GO THE BLACK BALLOON Produced for what was likely a day’s Botox budget on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, the auspicious Oz import The Black Balloon — the debut feature of director Elissa Down — comes on like a Rain Man for the High School Musical set but quickly establishes itself as that rare “disease movie” in which the disorder in question is mined neither for mawkish sentimentality nor ersatz inspirationalism. Perhaps because Down herself grew up with two autistic siblings, she brings a decidedly piss-(and-shit)-and-vinegar approach to the story of shy Queensland teen Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who has enough trouble fitting in at his new high school and returning the flirtation of his comely phys-ed classmate (stunning, saucer-eyed newcomer Gemma Ward) without the interference of his shortbus-riding autistic brother (Luke Ford, who acts the part with total conviction). Sweetie this isn’t, but within its resolutely mainstream parameters, The Black Balloon courses with a firsthand feel for languorous Aussie summers, the shifting scales of love and hate in sibling relationships, and the earned wit that helps families cope with difficult situations. The time is the 1980s, and as in the Australian New Wave films that proliferated during that period, one has the sense of a cadre of bright young filmmaking talents on the verge of breaking out. (Majestic Crest; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)
CADILLAC RECORDS Although the fact-based Cadillac Records stars heavyweights Jeffrey Wright (fantastic as usual, as Muddy Waters), Eammon Walker (a gruffly commanding Howlin’ Wolf) Mos Def (whose Chuck Berry nearly walks away with the film), and Adrien Brody (all moist-eyed empathy as Chess Records founder Leonard Chess), the hovering question is how well Beyoncé does as Etta James. The answer: She’s adequate. In this film about the rise and fall of the legendary Chess music label and its stars, Beyoncé cusses up a storm, wields her lushly voluptuous body like a WMD, and navigates an emotional OD scene without embarrassing herself. But when she performs the James classics “At Last” and a well-placed “I’d Rather Go Blind,” her limitations — and the film’s — snap into focus. Beyoncé’s pop-soul voice lacks the earthy, evocative carnality and gritty pathos of James’, and when she tosses her signature yodel-riffing into one classic tune, your ears die a little. Similarly, director Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That) races through the script’s bullet points — R&B is built on the dreams of white immigrant sons and black sharecropper descendants; white appropriation of Negro creativity is played out in boardrooms and in the thievery of style and ideas; soul music and the blues are sounds of self-affirmation — with a brisk superficiality that leaves crucial plot points underdeveloped and unresolved, and refuses to engage the dark side of Leonard Chess’ paternalism. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)
GO FROST/NIXON Has any president since Lincoln inspired more movies, TV mini-series and operas? Dutifully directed by Ron Howard from screenwriter Peter Morgan’s enjoyably glib play, Frost/Nixon is the latest installment of the Nixoniad, appropriately set in a media hall of mirrors. The subject is not Watergate but its aftermath — the series of four televised interviews with the disgraced 37th president, which British chat star David Frost orchestrated and syndicated in the spring of 1977, a little less than three years after Nixon’s resignation. A docudramatist whose screen credits include The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan conceives the Frost-Nixon interviews as a prizefight between two comeback-hungry veterans, ever-cheerful Frost (Michael Sheen, wide-eyed and so coiffed as to be a distraction) and sonorous, gloomy Nixon (Frank Langella). In opening up the play, however, the movie unavoidably dissipates its power. Having Nixon’s actual lair, the so-called Casa Pacifica, as a location is considerably less compelling than the stripped-down onstage set. Still, Frost/Nixon’s main attraction is neither its topicality nor its historical value but Langella’s re-creation of his Tony Award–winning performance. Langella doesn’t shake his jowls or attempt Nixon’s sickly smile. Ice cold and physically imposing, the actor is a naturally menacing presence; his stooped, shambling, eye-rolling Nixon is like a prehistoric beast at bay. In his 1970 speech on Cambodia, Nixon had warned that America would become “a pitiful helpless giant.” Langella’s performance is the lament of a man who became what he beheld. (ArcLight Hollywood) (J. Hoberman)
GARDENS OF THE NIGHT The title is the first sign that the audience is in for it. The second is a child’s voice reading from The Jungle Book, and the third is the voice of a counselor (John Malkovich) comforting the pretty young thing sitting before him. From there, we are treated to a dubiously long “Stranger Danger” sketch that pushes way beyond the limits of taste and reason: All dripping faucets, dulcet piano tinkling, blinking lightbulbs, fairy-tale allusions and Tom Arnold whispering sweet nothings, Gardens of the Night poeticizes the horror of young Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) being kidnapped and passed around like a rag doll, along with her surrogate brother Donnie (Jermaine Smith), in a not-so-surreptitious child pornography ring that includes creeps played by B-listers Harold Perrineau and Jeremy Sisto. Pitched at the risible level of Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade, the film never quite recovers from writer-director Damian Harris’ dithering way of shooting things. Back in the present, the subject is the way the abused become abusers, and how the bond between the older Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) and Donnie (Evan Ross) is tested on the streets — but after being built on such a shoddy foundation, their current-day reality registers only as an afterthought. (Sunset 5) (Ed Gonzalez)
