BLOOD EQUITY If you’ve already read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent recent New Yorker article on the disturbing physical and mental deterioration that awaits professional football players after their careers are over, you’ll find next to nothing illuminating in this long-on-the-shelf advocacy documentary put together by producer Roman Phifer. A former lineman and current assistant coach, Phifer has organized Blood Equity as an emotional plea for the National Football League Players Association to improve their assistance to aging former players who helped to bring the NFL to prominence but were given little pay and a meager pension. It’s a sad story and one that deserves to be better-known among fans, especially considering the alarming connections being drawn lately between playing football and permanent brain damage, but Blood Equity’s simplistic approach and shoddy production values diminish the urgency of its content. The film’s talking heads — mostly retired pros who sustained crippling injuries — grow monotonous, and there’s zero interest in a deeper ethical debate about the NFL’s ascendant popularity in relation to its celebration of violence. Gladwell, 60 Minutes and other journalists have covered this complicated subject more poignantly and in much greater detail, which makes Blood Equity seem both insufficient and badly behind the curve. To wit, the film spends much of its running time decrying NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw — without ever acknowledging that he died more than a year ago. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)
DEFAMATION Defamation, Jewish Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s cheerfully incendiary documentary about the modern face of anti-Semitism, begins with Shamir blundering, Michael Moore–style, through the New York offices of the Anti-Defamation League, where National Director Abe Foxman and his minions dutifully rout out a “spike” in anti-Semitic incidents, which includes office workers denied vacation for the High Holy Days and a policeman’s racial slur overheard at a funeral. From there, it’s off to Israel, where teens about to depart for a tour of the Polish concentration camps are briefed for their journey: “You will see that they do not like us.” (Later, some of these same students are seen putting imagined anti-Jewish slurs into the mouths of some elderly Polish citizens.) At first, it seems Shamir (Checkpoint) may be indoctrinating us, too. But as he continues his world tour, his case — and the film — becomes more carefully nuanced, with evidence of overt hate crimes (a stabbing spree in a Moscow synagogue) juxtaposed against Foxman’s Chicken Little hysteria, on the one hand, and The Holocaust Industry author Norman Finkelstein’s virulent anti-Zionism on the other. Does anti-Semitism exist, or is it a construct of America’s powerful, pro-Israel lobby? Are Jewish fears of a second Holocaust justified or merely a product of the same fearmongering that gives rise to all forms of extremism? Is Venezuela really the second most anti-Semitic country in the world after Iran? Like most good documentaries, Defamation poses more questions than it purports to answer, before arriving at the mildly reductive postulation that what’s past is past. (Music Hall; Town Center 5)
GO LA DANSE: THE PARIS OPERA BALLET Frederick Wiseman’s magnificent La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet offers a portrait of suppleness and agility — not just that of the dancers’ bodies but also of the august institution of the title. Like all of his documentaries, La Danse forgoes voice-over and identifying intertitles, allowing for spectators’ full immersion into the action within the walls of the Palais Garnier, the 19th-century, neo-Baroque opera house where the company rehearses and performs, while also demanding that we pay closer attention, with none of nonfiction film’s usual cues to guide us. Roughly two-thirds of La Danse is devoted to rehearsal and performance, shot in deeply satisfying long takes of gorgeous young men and women starting, stopping, listening, questioning, repeating, perfecting. The rest is behind the scenes, and as Wiseman shows empty corridors, the cafeteria, sewing rooms and the nightly cleanup of the 2,200-seat theater, the stealth star of La Danse emerges: Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s composed, elegant artistic director. Shown in a meeting discussing the finer distinctions between “benefactors” and “big benefactors,” Lefèvre nimbly tackles the potential messiness — but absolute necessity — of crass commerce fueling high art. When not administrating, Lefèvre seems happiest as a maternal martinet, reminding one new student, “To do is the most important.” (Music Hall; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Melissa Anderson)
GO THE MESSENGER I’m Not There screenwriter Oren Moverman makes his directorial debut with The Messenger, a moving and nuanced drama about the home-front readjustment period for decorated Iraq War hero Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) who, after surviving a roadside blast, has been reassigned as a Casualty Notification Officer. He is partnered with self-proclaimed lunatic Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a dogged Army lifer and semirecovering alcoholic whose only support system is military etiquette. Together, they deliver the worst news to fallen soldiers’ next of kin, and for Will, the volatile (and largely improvised) reactions from those left behind pick at his own emotional scabs. Some might duck and cover at a premise so grim, but Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon’s top-notch script is loaded with authentic compassion and charm — even unlikely sucker punches of humor. Foster appropriately underplays, while Harrelson, never over the top, nails his showier role. The film is obviously about coping with grief — or not knowing how to — as illustrated in a slightly overcooked subplot about a newly widowed woman (Samantha Morton) Will tries to woo. But what really resonates is the complex tale of camaraderie between two men whose only hope of avoiding self-destruction is to let down their guard — which is, of course, against protocol. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Aaron Hillis)
