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Movie Reviews: Living in Emergency, Micmacs, The Painter Sam Francis

AGORA Not lacking for conviction or cojones, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is a big, broad, stridently atheistic sword-and-sandals entertainment that recounts a tragic turning point in world history. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer in 4th-century Alexandria, whose life and work is increasingly threatened by a bloody societal shift toward reactionary, virulent Christianity. To its credit, the film calls out Christianity’s ignominious imperialism and locates a valid historical analogue to today’s religious extremism. Yet good intentions shan’t save Amenábar from his own ham-fisted methods. It’s one thing to depict crusaders hurling a cynic onto hot coals, ritually slaughtering pagans, stoning and massacring Jews and enforcing total faith — but need they wear uniformly dark, ragged cloaks and snarl through unkempt faces, while pagans dress brightly, bathe frequently, and no doubt smell really good? Servant boy–cum-wispy–indie-rocker-of-antiquity Max Minghella even comes to learn that slavery is far better than belief. Amenábar’s camera assumes extreme low- and high angles, setting heroes against starry skies before freely zooming back to assume a celestial POV (praise be to Google Maps). What’s missing is a satisfying, plausible middle ground, where heady ideas and metaphors coalesce into compelling drama. Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) has the ambition but not yet the skill of a Kubrick or Spielberg to make visual flourishes function emotionally. The music swells, characters glower and suffer in slow-mo, and Amenábar champions the life of the intellect by condescending to ours. (Eric Hynes) (Landmark)

BURZYNSKI Eric Merola, a former art director of commercials, is either unusually credulous, doesn’t understand the difference between a documentary and an advertisement, or has an undisclosed relationship with the subject of his allegedly nonfiction first film. Consciously or not, Merola is shilling madly for Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a Polish-born physician who has run afoul of federal authorities and shown up on several quackometers for his claim to have cured scores of patients of a lethal brain cancer with a treatment derived from animal urine. Burzynski’s smooth patter and bad dye job don’t clinch the case against him — though how he gained the trust of desperate patients is anybody’s guess — but neither do they mitigate the powerful stench that rises from his plaintive cries of victimization by “jealous” government agencies and courts that blocked his right to complete clinical trials. Narrated in a weirdly robotic voice-over, Burzynski violates every basic rule of ethical filmmaking: Merola interviews only Burzynski’s supporters; produces no patient records other than the doctor’s own; and offers no credible proof of the drug’s success and no data about its side effects, even as he slams chemotherapy and radiation. Who’s the bigger charlatan — Burzynski or Merola — and why is this conspiratorial rubbish being released into theaters? (Ella Taylor) (Music Hall)

JOHN RABE Like many historical dramas and biopics, John Rabe operates between the extremes of broad-stroked symbolism and selective detail, between poetic license and classroom exposition, between history and his story. The film recounts the true and largely overlooked actions of German businessman Rabe (a fine Ulrich Tukur), whose decision to remain in Nanking during the Japanese siege of 1937 made him a hero in China and a nuisance to the Nazis. A loyal member of the party, Rabe first fends off bombers by hiding factory workers underneath a giant swastika, then commands a safety zone that spares more than 200,000 civilian lives. It’s a remarkable story, and filmmaker Florian Gallenberger does his best to shade his portrait with complications and mitigations. But for a story not often told, John Rabe feels awfully familiar, deliberately recalling the wartime tragedies of Berlin, Warsaw, Spielberg, Polanski, et al. There are good Germans and bad Germans (one of the latter sporting a nasty scar), good Japanese and bad Japanese (snorting and glowering like dragons), a crack team of hardy heroes, whiffs of romance among the ruins, and somehow just one lead Chinese character. Historical melodramas like John Rabe soberly re-create events yet still manage to sensationalize them, whether through lingering shots of stripped schoolgirls and decapitated heads, or via a willfully uplifting climax. Cello-scored pantomimes of resilience and grief can make us feel, but it’s not always evident who or what purpose that serves. (Eric Hynes) (Monica, Town Center)

KILLERS was not screened in advance of our deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

