Movie Reviews: The Box, A Christmas Carol, The Men Who Stare at Goats

THE BOX Click here for a full review by J. Hoberman. (Citywide)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Nothing if not a meaty yarn, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a lot more besides, but Robert Zemeckis, a cutting-edge animator who hasn’t told a decent story since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, has a tin ear for the writer’s grand moral melodramas, or just doesn’t care much. What switched him on were the technical possibilities of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey back to the future, which Zemeckis has folded into a whiz-bang, often terrifying 3-D thrill ride with all the emotional satisfaction squeezed out of it. The movie’s performance-capture digital technology gives Jim Carrey, sunken into a great beak of a nose and never-ending chin, a chance to show off his india-rubber body language as he morphs from bent old Scrooge to fresh young Scrooge and back again with the aid of whimsically drawn ghosts of Yuletides past. The action is breathtaking, but when A Christmas Carol isn’t carried away by its own frenzied motion, it’s a ruinously stiff tableau vivant of good folk in cabbage-patch faces pilfered from The Polar Express. Zemeckis milks Tiny Tim’s Forrest Gump–ish pathos for every holy drop, leaving little breathing room for the final chapter’s powerful parable of Scrooge doing penance for a life squandered on avarice and acquisition. In the new and far from improved A Christmas Carol, the human drama comes buried in software. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

DIED YOUNG, STAYED PRETTY Eileen Yaghoobian’s doc on the loose federation of North American rock-poster artists is splatter-structured, in supposed solidarity with the free-associative, channel-surfing, exquisite corpse, packrat, eclectic-clusterfuck spirit of its subjects’ work. The frantic eccentricity manifests in groaningly wacky sound-effects cues, krazy kutaways, and edits that rub together interviewees for counterpoint friction. The cacophony of voices, though, forestalls any coherent personal vision — and probably makes some of these guys come off less intelligent than they are. Subjects, shot in Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kentucky, North Carolina, etc., include medium talents and screenprint maestros, ding-dong naifs (Brian Chippendale) and scene fixtures who compare These Days unfavorably to their fervid and receptive youth. Yaghoobian happily follows them for a ramble, as when Rob Jones, the most likable, least blowhard with major screentime, soliloquizes on Elvis: “Who knows, who can fathom the depths of the man?” The King is one of a few topics that keep bobbing up on a rushing current of edits, others being “Messin’ with the squares,” 9/11 (punk or not punk?), and the odd certitude that Moral Majority brownshirts are any day going to start kicking down doors and confiscating vinyl. Tom Hazelmyer offers the only puncture to the oft-monotonous subversion, which seems to often involve Christ and G.W. in embarrassing poses. Whenever the quaint, binary idea of a scrappy counterculture versus The Man overshadows the personalities, craft, and musical context, the movie’s an Adbusters bore. (Downtown Independent) (Nick Pinkerton)

THE FOURTH KIND Seventy-one years after Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast snookered a gullible American public with its real-time alien-invasion scenario, The Fourth Kind writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi tries a similar gambit, albeit with less showmanship than Welles had in his pinky finger. Likely rushed into cinemas to cash in on the more recent (and also superior) you-are-there scare tactics of Paranormal Activity, The Fourth Kind purports to be based on the research of Nome, Alaska, psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler, who discovered strange consistencies in the testimonies of several sleep-deprived patients. Under subsequent hypnotherapy, those patients recovered memories of alien abduction — and occasionally levitated, spoke in demonic tongues and did other freaky, Exorcist-type stuff. In a series of Unsolved Mysteries–style reenactments, an anesthetized Milla Jovovich plays the good doctor (with hammy backup from Will Patton as a local sheriff and Elias Koteas as a fellow shrink), while the “real” Tyler appears in fashionably degraded “documentary” footage, including a hilariously overwrought onstage interview with Osunsanmi even less convincing than the film’s ostensible dramatizations. A couple of modestly effective shocks lie in store but none as frightening as the onscreen text informing us that some 11 million people claim to have seen a UFO. Still, even the we-are-not-alone crowd may be forced to concede that the only thing lurking beyond the edges of The Fourth Kind’s frame is a PA holding a reflector board. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

