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Movie Reviews: Redbelt, A Walk Into the Sea, Swimming in Auschwitz

A Walk Into the Sea
The Andy Warhol Museum

ANAMORPH Those nutty cinematic serial killers — always taunting their pursuers with omniscient brilliance, always devising those elaborate crime-scene installations, yet somehow finding time to add that little something extra (death’s-head moth larvae, ornate nods to the Seven Deadly Sins, etc.) that means so much to a grumpy forensic investigator. The gimmick here is anamorphosis, the forced-perspective trick by which an image from one angle looks like something completely different from another angle. That means guilt-ridden CSI vet Willem Dafoe, just back from Anton Chigurh’s barber, must decode the grisly tableaux of an artist whose principal media are blood, sharp objects and eviscerated corpses. (Can Joel-Peter Witkin account for his whereabouts?) Twenty-five years ago, the Dario Argento of Tenebre might’ve socked this style-baiting silliness into the stratosphere, or at least past its eye-rolling contrivances (like the killer’s ability to inconspicuously whip up a room-sized camera obscura). Director and co-writer H.S. Miller just lays on the chilly blues and a wet-blanket mood of arty anguish, leaving cinematographer Fred Murphy and production designer Jackson De Govia to trump up trompe l’oeils of carefully posed carrion. Any resemblance between these and the real-world practice known as murder — committed for trifling motivations like blind anger and money — is strictly coincidental. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)

The Andy Warhol Museum

(Click to enlarge)

A Walk Into the Sea

 THE FAVOR Police photographer Lawrence Hull (Frank Wood) spends most of his time watching TV with his dog in a drab house in Bayonne, New Jersey. When old flame Caroline (Paige Turco) moves back to town, hope flickers in him again, only to be cruelly snuffed out when she dies in a freak accident after only one candlelit dinner date. As a consolation prize — or favor — Lawrence adopts Caroline’s teenage son, Johnny (Dillonesque Ryan Donowho), an affectingly disaffected portrait in caged grief. The kid gets along with Lawrence’s dog, but not so famously with its owner. Somehow, it’s inevitable that Lawrence will end up taking mug shots of Johnny, and the movie soon becomes a matter of what foster-parental agonies must be endured before the gentle Lawrence’s patience snaps, and how long after that Johnny will accept him as a father figure. The characters all communicate better with dogs than people, but by the end of this cheerless fable they have managed to make the leap to healthy relationships with members of their own species. There are some strong performances here (especially from Isidra Vega as the nice girl from the neighborhood and Jesse Kelly as a whiny pot dealer) and sensitive direction from first-timer Eva Aridjis, but The Favor ultimately takes itself too seriously and ends up stranded in an unconvincing no man’s land of cute bleakness. (Grande 4-Plex) (John Tottenham)

 HATS OFF You may not know Mimi Weddell’s name, but you probably know her face: As Jyll Johnstone’s documentary shows, the pool of agile 93-year-old women adept at playing aristocratic and/or crazy is a small one. Clips more and less memorable punctuate Johnstone’s loving profile, spanning a decade in the bit player’s life: multiple Law & Order appearances; a memorable guest spot on Sex and the City; slumped over catatonic next to Bill Murray for a one-shot gag in Broken Flowers. There’s no great argument to be made for Weddell as a master thespian, just one for her perseverance and amazing physical condition: As an nonagenarian, she can complete full gymnastics routines in record time. Johnstone’s profile doesn’t sand away Weddell’s rough edges — her motivational cliché of “Rise above it” applies not just to career obstacles, daughter Sarah explains, but to her own children. It also doesn’t make her add up to anything more than a cantankerous curiosity. Weddell isn’t really representative of an older generation of actors; she’s one of a kind. But this visually indifferent documentary never explains why that matters. (Sunset 5; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Vadim Rizov)

 MADE OF HONOR In Made of Honor, Patrick Dempsey plays a conveniently rich and willfully single serial “fornicator” slowly but surely domesticated by his unspoken love for longtime BFF Hannah (Michelle Monaghan), who’s on her way to Scotland to marry Mr. Right Now since Mr. Right’s too chickenshit to say boo before her “I do.” Which, come to think of it, not only sums up this movie, but more or less half of the films in which Dempsey starred between 1987 and 2003, when he was scheduled to headline a Fox TV series based on the film About a Boy with Dempsey in the Hugh Grant role of the conveniently rich and willfully single serial “fornicator” slowly but surely domesticated by his blah blah blah. And then, of course, there’s the My Best Friend’s Wedding connection — only, the filmmakers and McDreamy have already been so upfront about the resemblance that to further acknowledge it would be playing right into their grubby paws. Director Paul Weiland and the three (!) screenwriters it took to boil down thousands of bad movies to 101 minutes haven’t provided this one with a single original thought; it should only entertain those still getting adjusted to the idea of talkies. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