GO A GOOD DAY TO BE BLACK AND SEXY Writer-director Dennis Dortch’s A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy is a series of vignettes that largely hinges on sex scenes of varying degrees of erotic heat. It’s less the sexual sizzle and more the psychological nuances of relationships that interest him. In “Reciprocity,” a woman’s refusal to return her boyfriend’s oral favors throws light on larger power struggles, while in “Tonight,” a teenager’s refusal to give her virginity to her boyfriend lands her stranded roadside, and later flirting with an older man. “Her Man” follows as a steamy coupling between a mistress and her married lover results in a tug-of-war about the terms of their relationship. And “American Boyfriend” dips into pools of race and culture clash, as a young Chinese woman attempts to hide her black boyfriend from her family. Dortch has a sly, often deceptively light hand as he references everything from ’70s Blaxploitation to underground/indie hip-hop and R&B, Asian porn and Cassavettes in his portrait of the battleground dynamics of Negroes in lust and love. A couple of the tales drag on too long; all could be written tighter, and a few could be pushed further conceptually, but Dortch’s manipulation of stereotype and the associations embedded in everything from skin tone to music set him apart as a talent to watch. (The Bridge) (Ernest Hardy)
GO HUNGER A man eats a breakfast loaded with bad cholesterol, then walks out of his house, looks up and down the street and under his car, and starts his engine. Steve McQueen’s relentlessly arty film about life in Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison during the 1981 hunger strike spearheaded by IRA leader Bobby Sands begins with a comic nod to the cinema of violence, then proceeds to a long wallow in it, which is none the less lyrical for being wrapped in wordless outrage. Hunger’s subject is the indomitability of the spirit in the face of the degradation of the body, inflicted from without by the bare knuckles and truncheons of prison officers, who range from vicious to ambivalent, and from within by the inmates’ collective refusal to eat or wear prison clothes. How you respond to it will depend, in part on the strength of your stomach, but mostly on whether you buy the idea of martyrdom as a political, moral or aesthetic ideal. Every grim detail of the unequal battle between prisoners and their guards is enlarged in ritual near-silence, lit in cold blues and greens and presided over by the desiccated drone of Margaret Thatcher’s voice deriding the protest. Late in the movie, Hunger pauses for a lengthy ping-pong exchange between Sands (a very good Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), the worldly Catholic priest who urges Sands to negotiate rather than embark on a hunger strike that will result only in unnecessary deaths. However wittily written by playwright Enda Walsh, their exchange, much admired in early reviews of Hunger, is little more than McQueen’s de rigueur sop to a more pragmatic, less heroic vision that proves weightless next to the rapturous, Christ-like images of a progressively more emaciated Sands. Those of us who see the martyr as one of the more pernicious of human fantasies — in these times, how could you not? — are more likely to go with the priest, who tells Sands, “You got no appreciation of a life.” There is no defending Thatcher, but what is it about the IRA — a movement founded in necessity and destroyed by its own murderously intransigent absolutism — that causes the brains of otherwise intelligent artists to fall out? The farther I got from the queasy beauty of McQueen’s movie, the more I hated it. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)
NOBEL SON Directionless Ph.D. candidate Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) lives in the shadow of his overbearing genius father, Eli (Alan Rickman), who is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s when two seemingly unrelated events occur: Barkley beds a gorgeous artist named City Hall (Eliza Dushku) and is kidnapped by Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy), an unhinged young man who wants to hold Barkley for ransom. Barkley convinces Thaddeus to include him in the plan, excited at the prospect of fleecing his old man. Anyone who suffered through the Tarantino knockoffs of the 1990s knows that no filmic crime caper will run smoothly, but director and co-writer Randall Miller is so ill at ease with the basic building blocks of the genre that Nobel Son quickly announces itself as one of those misbegotten clunkers where just about every creative decision isn’t just wrong but tone-deaf. Nobel Son’s desperately “edgy” vibe extends to all aspects of the film but is most noticeable in the cavalcade of flip one-liners delivered by a cast that has been told to give their characters maximum quirkiness. The more experienced actors mostly keep their dignity, but the younger cast members — particularly Dushku as a blank femme fatale and Greenberg as the charmless antihero — posture insufferably. For Miller, this dark thriller represents an attempt to shift gears after back-to-back feel-good films Bottle Shock and Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. He’s succeeded in a way: Nobel Son just feels awful. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)
