Movie Reviews: Filth and Wisdom, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, Splinter
ABLE DANGER Though it knocks along with the steady heartbeat pace of a thriller and is painted in the languid, low-contrast shadows of a noir, Paul Krik’s feature debut is neither and both. Mixing genres, stereotypes and bug-eyed conspiracy theories, Able Danger satisfies its own aesthetic demands but has trouble with its bigger concern: tying the noir look to its attendant narrative traditions in the service of some artistic (rather than merely referential) effect. Thomas Flynn (Adam Nee) runs the Vox Pop café in deepest hipster Brooklyn, and either too much coffee or too few customers have led him to pen a book claiming that Mohamed Atta was a government patsy. The publicity for his book draws in a mysterious Eurobabe (Elina Löwensohn), who claims she has proof of CIA involvement in 9/11. Bodies begin dropping around her almost immediately — the first being that of Thomas’ friend — and a torrent of G-men, Germans, Arabs, Tasers, text messages, tech nerds and messenger bags is unleashed. Able Danger’s various generic elements and ambitions, while successful on their own, resist melding into a successful pastiche; perhaps the invocation of September 11 for the vaguely satirical purpose of tweaking conspiracy crap proves too preoccupying for such a winking, albeit well-made, film. (Grande 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)
EDEN LAKE Gleefully demonizing both the British “chav” working-class and the horror genre’s usual target audience of mid-teen males, Eden Lake pits a well-to-do, soon-to-be-married couple (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) against a gang of obnoxious, bicycle-riding 14-year-olds. It’s the epitomical rule of these films: Never, ever get confrontational with disagreeable people. We know that if you’re out with your girl by a quiet lake, and your peace is disturbed by a group of hormonally charged young jerks, you’ll be tempted to assert yourself, but seriously: Don’t. Just leave. Of course, then there’d be no movie. Writer-director James Watkins, who previously co-wrote the UK suspense flick My Little Eye, expertly plays on the viewer’s fears and prejudices — who among us hasn’t secretly wanted to smack the shit out of some wannabe-macho, prepubescent bully? But you’ll likely feel queasy afterwards, upon realizing that the movie has you rooting for these lower-income kids to die at the hands of the disempowered yuppies. As a thriller, Eden Lake absolutely works, but feel-good entertainment it isn’t. Don’t bring a date. (Fairfax) (Luke Y. Thompson)
GO FEAR(S) OF THE DARK While some may snicker at “graphic novel” as a term for comic books that take themselves too seriously, the French analogue — bande dessinée (or “drawn strip”) — denotes a medium sophisticated enough to be hailed the ninth art. Embracing the cult spirit of 1981’s sci-fantasy omnibus Heavy Metal (coincidentally adapted from a magazine with French roots), this animated Franco-horror anthology is hardly child’s play but a classy interpretation of the eerie dreads hiding in the minds of 10 international graphic artists. Though multidirector projects are patchy by definition, Fear(s) of the Dark hits with an all-star batting average. The best of the lot is Charles Burns’ segment — a crisp, creepy, Cronenberg-ian homage to EC Horror about a virginal science nerd (voiced by the late Guillaume Depardieu) who falls prey to a bombshell with an entomological revelation. While Burns works in high-contrast monochrome, Richard McGuire and Michael Pirus utilize it even more beautifully in their inescapable haunted-house tale, a chestnut rendered lyrical and abstract through wordless storytelling and a white-on-black canvas. Samurai ghosts, 18th-century demon dogs and a childhood remembrance also figure into the film, each entertaining if not particularly scary, while the single sore thumb plays like an innocuous Agnès Varda parody. (Nuart) (Aaron Hillis)
FILTH & WISDOM A splashy Berlin Film Festival premiere may not have been the ideal launch strategy for this modestly scaled first feature co-written and directed by Madonna, which arrives in the U.S. having been torn limb from celluloid limb by Euro critics. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo — included in the press notes — in which the Material Girl says that while she has “always been inspired by the films of Goddard [sic], Visconti, Pasolini and Fellini,” she expects it will be some time before she’s able to “make something that comes close to their genius.” Genius isn’t the strong suit of Filth & Wisdom, but there’s an undeniably funky charm and abiding can-do spirit to this loosely knit portrait of three London flatmates trying to make their way in the world. Ukranian-born singer-songwriter A.K. (played with enormous charisma by Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz) pounds the music-biz pavement while holding down a day job as a male dominatrix. Meanwhile, dancer Holly (Holly Weston) turns to stripping in a seedy “gentlemen’s club” when ballet no longer pays the bills, and pharmacist Juliette (Vicky McClure) endures leering stares from her married boss while saving up to work as a nurse in Africa. The not-unwise show-biz moral here is that to get what you want out of life, you have to get your hands dirty. Message to the director: Don’t quit your day job just yet, but in the category of multidisciplinary artists moonlighting as filmmakers, I’ll take you over Julian Schnabel any day. (Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas)
THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY From Freestyle Releasing, the self-service distributor that brought you D-War and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, comes a movie even worse than those two combined. It really makes things tough on those of us who try our damnedest to defend horror as a legitimate, meritorious genre when crap like this gets churned out on Halloween, but perhaps this critic’s sacrifice of time and money will not be in vain if everyone reading avoids The Haunting of Molly Hartley like vegetable sticks in a trick-or-treat bag. In the vein of the antiseptic, CW-kid-starring pseudo-horror that we all thought got left behind along with the rest of the ‘90s, Molly Hartley stars 20-year-old Haley Bennett as the titular 17-year-old, a prep-school girl whose “haunting” consists of flashbacks to the time when her now-committed mother tried to kill her with a pair of scissors. Why? Well, you’ll have to wait until the end of this tedious, scareless slog to find out, but suffice it to say that Satan is involved. Too bad Ol’ Scratch doesn’t actually show up; that might have made for at least one visually interesting shot. Producer-turned-director Mickey Liddell (Everwood) evinces no talent whatsoever in his new role; he too seems to have sold his soul for this opportunity, and gotten shortchanged on the deal. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
INTERNAL BEHAVIORS Expecting a slickly cheesy teen schlock-horror flick capitalizing on the Halloween spook factor, viewers might at first find the low-budget aesthetic of Mark Schaefer’s DIY debut refreshing. But benefit of the doubt soon gives way to musings about how the hell such drivel as Internal Behaviors ever found its way to theatrical release. It plays like a student filmmaker’s graduate project, encompassing all the unintentional horror that designation implies: bad acting, rhythmless editing, risible green-screen effects and white-noisy sound mix. Just as inept are the story and screenplay: After getting busted for spit-balling a teacher, Jack (Brandon Shealy) and Johnny (Chris Andres) avoid the principal’s office and while away the afternoon wandering downtown Los Angeles instead. One 360-degree rooftop pan and requisite “I’m king of the world!” joke later, the boys embark upon a series of shenanigans, which end in bloody disaster. Only the nightgown-wearing Asian girl with space-bun hairdo conveys a glimmer of the batty atmosphere Schaefer seems to be after. With its martial arts and faux gangsta sequences, Internal Behaviors aspires to low-brow cult status, but this amateur effort seems destined for regular replay only at Schaefer’s own house parties. (Grande 4-Plex) (Kristi Mitsuda)
JUST BURIED More twee than any movie about serial murder has a right to be, writer-director Chaz Thorne’s grisly farce ladles a quirky-cute score over its dirty deeds in place of a point of view. Jay Baruchel — who all but vanished into the jungle foliage as Tropic Thunder’s top bananas munched the scenery — makes a bit more of an impression here as a nosebleed-prone mope who inherits his dad’s failing small-town funeral home along with its pretty formaldehyde jockey (Rose Byrne). After an auto mishap delivers their first customer in years, the two start to see their enemies as just the stimulus package their business needs. Attempting an arch, black-comic amusement closer in spirit to Little Shop of Horrors or Kind Hearts and Coronets than Fargo, the movie serves up gory killings and kinky peripheral shenanigans without any satirical thrust. But the cast’s woozy timing and the oddball characters provide some sour laughs before the movie’s many caskets fill. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)