GO   LIVING IN EMERGENCY Uninterested in heroicizing  the four Western doctors it follows through their missions in the Congo and Liberia, or even in whitewashing the ethical challenges of an organization like Médecins Sans Frontières, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders takes a rough — in several senses — measure of how humanitarian aid works. Two of the doctors are making their first MSF missions, two are veterans — one more wearied than the other. Director Mark Hopkins stays close to their experiences, whether they are treating a hernia in a bush tent or celebrating their short-lived success in reassembling a broken skull. The doctors’ motivations remain somewhat enigmatic, even as the two veterans emerge as more fully drawn characters. A matriarchal Italian in braids and long, stylish skirts calls the decision to close a clinic in postwar Liberia “a criminal mistake”; an Australian surgeon rips on UNICEF before suggesting, in a rare moment of ethnographic dissonance, that it’s more rewarding to practice medicine in war-torn Congo, the current rape capital of the world, because it is a country “where people care about each other.” Hopkins focuses on the work, refusing to get too close to his subjects, who themselves struggle — as a matter of survival — against the human instinct to not just cure but to connect to those in pain. (Michelle Orange) (Music Hall)

MARMADUKE Brad Anderson’s long-running saga of the melty-looking Winslow family and the gangling, interfering Great Dane that should’ve been put to sleep ages ago gets a film treatment, and once-mute Marmaduke now has expressive, CGI-arched eyebrows and a voice provided by Owen Wilson. Relocated from Kansas to Orange County by master Phil (Lee Pace), Marmaduke tries to fit in at the new dog park. It’s like “high school for dogs,” explains a helpful mutt; why a dog would explain something in these terms is unclear, though it prepares us for an off-the-rack HS movie plot, as the hermitic one-panel strip opens up to a canine social world with its own strata, topped by purebreds, which Marmaduke must negotiate. In the parallel human B story, Phil spends a lot of time working to provide for his family. That thoughtful ’Duke sabotages Phil’s professional life, but the rest of us can hardly forget the workaday world in this haze of Dog Gone Awful puns (“It’s raining cats and us”), surreal set pieces (“A surf competition for dogs?”), sound-track poots and a Sam Elliott–voiced mongrel maiming a dogcatcher offscreen, while Fox secures the rights to Hägar the Horrible. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

GO   MICMACS An exploded grandfather clock of a movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s intricately antic Micmacs hurls gears, gizmos, and other trash-heap objets d’art at the audience. It’s aggressively, whimsically retro, like a heaping second helping of his 1992 black comedy, Delicatessen. Instead of the enchanted fairyland of his smash hit Amélie, Jeunet burrows into the Parisian scrap-yard lair of the Micmacs, a band of outcasts without superpowers but who have ingenious uses for old junk. Movie-quoting video-store clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) joins them after a nasty encounter with a bullet; that, plus his father’s prior land-mine mishap, has him vowing revenge on two rival arms manufacturers. Quicker than you can say “Yojimbo,” the Micmacs spring into action. Magnets, alarm clocks, string and jars of wasps are the Micmacs’ preferred weaponry — the team embodies Jeunet’s love of the handmade and the improvised, which he then pits against the cold technology of the munitioners. (Though, in one concession to our times, Jeunet does allow the Micmacs to use YouTube.) Allusions are made to recent European arms deals in the Balkans and Afghanistan, but Micmacs is more fantasia than violent revenge tale. And its pleasing curlicues — like a bouquet of spoons— linger long after the predictable outcome. (Brian Miller) (ArcLight Hollywood, ArcLight Pasadena, The Landmark)

ONDINE A bad drunk dried out into a luckless loner fisherman, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) lives for visits with Annie (Alison Barry), his wise-beyond-her-years crippled kid stuck in the custody of her still-boozing mom. One morning, Syracuse pulls up his net and finds a shivering woman — or is she a mermaid? — and soon his fishing fortunes change. While Annie hits the books looking for a mythical explanation, her dad falls in love with the mysterious creature, who calls herself Ondine (Alicja Bachleda). Writer/director Neil Jordan gradually builds up the possibility of fairy-tale magic in an identifiably real world, and then systematically knocks it down. This might have played as a welcome correction to today’s brand of contemporary indie film, which pairs poverty and whimsy neatly, if Ondine didn’t indulge in its own modern-movie claptrap. Eccentric yet unwittingly carnal, prone to atonal gibberish, Ondine is a grade-A manic pixie dream girl, bringing a curmudgeonly outcast back to life with her kindness, tolerance and perfect breasts. Ciphers aside, Ondine effectively sustains a mood of a hazy melancholy most affecting when nothing much is happening: Colin Farrell has the Best Enigmatic Stare in current cinema, and Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography, all foggy blankets of blue and green, gives Syracuse’s uncertainty a tangible texture. The spell is broken with the plot’s final twist, which suggests that the film’s core mystery wouldn’t have been much of one had Syracuse been a fan of Icelandic ambient band Sigur Rós. Yes, seriously. (Karina Longworth) (Landmark)