LOOKING FOR PALLADIN Andrzej Krakowski pegs his water-treading labor-of-love indie to the always cool but here too blithe Ben Gazzara, playing a reclusive screen legend dodging a pushy agent. (Guatemalan location shooting is the only other attraction.) Suited and earpieced on the colorful streets of Antigua, Josh Ross (David Moscow, kinda still “the kid from Big”) incompetently hunts after Jack Palladin (Gazzara), repeatedly striking out with the locals, to their great mirth but not ours. Jack (whose list of movies reinforces the Palance echo of his name) is inexplicably hiding out as a cook at a nice restaurant, where he also dodges a small, aimless film crew that mostly sits around a table. Josh’s other, convoluted agenda — Jack’s ex-wife was also his (inattentive, famous) mother — leads to some anticlimactic chats about the overgrown youngster’s feelings of resentment. Requiring cuts, some sense of direction and dialogue that doesn’t either declare or dither, the film looks like it was fun to make. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Nicolas Rapold)


THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with the mind-fucking assertion that “more of this is true than you would believe.” And would you believe that George Clooney’s latest production — directed by Grant Heslov and loosely adapted from Jon Ronson’s 2005 account of the U.S. Army’s adventures in paranormality — is meant to be a comedy? Perhaps in 1967, and under the right pharmaceutical conditions, it might have seemed so. Ronson’s book — which takes its title from experimental attempts to induce via the evil eye goat coronaries — traced a circuitous path from the CIA’s Eisenhower-era LSD experiments to more recent applications of musical mind control. Heslov’s movie focuses on Ronson’s greatest scoop, namely the battalion of occultist commandos — here called the New Earth Army — cooked up by a Viet vet colonel (Jeff Bridges, stealing the show) gone New Age. Stumbling through an obstacle course of flashbacks, the movie sends a hapless American reporter (Ewan McGregor) into the cauldron of Desert Storm, where, meeting the New Earth Army’s superintense, one-time champion goat-starer (Clooney), he loses a smidge of his smirk. Despite a backbeat of perky music and sarcastic voice-over, The Men Who Stare at Goats lacks pizzazz. The movie isn’t funny enough to work as farce, but it’s far too dippy to take seriously. What’s mildly exasperating is that there is an actual quest involved: The movie goes out to the desert in search of its tone — and never finds it. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)

OY VEY! MY SON IS GAY! It’s possible that, for middle-aged Jewish mothers, the moment in this film where Lainie Kazan yells out the title line will have an effect similar to the one Samuel L. Jackson’s bit about snakes on the plane had for the Comic-Con crowd. Beyond that, it’s hard to make much of a strong case for or against this affable but not especially notable comedy about ... well, you’ve probably guessed from the title already. A (literally) flat animated precredits sequence briefly portends that the whole thing will look like a cheap Flash cartoon — which would have been more original, though likely intolerable. John Lloyd Young and Jai Rodriguez are the generically likable lovers in fear of the in-law reaction, and while the story initially hints at a zany cover-up to come, with nubile neighbor Carmen Electra playing fake girlfriend at a Jewish wedding, the coming-out is quick, and the focus immediately shifts to the poor schmendrick’s parents (played by Kazan and Saul Rubinek), who react to the news as one might expect. There’s the wondering if they did it, the gay-panic moments, the fruitless attempt at still finding a nice girl ... and not much else. Some years ago, Oy Vey! might have seemed radical in its casual presentation; nowadays, are we really supposed to believe that one gay couple adopting a child would cause mass protests on the streets of New York? Or that Bruce Vilanch might be straight? (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)

