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Movie Reviews: The Bucket List, Persepolis, The Great Debaters

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS See film feature

 ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here soon. (Citywide)

THE BUCKET LIST The sort of movie that inspires you to ponder all the better uses to which the chemical ingredients of 35mm film stock might be put, director Rob Reiner’s atrocious cancer “comedy” marks a new low in Hollywood’s self-flagellating “things to be thankful for” tradition — those movies that reliably arrive with the change of season, in which men of great wealth and influence learn that there are things more important in life than cold hard cash. Here, our surrogate Scrooge is a pompous hospital privatizer (Jack Nicholson), who ends up a terminally ill patient in one of his own cut-rate institutions, whereupon he and his salt-of-the-earth, garage-mechanic bedmate (Morgan Freeman) conspire to set off together and — you know — do everything they ever wanted to do before they die. As imagined by screenwriter Justin Zackham, those tasks include “witness something totally majestic,” “drive a Shelby Mustang” and “laugh until I cry” — all of which Nicholson and Freeman must have wanted to do without leaving the studio backlot, judging from the laughably bad stock footage and blue-screen effects that attempt to place the geriatric globetrotters at the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China. Memories of that other acrid, round-the-world Reiner fantasy, North, are never far at hand. Zackham, meanwhile, cooks ups such zingers as “Sounds like my third wife — woman thought mayonnaise came from a plant” and manages to make a running joke out of coffee beans made from the feces of Sumatran tree cats. It’s a very expensive form of shit, we’re told, but not nearly as much as the one right before our eyes. (The Grove) (Scott Foundas)

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR See film feature

THE GREAT DEBATERS First: Just register the laziness of that title. All right. The Inspiring True Story behind The Great Debaters is the 1930s championship streak of East Texas’ all-black Wiley College debate team, coached by poet and teacher Melvin B. Tolson. This bit of historicity is the excuse for an educational tour of the re-created Jim Crow South, where students learn life lessons amid demonstrative orchestration. Denzel Washington, declaiming Langston Hughes and professorially popping a pipe in and out of his mouth, plays Tolson with typical toothsome preening. (Forest Whitaker shows up as a fellow Wiley faculty member, to remind the viewer what it’s like not to be acted at.) Director Denzel is an adequate handler of cinematic gush and platitude, though, and even tries out a few snaky tracking shots and a compositional nod to Manet. That’s about as surprising as things get; the film avoids potentially interesting frictions by always letting the team debate (and win) on the “correct” side of every issue — that which aligns with generally accepted modern liberal sympathies. The kids follow their party line all the way to the big game — a ridiculous, fallacy-riddled face-off against Harvard. Nobody gets to root for his teammates from a hospital bed, but I’ll bet the idea was at least floated. (Selected theaters) (Nick Pinkerton)

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS Oscar winner in hideous haircut? Check. Love interest with foreign accent? Yup, that too. Insanely convoluted treasure hunt involving multiple ancient clues to a historical mystery? You know it. But this ain’t The Da Vinci Code, folks, and the reason you can tell is that it’s actually quite entertaining. Perhaps not so much if you still think of Nicolas Cage as the serious method actor of yesteryear, but if you’ve learned to enjoy his current incarnation of shticks and tics, bugging out his eyes, smiling creepily at inappropriate moments, and RANDOMLY SHOUTING certain words for NO APPARENT REASON... this is for you. Cage’s Benjamin Gates is so insanely patriotic that when his ancestor is smeared as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, he sets out to prove otherwise by kidnapping the president and striding into the top-secret areas of pretty much every major national landmark, which is doubly preposterous given how conspicuous he is with all the yelling and wildly demonstrative hand gestures. If you can put all sense of realism on hold, however, you’ll be rewarded with a moderately pleasing diversion, featuring Justin Bartha as the genuinely amusing wiseass sidekick and Ed Harris doing a charmingly awful Old South accent. Also, Helen Mirren’s here, as Cage’s inexplicably English mother — Oscars apparently just don’t pay the bills. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

THE ORPHANAGE See film feature

P.S. I LOVE YOU This isn’t the first time that Richard LaGravenese, the gifted writer of A Little Princess and The Fisher King and writer-director of the lovely Living Out Loud, has gone best-seller slumming. His screenplay for The Bridges of Madison County was good enough to persuade a dispiriting number of respected critics that a movie was worth making out of that dreadful piece of pulp. Nothing, however, could redeem the chipper folk wisdom of P.S. I Love You, the first novel (for want of a better word) of Cecelia Ahern, a 20-something Irish “writer” whose chief literary asset is a sharp eye for the winning romantic formula. Hilary Swank, who was not put in this world to simper, does little else as a young wife whose twinkly leprechaun of an Irish husband (Gerard Butler, who’s Scottish, but never mind) has died, leaving her to mope around in lacy black underwear, do her nails, and lean on Mom (Kathy Bates) and the usual wisecracking friends (Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon). Guided by flashbacks to happier days and perky letters left behind by her obliging hubby, Swank takes healing trips to scenic Wicklow County, where dimpled replacement hunks lie thick on the ground. LaGravenese has sliced away the worst of Ahern’s excruciating prose, but that proves a negative virtue. With “She longed for the couch to hold out its arms to her” out of the way, there’s little left to dance with but the old stages-of-grief two-step, and some blessedly irreverent noodling with Harry Connick Jr. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

 