THE PAINTER SAM FRANCIS The name in the title belongs to the California-born artist who, set up in Saint-Germain-des-Prés during the 1950s, was at the vanguard of introducing and selling American abstract expressionism to a European audience. This biography doc, from Fluxus associate and all-purpose avant-garde hanger-about Jeffrey Perkins, was 40 years in the making, built on the foundation of a 1968 shoot of Sam Francis at work, pulled along by his brushstrokes, stopping to flagellate an in-progress canvas. For aficionados, the evidently rare footage of Francis squatting on hairy thighs, scampering ahead to stay intuitive before intellectual, will justify the film. But if we learn something of the painter’s “from-the-solar-plexus” process here (“It’s so easy!”), the portrait of Francis — from a ’73 sit-down interview with the sapped and wary artist, none too charismatic in his reticence, and postmortem interviews with family and colleagues — doesn’t articulate enough to explain the film’s epic gestation period. Only an opaque outline of the subject comes through — monomaniacally productive through illness, five times married, no candidate for Father of the Year — and Francis finally impresses, mostly, through his masquerade of Grand Artist sartorial effects, a big Salon des Refusés mustache, and the mien of a feudal Japanese Zen painter. (Nick Pinkerton) (Monica, Playhouse)

PERRIER’S BOUNTY While Hollywood has belatedly cooled on snarky, loud-quiet-loud proto-Tarantino gangster comedies, our English-speaking brethren across the Atlantic remain steadfast, pumping public money into spawns of Sexy Beast and maintaining full employment for slumming stage-trained thespians. By no means the worst of the lot, Gaelic import Perrier’s Bounty might be the most rote, moving dutifully through the stations of the genre without establishing or generating any motivational thrust. Melancholic mess Michael (Cillian Murphy) has just a few hours to repay an unexplained debt to the town heavy, Perrier (Brendan Gleeson), but his efforts at scoring cash only get him into deeper trouble. He goes on the lam with his tweaked, gun-happy pa (Jim Broadbent) but shows more concern for a heartbroken crush (Jodie Whittaker) than he does for the bounty on his head. Hollowed of plausibility, sincere characterization and any sense of real-life danger, what remains is a thin and damned spotty skin of situational humor. For every welcome gag — vindictive tow-truckers keep booting getaway cars — there’s a callous barrage of spit-take punch lines involving bodies hacked, shot and foley-thumped to death. Instead of inspiring discomfort — should we laugh or cringe? — such violence engenders only ambivalence, onscreen and off. Ivan Fitzgibbon’s film is so steadfastly blithe that one yearns for a flicker of pretension, some small sign that there’s a guiding principle or purpose other than to take the piss, tiredly. (Eric Hynes) (Nuart)

RAAJNEETI was not screened in advance of our deadline, but a review will appear here next week, and can be found at laweekly.com/movies. (Culver Plaza, Fallbrook)

SPLICE Though Sundance-screened and sporting an upscale cast, Vincenzo Natali’s Splice has a mad-science quality. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are Clive and Elsa, a married couple of “rock star” genetic engineers who are introduced midwifing the birth of a lab-grown, maggoty sack of tissue, which we’ll soon observe in a mating tango that’ll put you off your popcorn. Clive and Elsa then decide to tamper in God’s domain and toss a soupçon of human DNA into their recipe. What winds up in the incubator is a massive spermatozoon ending in an obscene glans, which hatches a walking skinned rabbit, which develops into an increasingly humanoid girl with a wicked harelip. Though he’ll more than accept their adoptee in time, Clive is understandably creeped out at first by his wife’s coddling treatment of the thing, now christened “Dren.” (Polley’s glowing reaction shots while nestling her mutant toddler make a deadpan joke of parents’ indifferent pride over whatever they’ve hatched.) In spite or because of the portentous, gathering-clouds score and accumulated Freudian gibble gabble, Splice is a queerly funny movie. Natali never drops his poker face, but you can’t tell me a moment like the Big Presentation, where the front row of suits get splattered, isn’t supposed to be a knee-slapper. Of Splice’s various primal scenes, that’s-just-wrong coitus interruptuses and ridiculous dialogues delivered with unfailing conviction (“Was it ever about science?”), I am less certain of the intention. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)


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