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Movie Reviews: The A-Team, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, The Karate Kid and Killers

THE A-TEAM
Joe Carnahan's big-screen adaptation of NBC's 1983 midseason-replacement-turned-three-seasons-running-hit is convoluted, overstuffed, turned up to 11, and yet, somehow, deadly dull—in other words, white noise. Rather than a reinterpretation, it's a soulless, sloppy, smirky rerun that makes those Charlie’s Angels movies seem positively nouvelle vague; at least Drew Barrymore and crew weren't just shouting bad impressions over the blasts. Liam Neeson is George Peppard as Hannibal Smith, cigar-chomping frontman of the band of wrongly accused Army Rangers; Bradley Cooper is Dirk Benedict as Templeton "Faceman" Peck, bullets bouncing off his perpetual smug grin; Quinton Jackson is Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, whose mohawk still pities the fool; and District 9's Sharlto Copley is Dwight Schultz as Murdock, the howlin' mad pilot who crashes most everything he touches. To the mix, add in Jessica Biel as the Army captain charged with bringing down the boys (complicated by the fact that Face is her ex); Patrick Wilson as the CIA agent who may or may not be setting up the team (but totally is, duh); frequent video-game voice-over actor Brian Bloom as the icky leader of a Blackwater-style operation that's gone rogue, I tellya, rogue; and Gerald McRaney as the worst best friend in the world. The plot has something to do with counterfeiting plates, but it's just an excuse to blow shit up for two hours. How can something this loud be this boring? (Robert Wilonsky)

COCO CHANEL AND IGOR STRAVINSKY
Coco Chanel. Igor Stravinsky. Two iconoclasts whose contributions to their respective artistic fields left an indelible mark on the 20th century. Did you know they use to bone? After a lengthy staging of the disastrous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring (the sole sympathetic set of ears in the audience belonging to the youngish Chanel), Stravinsky jumps ahead a decade. Lacking love, hot shot Coco (Anna Mouglalis) turns workaholic like a proper romcom heroine; Igor (Mads Mikkelsen), an unpopular genius, is living in squalid exile. She invites him, his sickly wife and their offspring to move in to her country estate, and soon the two artists are furiously humping on the piano. "Your music has more passion," sneers Mrs. Stravinsky, willing to accept the dalliance if it's good for the canon — up to a point. Lit like a David Fincher music video and shot with a gliding camera approximating a wandering eye, Stravinsky strains to convince that its lascivious pleasures have historical import. In the film's 1:1 correlation between erotic indulgence and creative innovation, hot, home-wrecking sex is justifiable only if it directly leads to the invention of Chanel No. 5. Stravinsky is the second corset-ripping French-language romance about the legendary fashion designer to hit American screens in seven months. Here, Coco's cast as a femme fatale who preys on a helpless nebbish. The Audrey Tattou–starring Coco Avant Chanel was much more fun. (Karina Longworth) (Royal)

THE CREMASTER CYCLE
Named for the muscle that turns your nutsack into a walnut when it gets cold, The Cremaster Cycle swings the biggest dick in contemporary art. Produced from 1994 through 2002, Matthew Barney's humongous riff on struggle, reproduction, conceptual drag, and several dozen strands of narrative gobbledygook is undeniably something to be reckoned with — if only as a relic of the boom years in contemporary art. In what now looks like the freakiest Lady Gaga video ever, Cremaster 1 (1995) fuses Busby Berkeley with Marcel Duchamp to propose an allegory of sexual differentiation on board two Goodyear blimps subject to the bizarre geometric dictates of a football field in Idaho. Cremaster 2 (1999), the most visually compelling entry, introduces heaps of quasi-narrative content (murderers, magic, Mormons) in service of a "gothic Western" indebted to David Lynch and Richard Prince. These increasingly elaborate narrative and symbolic structures come to an unbearably tedious climax in the three-hour-long Cremaster 3 (2002), which opens in the mists of B-movie Celtic prehistory before proceeding to a lugubrious rumination on the construction of the Chrysler building and Barney's own art-world apotheosis — as staged on a Guggenheim spiral busy with heavy metalloids, cheetah-women, Comme Des Garçonism and Adobe After-Effects. Literalizing the cycle's parasitic relation to art history, Cremaster 3 casts Richard Serra as a Vaseline-Flinging Architect; culminating the cycle's cinematic ambitions, it premiered at the Ziegfeld. Aficionados of avant-garde cinema tend to call bullshit on Barney, partly because he's a blatantly lousy editor. The voluptuous Hungarian operatics of Cremaster 5 (1997) lack genuine musicality. There's an exquisite cut to be made from the nearly seven-hour yawn time of the complete cycle. Alas, it's not in the interest of collectors who pony up six-figure fees for Cremaster on DVD to enable illicit edits. Barney's career, for all its conceptual excess, is predicated on an economy of artificial scarcity. (Nathan Lee) (Nuart)

