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Movie Reviews: Ninja Assassin, Old Dogs, The Sun

GO  THE END OF POVERTY? “Colonialism is always part of the expansion of capitalism,” opines Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera in The End of Poverty?, director Philippe Diaz’s devastating, radical critique of the colonialist enterprise as inextricable from the current global economic model. While most state-of-the-world docs are content to map the state of the world and leave it at that, Diaz proposes a historical-analytical framework that posits a direct link between the legacy of colonization and the current unequal distribution of wealth that leaves much of the world’s population in a stunning state of poverty. Drawing on an assembly of academics, politicians and activists, Diaz traces the history of economic exploitation back to 1492 and then shows how the traditional colonial model has been replaced by a far more insidious program of financial dependency, in which debt-laden developing nations are forced to make crippling concessions to their creditors, diverting resources away from their suffering citizenry. But for all his film’s sober analysis, Diaz never loses sight of the human cost of global capitalism, traveling to the favelas of Brazil and the shantytowns of Kenya to air the firsthand testimony of those whose impoverishment allows for the unimaginable privilege of a select few. (Monica 4-plex; Culver Plaza) (Andrew Schenker)

GO  ME AND ORSON WELLES Orson Welles lives on not only in posthumously restored director’s cuts of his movies but as a character in other people’s novels, plays and films — notably Richard Linklater’s deft, affectionate and unexpectedly enjoyable Me and Orson Welles. Adapted from a novel by high school English teacher Robert Kaplow, Linklater’s movie concerns Welles’ legendary 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar — the 22-year-old director’s personal triumph. Linklater views Welles’ achievement from the perspective of a high school student (teenage heartthrob Zac Efron). Dubbed “Junior,” the lad brazens his way into a minor part as Brutus’ lute-strumming page, a week before the play is set to open. “You’re not getting anything except the opportunity to be sprayed by Orson’s spit,” Welles’ assistant (Claire Danes) good-naturedly warns him. Actually, the callow but competent Junior gets away with quite a bit (up to a point) even as he learns something about performing and human nature — or at least about the nature of Orson Welles. So do we, thanks to a rich — bordering on plummy — performance by British actor Christian McKay, who nails Welles’ ironic twinkle and assured, mocking self-importance. For all of its virtues, Me and Orson Welles is not perfect. The thrifty period mise-en-scène is oversaturated with ’30s popular music and the screenplay gives only a perfunctory sense of the era’s Popular Front politics (Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy opened on Broadway one week before). But, percolating with backstage banter and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, it is a spirited, confident and even edifying piece of work. (The Grove; The Landmark)

THE MISSING PERSON John Rosow is a P.I., hired off a cold call to trail a man. It turns out he’s distinctly bad at his job — once he’s got his mark in sight, he starts slamming martinis and, tall and unsteady, makes a conspicuous tail. Rosow — played by Michael Shannon, whose rumpled face suggests harrowing knowledge and unmade beds — is introduced grunting through a gummy hangover mouth, his leak of complaining noises never stopped up. After a leisurely pursuit from Chicago to L.A. to Mexico, he hauls his prey back East, where they’ll confront NYC and the memories they abandoned there. The date will be established as post-9/11, but Rosow is a culture-shocked noir refugee, befuddled by camera phones, chastised for smoking by a cop on a Segway, and photographed in raspy, desaturated HD instead of his native black-and-white. Auteur Noah Buschel’s film references touchstones of the lonesome 1930s — one of Rosow’s flashbacks reproduces Edward Hopper’s New York Movie; his target’s backstory, an ordinary life amputated by close-call trauma, borrows from Hammett’s Maltese Falcon — all of which is well and artsy, but doesn’t diminish the sense, once the mystery has untangled, that the film has been gesturing toward a profundity that isn’t there. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

NINJA ASSASSIN Isn’t that a tautology — both ninja and assassin? Redundancy aside, having braved zombies in 28 Days Later, Naomie Harris now faces a centuries-old clan of ninjas who have been hiring themselves out, Blackwater-style, as government mercenaries. Sad to say, the undead were more fun. Directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), and with Joel Silver and the Wachowskis as producers, Ninja Assassin is a hard-R blood fest with much CG and many severed limbs. Eurocop Harris discovers the ninjas’ secret role in black-ops history, so, naturally, they come after her — that’s the entire plot. But one Bourne-like rogue ninja (South Korean pop star Rain) does try to protect her from the silent swarm of sword-wielding assassins. (Strict traditionalists, ninjas here appear incapable of driving, using guns or cell phones, or smiling.) Ninjas love the shadows and abhor the light, leaving most of their battles murky and difficult to follow. (Try to count the screams, arterial geysers and fallen limbs, then do the math; the ninjas always win.) With a passable smirk, 300-style abs and limited English, Rain has zero chemistry with Harris; indeed, they spend half the movie apart. (Interminable flashbacks to his early training are like a ninja Hogwarts, complete with magical powers and puppy love.) A triple-cross plot with Harris’ superiors doesn’t help the movie’s clarity — neither does the clattering sound design. Shouldn’t throwing stars be silent? If they’re gonna sound like gunshots, why not just use guns? (Citywide) (Brian Miller)