GO LITTLE BIG TOP Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial debut Shakes the Clown was infamously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”; this makes Little Big Top, at the very least, the Rocky Balboa of such. Sid Haig, most famous for playing a homicidal boozing clown in Rob Zombie movies, here explores the more poignant side of greasepaint and liquor, as third-generation circus star Seymour Smiles, now a washed-up bum squatting in the condemned ruins of his family home in Peru, Indiana (“the circus capital of the world”), where he regularly passes out on cheap beer. A shot at redemption comes in the form of jocular local showman Bob (Richard Riehle), who wants the barely living legend to whip his team of amateur clowns into shape. What ensues is simultaneously an oddball parody of teacher-movie clichés, and a long-overdue dramatic showcase for Haig, which probably won’t get him the acclaim it should because, well, he’s a horror/cult star playing a sad clown. Riehle (Office Space, Smiley Face) also manages to get at the humanity beneath his usual goofball persona. Just one complaint, and it is a significant one: We never actually see the improved clowning routines, which makes Little Big Top feel like a sports movie that fades out before the big game. Perhaps that’s the joke, but at least when your star has the goods, it’s still fun to watch him in training. (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)
THE OTHER END OF THE LINE This meager cross-cultural romantic comedy stars Jesse Metcalfe as ultra-smooth New York advertising executive Granger and Bollywood actress Shriya Saran as Priya, the credit-card customer-service rep who falls for him over the phone thousands of miles away in Mumbai, India. They decide to meet in San Francisco, but because she’s led him to believe she’s an American (i.e., white girl) named Jennifer David, complications ensue when he begins courting this Indian woman he thinks is a stranger. On one level, director James Dodson’s love story is so innocuously pleasant that attacking its obvious plot developments and sitcom-shallow observations about dating feels almost ungracious. But the one truly unforgivable element is Granger, who Metcalfe plays as the most noxious sort of self-satisfied yuppie creep who, amazingly, doesn’t have to shed a fraction of his smugness to win Priya’s heart. The Other End of the Line wants to show how people from different corners of the globe can make a connection, but in reality, the U.S.-obsessed Priya must defy her cultural mores and empty her measly bank account to be with the man of her dreams, while all Granger has to do is learn to tolerate spicy Indian food. At a time when our global standing is sinking like a stone, it’s comforting to know that, at least on the big screen, we can still land the babes no matter how obnoxious we are. (AMC Burbank; Beverly Center 13; Century City 15; Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (Tim Grierson)
PASSENGERS Anne Hathaway has the biggest damn chestnut eyes you’ve ever seen — I spent a lot of time swimming in them, as they’re about the only thing Passengers has going for it. As a young, beautifully coiffured psychiatrist, Hathaway is assigned to depressurize the lone survivors of a commercial airline crash, and finds herself lavishing special after-hours attention on one unusually elated patient (Patrick Wilson, considerably overestimating the charm of squinty smugness). As her patients begin to mysteriously disappear, the movie shifts into “What really happened on that plane?” mode, with chills provided by the dreaded David Morse peeking around corners. Though deceptively marketed as a just-in-time-for-All-Hallow’s-Eve spooktacular, this is really a character-centered romance that nonstarts on the total lack of traction between Hathaway and Wilson. The biggest shock (aside from seeing how arbitrarily movies are chosen for theatrical release) is provided by an intrusively blown newspaper. The horribly drawn-out unwinding of an Astonishing Twist Ending retrospectively absolves the film of responsibility for ridiculous scene-stagings and narrative gaffes, and confirms Passengers as a kind of declawed, inside-out Final Destination — with none of the sense of showmanship, and all the looming malice of a mawkish condolence card. (Selected theaters) (Nick Pinkerton)
ROADSIDE ROMEO It feels like the perfect time to be writing about Bollywood. Hardly a week goes by without some brazen new act of synergy being committed, like the news that DreamWorks SKG is getting bankrolled by the Indian company Reliance-ADA. There are some worrying indications for the future of this rapprochement, however, in the CGI-animated talking-dog comedy Roadside Romeo, an initial co-production between the top Indian banner Yash Raj and the Walt Disney Company — a collaboration that feels paralyzed by self-consciousness. It’s almost certainly a coincidence that the premise is a dead ringer for Disney’s current domestic hit Beverly Hills Chihuahua: A pampered rich pooch is abandoned and becomes a homeless stray, but because of his craftiness ends up as the alpha male of a pack of lovable mutts. It would be charitable to forgive this first attempt