FINDING BLISS
Somebody, somewhere along the line, did writer/director Julie Davis (Amy's Orgasm) the disservice of describing her as a female Woody Allen. Watching Finding Bliss, her latest self-amused exercise in personal (and, inevitably, sexual) exorcism, I imagined a sanatarium for all of the directors working under the same delusion. They could detox from cloying narration, lament being enabled by the actors (in this case, Leelee Sobieski, Kristen Johnson and Denise Richards) drawn to their middling "urban sex comedy" material, and kill all of their stillborn darlings in a ritualistic bonfire. It is particularly painful to watch Sobieski — whose unnervingly symmetrical Botticelli face and supernatural poise can't help but hold the screen — put through the paces of Davis' almost unbearably labored script. A film-school graduate struggling to make her first movie, Jody Balaban (Sobieski) finds herself cutting porn for an L.A. production company in order to pay the bills. Hung up on sex (she's a virgin at 25; naturally, her first film is called On the Virge) and getting negged by her sexy, asshole boss (Matthew Davis), Jody learns that porn stars are people, too, not all boys are bad, and — most unfortunately — working out preteen emotional traumas on film can be as gratifying for the audience as it is for the director. (Michelle Orange) (Sunset 5)

 

GANGSTER'S PARADISE: JERUSALEMA
Crudely modeled after Rio gang drama City of God and its superior Scorsese/De Palma forefathers, Gangster's Paradise charts a young crook's rise to Johannesburg slumlord with derivative flash and faux moralizing. Failing to secure a university scholarship in 1994, poverty-stricken Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) instead turns to carjacking and — after moving to the big, bad city — to real estate scams, all the while purporting to be a Robin Hood humanitarian combating his homeland's racist power structure. Writer/director Ralph Ziman bends over backward to stack the deck in Lucky's favor by making his light- and dark-skinned adversaries even scummier than he is. Nevertheless, given that the inspired-by-real-events story has its wannabe Scarface operate solely out of amoral self-interest, any rationalized glorification of its protagonist rings false. So, too, does Lucky's silent seething over a white woman confessing that "when you're rich, poverty seems glamorous," since the film wantonly exploits destitution and violence for genre thrills. Though South Africa's racial strife is frequently invoked, sociopolitical inquiry takes a backseat to creaky gangster-cinema tropes. Still, there's minor amusement in the suggestion that entrepreneurial criminality begins with a preference for Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal over the Bible. (Nick Schager) (Playhouse, Sunset 5)

HEY HEY IT'S ESTHER BLUEBURGER
"Are you there God?" For many people of a certain age, there is a natural second half to that question — "It's me, Margaret" — taken from the title of the eponymous Judy Blume young adult novel. When the title character of Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger poses that question (into a toilet bowl no less), it's tough not to feel that Australian first-time writer-director Cathy Randall is assuming viewers will want to fill in the rest as well. Her version of the gawky teenage outsider (Danielle Catanzariti) who finds herself only after falling in with a charismatic bad-girl from another school (Keisha Castle-Hughes), is wildly uneven but never boring, even as it tours the trappings of classic teen dramas. Randall does at times successfully combine a more genuinely reflective and emotionally resonant teen picture with trademark Down Under capital-Q quirk, but the filmmaker's overreliance on oddball characterizations and easy-bake kookiness often derails her seemingly loftier intentions. Likewise, just how to utilize Esther's Jewish identity, and how that sets her apart from others at her school, is something Randall never quite resolves. Toni Collette appears in a brief role as the mother of Castle-Hughes' character, but she is dispatched with the film's most melodramatic flourish. (Spoiler alert: Can it be anything but a portentously bad omen when someone rides off on motorcycle, without a helmet, while talking on a cell phone?) Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger is a debut of some middling promise and not much else. (Mark Olsen) (Sunset 5, Town Center)

THE KARATE KID
Like its predecessor, 2010's The Karate Kid begins with an uprooting. Young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother are introduced in their Detroit apartment, now packed into boxes. Ralph Macchio shipped off to the Valley; Dre is going to China. A skate kid behind on his growth spurt, once he hits the mainland, Dre attracts horrible bullying from a jealous classmate and his cronies, all of whom are training together in a show-no-mercy fighting school. He is saved from crippling by the intervention of his building's super, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Seeing the boy's dilemma, Han agrees to teach him a title-defying lesson in kung fu self-defense. The first Karate Kid was a bit of a Frankenstein: a Charles Atlas ad premise (97-pound weakling trains to get his revenge) that sent geeks flocking to the dojo; a cross-cultural surrogate-fatherhood story; a fist-pumping aerobic workout montage. It's all still here, building toward the same showdown tournament, though the fighting is far more bone-crunching, FX-augmented — and impossible this time. If the original is fondly remembered, it's because the looseness of the actors and abject trash sound track relaxed an audience to where we could enjoy our favorite underdog clichés. Remake director Harald Zwart hasn't done anything that would threaten to make this a really new movie — a Karate Kid who stayed in Detroit, for example — and there is the impression, deadly to the sense of fun, that the talent here actually thought they were remaking a classic. (Nick Pinkerton) (Citywide)