PICK  PERSEPOPOLIS Persepolis is a small landmark in feature animation. Not because of technical innovation — though it has a handcrafted charm forgotten in the era of CGI-’toon juggernauts — but because it translates an introspective, true-to-life, “adult” comic story into moving pictures. With the aid of French comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi has turned her four autobiographical Persepolis volumes into 95 minutes of screen time. We first meet little Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) in 1978. She’s the mouthy only child of a progressive Tehran family anxiously watching their Shah’s repressive government give way to the Ayatollah’s far worse fundamentalist revolution. The state of the nation steadily deteriorates, so Marjane’s parents send their now-adolescent daughter (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) into exile at a Viennese lycée Français. Once Marjane is displaced from the culture that had nourished her, her focus turns inward — she’s victimized by boys and by her alien pubescent body, and starts freely sampling subcultures in an attempt to re-establish her sense of self. The film’s latter chapters bring her home, where the strictures of Islamic law have pulled even tighter. The accessibility of Satrapi’s firsthand address — how she refits epic national tragedy to an identifiably personal scale — has made Persepolis college curriculum. Responding to the movie's receipt of the Jury Prize at Cannes, an Iranian cultural foundation accused it of presenting “an unrealistic face of the achievements and results of the glorious Islamic Revolution.” (The Landmark; Music Hall; Monica 4-Plex; Town Center 5) (Nick Pinkerton) See interview with Marjane Satrapi

 ROMANCE & CIGARETTES John Turturro’s third and loopiest film is prime film-studies fodder, fitting in best at the tail end of a musicals seminar, along with Dancer in the Dark and other “postmodern” song-and-dancers. A Coen Brothers production with a cast as unlikely as it is impressive (including Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini and Christopher Walken), Romance & Cigarettes is less a story than a state of mind, and less a musical than a meditation on how we instinctively set our lives to music, if not other musicals; unfortunately, it’s just shy of convincing on both counts. Where musicals are concerned with love and not sex, fantasy and not life, Turturro begins his film about 30 years after most musicals end: Cue marriage, children, boredom, affairs, death. But the band is playing on as Gandolfini’s Queens construction worker takes up (and down, and up) with Winslet’s outrageously potty-mouthed shop girl. Sarandon plays the harassed wife, surrounded by her outraged posse of daughters and ex-lovers. The bleakly bizarre, uneven aesthetic and direction that is fluid but not quite limber succeed and fail from montage to montage, with the principals doing a sort of karaoke tribute to the likes of Joplin and Springsteen. And with a draggy final third, Turturro subverts the most satisfying part of a musical, proper or postmodern: the big finish. (The Landmark; One Colorado; Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)

STEEP The three deepest profundities plowed by Mark Obenhaus’ blandly beautiful, inarticulate extreme-skiing doc are (1) Alaskan snow feels unusually velvety; (2) “You’re not a big mountain skier unless you’ve skied Chamonix”; and (3) “Mountains always have the last say.” That final quote, from the wife of pioneering ski mountaineer Doug Coombs — who died while trying to save a friend on a slope, mere days after completing his last interview — carries an existential weight that the film never attempts to lift. For what justifiable purpose do these passionate boundary pushers risk their lives, beyond recreation and a possible career as a high-def ESPN2 porn star? Is the lifestyle of an adrenaline junkie any less self-destructive than a drug addict’s? And how does Ingrid Backstrom, a female rarity in the sport, feel about being likened to “a guy with a ponytail”? Such explorations might’ve boosted interest in this niche film, which ekes out much of its feature length with nostalgia for the Frenchmen who popularized “Le Ski Extreme” in the ’70s and Mohawked superstar Glen Plake’s breakthrough 1988 ski video, The Blizzard of AAHHH’s. An avalanche-in-progress aside, there’s no hook for the audience, who would probably have more fun getting drunk in the lodge. (Nuart) (Aaron Hillis)

 

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET See film feature

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY See film feature

THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP Personally, I wouldn’t take a toddler (unless he was the son of Tarantino) to this intermittently, legitimately terrifying tale of a boy and his Loch Ness monster. But everyone else should blow off Alvin and the Chipmunks and show up for the best kiddie picture of the season — and, along with Ratatouille, of the year. You can never go wrong adapting Dick King-Smith, one of England’s finest writers for children and, incidentally, the author of Babe: The Gallant Pig. Drawing on just about every tough and tender rite-of-passage fairy tale worth its salt, The Water Horse is a graceful meeting of talents between screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, the digital-effects team that juggled cute and scary so deftly in The Chronicles of Narnia, and director Jay Russell, who already has the children’s classics My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting under his belt. Alex Etel — a freckled waif who appears not to have aged a day since he walked away with Danny Boyle’s Millions — plays Angus, a Scottish boy who picks up a strange egg that soon hatches into a translucent little cereal-box fellow with broadly the same narrative function as E.T., except that he quickly morphs into a huge beastie who's happiest when underwater with a bereft lad on his back. Hovering in the background are World War II, a personal tragedy to be faced, and a terrific ensemble that includes Emily Watson, plump and worried as Angus’ mother, and Ben Chaplin as a mysterious handyman waging class war on a snotty Home Guard commander played by David Morrissey. If your memories of childhood haven’t been Disneyfied to death, add this lovely movie — lyrically shot by Oliver Stapleton ­— to the pantheon of fables that gave shape to your childhood fears, then guided you to safety without reducing them to pap. Awesome. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

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