TURNING GREEN Working through a mild case of xenophobia, cynical American-Irish teenager James (Donal Gallery) desperately wants to escape the tiny stereotype of a rural Emerald Isle town (old biddies, cursing priests, green lushness and greener lushes) where he was dumped on his aunts after his mum died. His only pals are an 11-year-old brother who can’t hold his Guinness and a cantankerous drunk gambler played by go-to Irish actor Colm Meaney; his biggest coming-of-age obstacle is not having enough privacy to jerk off. Writer-directors Michael Aimette and John G. Hofmann seem to have constructed their 1979-set, superficial debut around this last plot point. After spending so much time in the bathroom that his aunts are concerned, James is sent to London to see a gastronomical specialist, and returns with a scheme to sell bootleg porn to every horny fool in town. Turning Green is, if nothing else, the world’s loneliest teen sex comedy — the only nubile girl in town barely appears onscreen, and James’ lone date with her is interrupted by two criminal cock-blockers (Alessandro Nivola as a threatening bookie, and Timothy Hutton, in a startling turn, as his brute enforcer) who implausibly spin the film into a sloppy gangster drama. (Monica 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)


VICTORY DAY Producer, director, co-writer and star Sean Ramsay tackles an ambitious premise here, but his efforts are crushed by his wearing too many hats. The film works hard to dramatize, in action-adventure terms, the collapse of post-Soviet democracy and the reasons behind it. Ramsay’s physical presence — big, closely cropped hair; long jaw; lean build — sufficiently brings to mind Jason Statham of the Transporter series to justify casting himself in the lead. That the film exists at all is testament to his capacities as a producer. However, the parade of weak and over-the-top performances that afflict Victory Day offers conclusive proof that Ramsay should have delegated the directing. Nearly ever word out of the characters’ mouths is either an arch piece of exposition or a clanging, nail-on-the-head expulsion of emotion. Blasts of shopworn action and fogs of narrative amnesia afflict the movements of the plot from scene to scene. (The damsel being distressed by the villainous Russian oligarch loses sight of her loyalty to Ramsay’s rescuer at one key point; then the movie loses sight of her wavering.) These are sad facts to report, because the greed of post-Soviet oligarchs is a tragedy worth lamenting, and despite his many self-made obstacles, Ramsay does at least communicate the sincere intensity of his concern. (Music Hall) (F.X. Feeney)

GO  THE WEDDING SONG Like her appealing first feature, La petite Jérusalem, Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song probes the threats to an intimate bond between two Semitic women. Here, World War II steps in to test a happy friendship between Tunisian neighbors Nour (Olympe Borval), a devout Muslim, and Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré), whose Jewish, single mother (played by the director) is equally poor but more secular, schooled and ambitious for her daughter. The prospect of Nazi invasion, with the collusion of a French administration only too happy to refuel latent tensions between Arabs and Jews, threatens a bond already complicated by the romantic entanglement of one girl and the prospect of a forced marriage for the other. Though lovely to look at, The Wedding Song is a little overwhelmed by its relentlessly hyperpoetic imagery — all those enormous eyes staring in fright from nocturnal shadows incongruously makes you think of crying-kitten posters. The overdetermined pressures of the big picture, with war, class, race and religion crammed into every frame, threaten to turn each character into a historical position paper. Still, this spirited film sustains its momentum as a tale of powerless women uniting to take back control of their destinies. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

GO  THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD The antiglobalist performance guys who call themselves the Yes Men are masters of forging corporate rhetoric and media protocols. Their forte is the phony Web site and the fraudulent PowerPoint presentation. A sequel to 2004’s The Yes Men, The Yes Men Fix the World continues the saga with the heroes’ greatest stunt — one of them going live on BBC World in the guise of a Dow Chemical spokesman to announce that Dow would mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster with a $12 billion aid plan for the victims. Dow stock dropped faster than the interviewer’s jaw. The BBC, which had taken the bait of a faux Web site, blamed the Yes Men for fooling the poor people of Bhopal into thinking they would get justice. But Fix the World asks that the spectator decide which hoax was crueler — the Yes Men’s, which at least directed attention back to Bhopal, or Dow’s. As hinted by their affirmative name, the Yes Men enact scenarios, however fleeting, of social justice. But mainly, Fix the World is about the beauty of the riff. The Yes Men are funniest when addressing a straight audience, making outlandish claims in favor of the free market and the benefits of unregulated catastrophe — the Black Death gave us capitalism! What’s fascinating is spectator reaction (or lack of same). Some people laugh or register disgust; others find their outrageously mercenary ideas “refreshing.” As one Yes Man explains, “Instead of freaking out, they just took our business cards.” People want to believe. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (J. Hoberman)


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