 

JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
Opening with a close-up of the crow's feet around its subject's eyes and expanding to reveal her Botox-frozen upper lip, the documentary-portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work celebrates Saint Joan the Resilient, Showbiz Survivor. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg dogged the indomitable stand-up comic throughout the course of her 76th year — a typically hectic period during which Rivers lurched from disappointment to triumph and back. For all the frenzied activity, Joan Rivers is less informative dish than infomercializing cliché. It may be a revelation to see an entire wall in Rivers's Louis XIV–style apartment devoted to the card catalog in which she files all of her jokes. It's less illuminating to be told, repeatedly, that a performer craves attention. Nice to know that Joan is a real person (she comes across as a warm, unembarrassed egomaniac) but it's the character she invented and plays that makes her interesting. Stern and Sundberg don't provide much context, but they are not alone in their disinclination to ponder their subject's art; considering that Rivers is one of the few women capable of holding her own against the vicious shpritzmeisters of the Friars Club, she remains remarkably untheorized by culture critics. At one point, Joan's daughter, Melissa, addresses her rivalry with the entity she calls "The Career," as in her mother's. There's plenty of that in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, but I wouldn't have minded a bit more of Joan Rivers: The Text. (J. Hoberman) (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark)

KILLERS
If you count the number of hairstyles Katherine Heigl wears in this dreary romcom-with-guns, the tally is likely to be four or five. Ashton Kutcher's facial expressions, one. His shirtless scenes, two. Her scenes in a bra (but never topless!), three. Sex scenes, zero. Tom Selleck's moustache, one, but all parties agree it's magnificent. Yet the most damning number is this: In a movie whose plot hinges on normal suburban friends and neighbors suddenly transforming themselves into ruthless assassins gunning for Kutcher (a retired CIA hit man), all of them hoping to claim a $20 million bounty, a full 45 minutes elapse before the bullets start flying. Before then, his future wife (Heigl) smiles sweetly and shops for a dress; we visit Nice, where Kutcher — one of the film's producers—speaks a little French; and Selleck, as the disapproving fatherin-law, glowers at Kutcher. But actually, as he gets to live out his 007 fantasies, Kutcher's not bad; it's Heigl who comes off worse, with her eye-batting, boob thrusting and complaining. In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the married killers had a sexy, mercenary balance of power between them; they were equals, superior beings who chose to live among us. Killers' couple only wants to embrace the drab. "I'd kill for a normal life," Kutcher says. Unfortunately for us, he does both. (Brian Miller) (Citywide)

GO   WHIZ KIDS
From Hoop Dreams and Spellbound to worthy Hollywood biopics extolling charismatic teachers who bully or cajole their inner-city pupils to success, American cinema continually, though with varying degrees of skepticism, quizzes the persistent, elusive American dream of meritocratic upward mobility. In Whiz Kids, Tom Shepard, a proudly uncloseted former science nerd, follows three American teenagers as they prepare to enter the Science Talent Search, a national competition dangling a hefty $100,000 prize. Two of the kids are the children of supportive parents from Ecuador and Pakistan. The third is a resourceful young West Virginian girl who has invented a way to rid contaminated local water of chemicals dumped by Dupont, where her extremely encouraging father works. Whiz Kids is a much less flashy film than Spellbound, and it's slightly hampered by the fact that these budding scientists are less cinematically wacky and eccentric than that movie's word nerds. But Shepard, who has made documentaries defending Jehovah's Witnesses and uncovering antigay policy in the Boy Scouts, is adept at teasing out both the dream's promise and its limits. Dwelling as much on setbacks and hurdles as on the glitter of competition, this quietly absorbing film is finally more about character formation — curiosity, persistence, endurance — than about achievement as a means to some extrinsic social end. (Ella Taylor) (Music Hall)

 

WINTER'S BONE
"Never ask for what ought to be offered," 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tells her brother in Winter's Bone, Debra Granik's dark and flinty Ozark fairy tale. Those are words to live by for Ree and her people, scattered across the hardscrabble southern Missouri woods. But in Winter's Bone, a tough-minded girl is forced by circumstance to demand exactly what no one wants to offer: the truth. Ree lives in a small house with her siblings and their mentally ill mother. When the sheriff brings news that Ree's father put the family's house up as bond after an arrest for cooking meth — and that he has subsequently gone on the run — Ree goes looking for Dad to convince him to turn himself in. Met at every turn by narrowed eyes and tight lips, Ree soon gets the picture that asking questions is, as one neighbor puts it, "a real good way to end up et by hogs." While the first half of Winter's Bone is essentially a slow-paced procedural with a pint-size detective, Ree is no Nancy Drew. She gets by on instinct and determination rather than wit, and we come out the other end of Ree's quest impressed, but also disquieted, by her strength. It's uncertain to what end that strength might be used. Ree is tough enough, and mean enough, to rule those woods in a few short years if she sets her mind to it. (Dan Kois) (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark)

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