MR. SADMAN Saddam Hussein famously surrounded himself with identical doubles, to mislead potential assassins. In his feature debut, writer-director Patrick Epino poses the tragicomic question: What might have befallen one if he had been forced into early retirement, prior to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait? When Mounir (Al No’Mani, an impressive Saddam double) is injured on the job, gets fired and finds himself at loose ends with a wad of retirement cash, he buys a plane ticket to Hollywood. Epino maintains an amusing strategy throughout: Mounir never has so much as one line of dialogue; he’s as silent as any Keystone comic, and for a while this serves the movie well. For the first third, people project their interpretations upon him, to such lucky effect, that one hopes in vain for something like Being There. Unfortunately, the remainder of the film is weakly constructed, and rapidly falls flat. There’s a potential love story with a party-happy young passerby (Amanda Fuller) who fancies herself an identical double of Anna Karina. She’s lovely but nothing like the Danish Godard muse, a promising contrast with our hero, which goes unexplored. Her character is instead dropped cold and only picked up and dropped again later for increasingly cryptic narrative convenience. The tone then turns completely dark, which might have been interesting had Epino created any sense of anticipation. His potential as a filmmaker is considerable: The film is impeccably cast; it’s shot and cut well. Unfortunately, the secret of comedy is that it’s the highest form of suspense, and Mr. Sadman is just too bleakly episodic. (Downtown Independent) (F.X. Feeney)
PLANET 51 Like E.T. in reverse, this pleasantly mediocre CG animation tale lands an astronaut on a distant planet whose green, four-fingered, newt-ish inhabitants are living in an innocent, 1950s-style state of development. Fearing the brain-eating “humaniacs” they see at the movies, the Planet 51ers naturally view spaceman Chuck (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as a monster — except timid, green teen Lem (Justin Long), who saves Chuck from the mob: “Mom, can I keep him?” Handsome doofus Chuck is a chip off the Buzz Lightyear block, but Planet 51 lacks the Pixar polish (particularly in its writing). Still, it’s not a bad knockoff. The alternate-reality, Cold War–era design is cute: towns laid out like crop circles; women wearing beehives neatly coiffed above their antennae; and saucer-shaped cars wobbling inches from the pavement. Sounds picture-perfect, but before the alien can go home, Lem must thwart a paranoid general (Gary Oldman) and win the girl next door (Jessica Biel), which means that Chuck must act as his preeningly unreliable life coach. Fortunately, many chases and pratfalls attend their journey. The biggest laughs come from a neighborhood dog, modeled on the beast in Alien, that pees acid, and from the robotic six-wheeled NASA rover that’s strongly reminiscent of WALL-E. An awkward European-American co-production, Planet 51 mainly succeeds at reminding you of all the better movies that inspired it. (Citywide) (Brian Miller)
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STATEN ISLAND Native son James DeMonaco overlaps three Staten Island stories, set amid strip-mall Italian joints, tasteless suburban manors, and ship graveyards: Vincent D’Onofrio plays Parmie, a stuffy-voiced, moonfaced mama’s-boy mobster wearing Elizabeth Taylor frames; Ethan Hawke — looking nothing like a septic-tank cleaner — plays septic-tank cleaner Sully; and Seymour Cassel plays Jasper, a lonesome deaf-mute deli counterman. After commenting on the cliché of the brutal mob interrogation he is running, Parmie splits to pursue his secret obsession: breaking a Guinness Book record. The anachronistic soundtrack of ’60s soul and botched retro newsreel opening suggest time has stopped at the end of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, while contradicted by further garishly unexpected plot twists: Parmie converts to radical environmentalism; Sully schemes to buy his unborn child IQ-boosting gene therapy; and Jasper supports a gambling habit doing meat-slicer waste disposal for La Cosa Nostra. Throughout, first-time director DeMonaco shows a predilection for white-hot patches of lighting, squeezed close-ups and actor overindulgence. His poetic realism comes out at a clunky cadence, and at the service of hoary indie conventions: Dramatis personae united in quiet desperation over their outer-borough insignificance, each gazing longingly at the so-close-yet-so-far Manhattan skyline. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
THAT EVENING SUN First-time writer-director Scott Teems has given 84-year-old master actor Hal Holbrook a dream role in Abner Meecham, a Tennessean who walks out of a nursing home and returns to the remote farm where he spent his life. On arrival, Meecham discovers that his son (Walton Goggins) has rented the place to a local bad apple named Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family. Furious, Abner takes up residence in a rundown cabin near the main house, triggering a volatile feud between the two men. An old-world Southerner, Abner is unforgiving of weakness, and of Lonzo, an often despicable character for whom McKinnon, in a charged performance, generates a surprising degree of empathy. As an actor, Holbrook is as unsentimental as Abner himself, and the beauty of his work here lies in his refusal to soften the character’s hard edges. Regrettably, Teems’ editorial choices in the film’s home stretch waste that discipline: More than once, the director inserts a gooey flashback to a tender moment between the farmer and his late wife (Dixie Carter) that not only extends an already overlong movie but also fatally undercuts the artful rigor of its leading man. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Chuck Wilson)
WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE Other than a few tasty tidbits, like the fact that he wrote Joseph McCarthy’s will while still a young family attorney, there’s not much fresh news about William Kunstler in this documentary. Plodding diligently through the irascible lefty lawyer’s career, Disturbing the Universe travels from his radicalization during the trial of the Chicago 8, through his long roster of civil rights cases, to his defense of alleged rapists and assassins that cost him the support of many former admirers. What makes the film fascinating is the anguished dance around hagiography performed by two of his daughters, who wrote, directed and narrate the movie. Born when he was close to 60 and now in their early 30s, Emily and Sarah Kunstler want to know whether their late father was a lone fighter for social justice or a narcissist so addicted to the media spotlight that he was willing to take on “some very bad people.” Well, both, of course, but the film shows how tough it was to be the children of a biblically charismatic persuader (his idol was Michelangelo’s David), who found the sound of his own orating voice irresistible. He wasn’t alone — up pops Alan Dershowitz, proud defender of Claus von Bülow and other notable sleazebags, to needle Kunstler for taking on unworthy cases. Kettle, meet pot. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)