its technical shortcomings; while the virtual set design is first-rate, the character animation is often clunky and inexpressive. What’s harder to excuse is the drabness of the storytelling, the repetitive sitcom dilemmas that are closer to Top Cat than Ratatouille. The performers in the dandy voice cast, led by Saif Ali Khan, can only do so much to energize these static situations. You’d think the free-for-all atmosphere of the best Bollywood romps would be a perfect fit in the CG realm. So did the showmen who brought us the ebullient Jhoom Barabar Jhoomfeel inhibited because some Hollywood suits were looking over their shoulders? They’re gonna need to snap out of it tout de suite, or this relationship is doomed. (Naz 8) (David Chute)
GO SPLINTER In a horror movie, to go on a camping trip is to march toward a certain and grisly death, usually at the hands of an escaped killer or fanged monster. Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner), the foolhardy campers of the terrifically taut Splinter, encounter both. Initially, they’re carjacked and kidnapped by a convict (Shea Whigham) and his drug-addled girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs), but it isn’t long before all four band together to fend off blood-oozing human mutants. One or more of the four may even turn mutant themselves, thanks to the prick of sharp, quill-like splinters whose origins can’t possibly be of this Earth. In an impressive debut, English director Toby Wilkins and screenwriters Ian Shorr and Kai Barry don’t fuss over otherworldly explanations but instead focus on exploring all the ways four people can be hunted down and turned to pulp while hiding inside a gas station food mart. Buoyed by solid ensemble work, some yuckily effective special effects, and a script that subverts genre convention by having its characters do smart things instead of stupid ones (mostly), Splinter earns our respect while delivering 82 minutes of lean, mean fun. (Mann Chinese 6) (Chuck Wilson)
THE UNIVERSE OF KEITH HARING Equally a portrait of the artist and a portrait of a decade, this celebratory documentary makes the short, accelerated life of Keith Haring (1958–1990) inseparable from that short, accelerated period we know as ’80s New York. Haring arrived there, like his idol Andy Warhol, a small-town boy from Pennsylvania. He swiftly became an art-world star, known for vibrant, optimistic cartoons and murals — often executed graffiti-style in the subway stations and on sidewalks — and something of a gay icon. Madonna performed at his birthday party, in a dress covered with his scribbles. He painted a mostly nude Grace Jones, whom we see performing here — among many other period clips — at the famed Paradise Garage. Near decade’s close, Haring was commissioned to paint the Berlin Wall — a reminder of how that era was to end so abruptly. AIDS, of course, was its punctuation note. Haring was an activist before he fell ill, and he continued to create and lecture — with generous excerpts shown here — right up to the inevitable end. With family and other members of the Keith Haring Foundation interviewed here (plus Yoko Ono, Kenny Scharf and various scenesters), Universe is not a critical appraisal of Haring’s work or legacy. I lived in Manhattan during those years, and his youthful energy surely made the city a better place. Today, his art holds up less well on museum walls than as cheerful hospital murals — instruments of healing, Haring believed. Maybe that’s ironic, or maybe we just live in unhealthier times. (Music Hall) (Brian Miller)
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO Ostensibly, this should be money-shot Kevin Smith: Pals make a porn to pay the bills and, in the process of gettin’ it on for the video cam, cum to realize their years-in-the-making friendship is really a love affair. Awwwww, how sweet. In other words, it’s quintessential Silent Bob, as hard-up meets hard-on in a movie that’s all heart once you get past the shit shot that’ll shock only those for whom Clerks II’s donkey show wasn’t oh-God-no enough. But from its few scatological asides to its inevitable boob shots, nothing about Zack and Miri feels terribly fresh, much less transgressive. Amiable and engaging in person and a filmmaker for whom comic and movie nerds so desperately want to root, Smith makes two kinds of movies: romantic comedies and bromantic comedies, with Chasing Amy — his one legitimately great movie — the crossover hybrid hit. They’re all decidedly conventional affairs, save for the detours into gross-out juvenilia that, the older Smith gets, seem less sincere and feel more like pandering to the audience that goes to his movies solely to walk out with a couple of lines they can quote to each other on the ride home. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
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