 GO  REDBELT With his 10th feature — an entertaining tale of high-stakes martial arts — David Mamet has infused the trademark sleight of hand with a measure of two-fisted action. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an exponent of Brazilian jujitsu, teaches his prize pupil how to fight with one hand bound: “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” That the instructor’s pedagogical style is a nonstop torrent of hectoring advice mixed with color commentary suggests the filmmaker’s own faith in the power of language. Still, as played by Ejiofor, Mike is almost sweet — a natural victim. When Mike visits his brother-in-law’s bar, he finds himself intervening in a fight to protect a big-time movie star (Tim Allen). Mike is subsequently invited to the set of the star’s new movie, and somehow the filmmakers start to consider bringing him on as an executive producer. But is this all a plot to force the honest samurai — who has hitherto been too pure to fight competitively — into the ring? Like the left-wing, largely Jewish writers of the ’30s and ’40s, Mamet identifies with the situation of a solitary fighter trapped by a corrupt system. In his case, however, the system isn’t capitalism so much as show business. Therein lies a paradox — Mamet attacks showbiz while surrendering to it. The tenets of jujitsu may argue there’s no trap that cannot be escaped, but the rules of American entertainment insist on it. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Grove; The Landmark) (J. Hoberman)

 GO  SWIMMING IN AUSCHWITZ One of the chief complaints against Hollywood films about the Holocaust is that they shy away from those who died in favor of those who survived. Swimming in Auschwitz is not a studio film, but a modest, locally made documentary that celebrates six women who were at Auschwitz and who survived, moved to Los Angeles after the war, and appear to have lived happy, healthy lives ever since. If it were fiction, director Jon Kean’s first feature-length film, with its tales of unpunished dips in the Nazi officers’ swimming pool and teenage friendships forged between the barracks, might be accused of cheap, Life is Beautiful–style nostalgia — a look back at Auschwitz as if it were just a summer camp with particularly cruel counselors. But Kean’s subjects — and their sometimes improbable stories — are real. These women’s ability to relate their personal histories with humor, detail and without a trace of self-pity make for an honestly moving end result. Instead of the grand horror of the Holocaust (or the “big suffering,” as one woman calls it), Swimming in Auschwitz depicts individuals who “maintained some semblance of life” amid the mass dehumanization that surrounded them. The filmmaking is often amateurish, leaning heavily on the conventions of more ambitious period docs and is, for the most part, stylistically unmemorable; still, the women’s vivid recollections are unforgettable. (Music Hall) (James C. Taylor)

 

GO  A WALK INTO THE SEA Danny Williams, subject of Esther Robinson’s documentary portrait A Walk Into the Sea, was a ’60s casualty. His brief life derives cultural significance from his association with the Silver Age of the Warhol Factory — and a particular poignance in that the survivors of that epoch barely remember him. A Harvard dropout from an old New England family, Williams was an aspiring filmmaker who apprenticed with the Maysles brothers before drifting into that great high school cafeteria cum religious cult known as the Factory — and even into an affair with the pale duke himself. Robinson, who is Williams’ niece, suggests that he was written out of history. Not true: Williams does figure in two Warhol biographies, if not Warhol’s memoirs. Still, interviewed by Robinson, narcissistic cool kids Bridget Polk and Gerard Malanga have long since forgotten her uncle, while other Factory habitués, Billy Name and Paul Morrissey, seem to have regarded him as a threat. Williams, who had experience as a film editor and soundman, designed and operated the light show for Warhol’s 1965-’66 multimedia extravaganza, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Velvet Underground violinist John Cale recalls an instance of Williams and Morrissey, whose job was to project the movies, scuffling one night for control of the cables. A few months later, Williams disappeared off the beach at Cape Ann. Was he driven mad by methamphetamines? Too many strobes? Factory cat fights? A Walk Into the Sea is given additional ballast with excerpts from Williams’ 16 mm movies, discovered by Warhol historian Callie Angell (who points out that Warhol bequeathed Williams his 16 mm Bolex). Hyper-lit and edited in the camera, these films seem to be mainly studies of Andy. But who was Williams? He has a different look in every blurry photo, and, perhaps out of deference to her family, Robinson has little to say about his background. Or maybe it’s a strategy — that Williams’ personality never comes into focus has the effect of making his 15 minutes of fame all the more sad and ghostly. (Grande 4-Plex) (J. Hoberman)

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