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ONE DAY YOU’LL UNDERSTAND Jeanne Moreau’s remarkable face has been carrying movies both great and not for the past 60 years. Amos Gitai’s latest falls into the second category, though the blame can hardly be placed on its octogenarian star. Moreau plays Rivka, a World War II survivor waiting out her final years in a Parisian apartment. Rivka is not inclined to think about the past, but her son, Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), starts to prod her after discovering that his father made a declaration of Aryan heritage — a revelation with the sort of troubling implications that are ideally unraveled in flashbacks over the course of a stolid, fest-circuit-baiting international co-production. One Day You’ll Understand represents Gitai’s most restrained work in sometime (there’s little of the rafter-reaching hysteria that marked Free Zone), but if anything, the film may be too controlled: The decision to frame much of the action in long, prowling tracking shots creates a feeling of remove that doesn’t quite fit with the material’s emotionally explosive quality. It doesn’t help that Girardot gives a grating lead performance and that a terrific performer like Emmanuelle Devos (as his let-sleeping-dogs-lie sister) is given so little to do. Moreau, meanwhile, is smart enough to let her magnificent countenance do the heavy lifting — the moments where Gitai simply focuses on her face do more to suggest the weight of a full, complicated life lived than all of the script’s carefully manicured machinations. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Adam Nayman)
PUNISHER WAR ZONE It really shouldn’t have been so hard to make a decent Punisher movie; after all, the character is basically just Death Wish’s Paul Kersey on steroids, in spandex. How come it took Hollywood so long to figure that out? Following a direct-to-video ’80s version starring Dolph Lundgren, and an unfortunately campy 2004 reboot with Thomas Jane, Lionsgate has gotten back to basics with Punisher: War Zone. Rome’s Ray Stevenson plays the skull-clad Frank Castle like a cross between Steven Seagal and Jason Voorhees. Early on, he fixes his own broken nose by jamming a pencil up his nostril; nobody else in the movie gets off quite so easily, as blood, brains, intestines, and chunks of flayed skin fly. (It’s not technically a horror movie, but nobody told the effects guys that.) The plot, such as it is, involves Castle second-guessing his life as a vigilante after accidentally killing an undercover fed, while fighting off a mobster (Dominic West) who has fallen into a giant glass-crusher and been recycled as a lethal Leatherface lookalike called Jigsaw. But the script isn’t what matters here: This is a slasher movie with guns, and, uh, huh-huh, that’s pretty cool. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
REACH FOR ME LeVar Burton’s odd yet progressive-minded career indeed has its roots in Kunta Kinte, the 1977 Emmy-nominated role that launched him into the ubiquitous-TV-personality stratosphere (Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes 2, The Muppets Go Hollywood, et al.). In the ’80s, Burton began a 25-year stint teaching literacy to kids on PBS’s Reading Rainbow, and brought amiable nerdiness and eleventh-hour crisis sensibility to Star Trek: The Next Generation without ever playing the Magical Negro. He also directed episodes of that show and three subsequent Trek spin-offs, and it’s behind the camera that you’ll more often experience the former seminary student’s wholesome values today. Alas, Reach for Me, Burton’s characteristically earnest new melodramedy about terminally ill hospice patients learning to embrace their final days and each other, is weepy TV-grade goo (and without a bucket list in sight). Seymour Cassel stars as a bedridden, cantankerous old coot who can’t stomach his new roomie (Johnny Whitworth), a rapidly deteriorating pretty-boy too young and sensitive to die. Alfre Woodard is the no-bullshit caretaker, Burton the toe-painting queer nurse, and Adrienne Barbeau the silver-haired (and tongued) love interest who allows Cassel a sexy peek at her mastectomy. Yes, it’s as tender as it is disturbing, such as when Cassel has to clear Whitworth’s colostomy tube to save his life. Seniors may find relatable depth in such geriatric gestalt, but for my money, I’d rather be torn apart by Synecdoche’s bleak existential crises. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)
TENNESSEE Fourteen years after they fled their abusive father, brothers Carter (Adam Rothenberg) and Ellis (Ethan Peck) decide to drive from New Mexico to Tennessee to contact him in the hopes that he’s a bone-marrow match for the leukemia-stricken Ellis. If you’re wondering why the guys don’t save time by calling first, you’re not on the wavelength of director Aaron Woodley’s contemplative, pokey road movie/sibling drama, which exists in an antiquated, slow-motion world of pay phones, smoky roadhouses and kindhearted waitresses who dream of becoming country singers. Screenwriter Russell Schaumburg has a knack for subtly unrolling his script’s themes of forgiveness and second chances, but while the road trip contains several nice moments — and an unexpectedly empathetic performance from pop superstar Mariah Carey as said waitress — Tennessee just doesn’t add up to much. Despite the inclusion of an ill-advised chase-thriller element midway through, and a shockeroo surprise at the end, Woodley’s film mostly floats along on its melancholy drift, so well-attuned to the low-key rhythms of its beaten-down characters that it never quite summons up enough energy for the rest of us, who are along for the ride. (Music Hall) (Tim Grierson)