tamil hit Pokkiri, a Hard-boiled hand-me-down. Here, the often shirtless star, cast as a mass-murdering hit man with a notional heart of gold, strikes languid underwear-model poses more often than he throws punches, a routine that will be increasingly hard to stomach as the he moves from his 40s into his 50s. The film has one of Bollywood’s sexiest leading ladies, the bosomy Kewpie doll Ayesha Takia, and a first-rate villain in Mahesh Manjrekar, the crime lord Javed in Slumdog, here playing a paan-chewing cop so corrupt his glance could make the houseplants shrivel. But Khan and Deva will do just about anything for effect, and even an over-the-top amoral revenge fantasy needs a shred of internal consistency. (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; AMC Covina 30) (David Chute)

GO  WE LIVE IN PUBLIC Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director Ondi Timoner’s remarkable (and remarkably unsettling) documentary We Live in Public follows obsessive self-documenter Josh Harris on his decadelong odyssey from multimillionaire Internet pioneer and Manhattan art-world cause célèbre to bankrupt (financially and emotionally), mentally unhinged exile. In 1999, before reality TV boomed or the words MySpace, Facebook and YouTube had entered the lexicon, Harris signed on for privacy-free life by launching the underground art project “Quiet: We Live in Public,” in which 100 like-minded exhibitionists lived for 30 days in open cells under the constant scrutiny of video cameras and Orwellian interrogators. Timoner (DIG!) was there from the start, and she stuck around for Harris’ equally catastrophic second act, in which he and his then-girlfriend equipped their apartment with wall-to-wall surveillance cameras and proceeded to live their lives, for your viewing pleasure, at the Web site weliveinpublic.com. Harris’ gradual implosion is both repellent and mesmerizing, Timoner’s film unsparing in its scrutiny. You can’t take your eyes off it, which may, in the end, be what Harris always wanted. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)