OLD DOGS Robin Williams works hard for his paycheck, give him that. I hope he was paid per-square-inch of bared flesh, much of it shorn of its thick fur coating for Old Dogs. A chest tattoo repeatedly factors in as a sight gag; there’s also an overlong encounter with a spray-on tanning tank, in which Williams is left to beg for mercy, and what’s intended to play as comedy comes off as...disconcerting. John Travolta likewise doesn’t hold back — appearing facedown in a dead woman’s rhubarb pie, which isn’t even a euphemism. Williams and Travolta play lifelong BFFs who are also the namesakes of a sports-marketing firm trying to land a Japanese account that’ll set them for life. Into this international-incident-in-waiting walk two cherubic seven-year-olds (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta as fraternal twins), the result of a drunken South Beach one-nighter that Williams’ Dan spent with a woman named Vicki (Kelly Preston — yes, John’s wife and Ella Bleu’s actual mother). Dan and Travolta’s “Uncle” Charlie are left to cope with the twosome for two weeks, during which Uncomfortable Moments will eventually melt away into Bonding Experiences as strangers become family. A note: You see where this is going, but, apparently, kids don’t know the formula. My easily amused six-year-old thought the copious sight gags were absolutely hysterical, especially that bit from the trailer involving Seth Green and a gorilla. Disconcerting. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose director Rebecca Miller’s fourth feature may be the only film you’ll ever see with both Cornel West and Monica Bellucci in minor roles. But it is also immediately recognizable as the millionth iteration of a sheltered suburban housewife who has a slight crack-up and decides she better get her ya-yas out. Devoted helpmeet Pippa (Robin Wright Penn, in near-permanent Stepford Wife mode), approaching 50, is married to publishing powerhouse Herb (Alan Arkin), a man 30 years her senior who becomes a surrogate daddy. Before finding papa, teenage Pippa (Blake Lively), recounted in flashback, must escape the soul-sucking vortex of black beauty–popping mommy (Maria Bello), and is eventually rescued by Herb. Middle-aged Pippa wonders if she’s “having a very quiet nervous breakdown”: She commits sleep crimes, somnambulistically driving to the convenience store, where Chris (Keanu Reeves) works. A wayward son with the Son of God tattooed on his chest, he becomes Pippa’s personal Jesus. Though she’s to be understood as a 21st-century heroine, Pippa ends up making a retrograde, new-lease-on-life decision similar to that of Betty Draper in Mad Men’s third-season finale. Yet this concluding entry in Miller’s diary of a mad housewife is supposed to make us root for Pippa, a woman with a new fella but no friends and no apparent job skills. A woman without much of a life at all. Pippa’s got her ya-yas, but where is her sisterhood? (ArcLight Hollywood; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Melissa Anderson)

GO  STRONGMAN If Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun didn’t exist, someone would have invented him by now, possibly Danny McBride or Will Ferrell. The self-proclaimed “world’s strongest man at steel-bending,” Pleskun is the same kind of possibly delusional big dreamer — with an equally big gut — that comedians love to make mock-docs about. But Strongman, winner of the Best Documentary prize at Slamdance, is the real deal, and so is Pleskun, who can lift trucks with his legs and bend a penny with his bare hands. Yet he also works a menial blue-collar job, and the closest he gets to fame is the occasional TV appearance and the odd parking-lot or elementary-school performance. Worse, as Pleskun gets older, his strength isn’t quite what it was, and a new class of more showbiz-savvy up-and-comers are ready to do what he does and more. Zachary Levy’s documentary offers no context, titles, narration or music — it just observes its subject in the same uncomfortable verité style favored by such spot-on documentary parodies as The Office. Unlike the titular band in Anvil! The Story of Anvil!, or American Movie star Mark Borchardt, Stanless Steel isn’t likely to see a robust second act to his career. But he’s equally fascinating to watch, whether you laugh at him or cry with him ... and there’s a good chance you’ll do both. (Downtown Independent) (Luke Y. Thompson)

GO  THE SUN The most perverse installment of Aleksandr Sokurov’s dictator cycle, The Sun follows the Russian director’s meditations on Hitler (Moloch, 1999) and Lenin (Taurus, 2000) with a curiously upbeat portrait of Japan’s last divine emperor, Hirohito, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Much of The Sun is spent with Hirohito in the bunker, waiting for the Americans. Attended by his chamberlain and a single, doddering servant, the isolated, childlike emperor ignores air-raid sirens to work in his lab. He’s a marine biologist who, examining a specimen crab, exclaims, “What heavenly beauty!” Hirohito (Issei Ogata) is himself something of a specimen — a naive eccentric whose distinctive twitch suggests a carp gasping for breath. When it comes to assigning responsibility for wartime atrocities, Sokurov gives Hirohito the benefit of the doubt. Preparing a message for his defeated people (who have never heard his divine voice), he ponders his sacred heritage while leafing through a family photo album and then one devoted to pictures of Hollywood stars. Shall the emperor take his place among them? Though he successfully humanizes Hirohito, Sokurov doesn’t entirely exonerate him. He contrives a shock ending that, as measured as everything else in this engrossing, supremely assured movie, acknowledges one last blood sacrifice on the emperor’s altar. (Music Hall, Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)


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