Movie Reviews: The City of Your Final Destination, Oceans, Five Easy Pieces

THE BACK-UP PLAN I'm no obstetrician, but I'd wager that Jennifer Lopez's own labor when birthing fraternal twins two years ago was much less interminable and painful than watching this romantic comedy, the star's first movie since 2006's El Cantante, about knocking yourself up. As single, financially comfortable, baby-craving Tribeca pet-store owner Zoe, Lopez muddles through the dismal big-screen debut of both writer Kate Angelo and director Alan Poul, who burden her with an absolute void (Alex O'Loughlin) as a love interest, an SNL castoff (Michaela Watkins) as a second banana, and a disabled Boston terrier. The same day she receives intrauterine insemination from Dr. Harris (Robert Klein, who later provides some weird gallows gyn-humor), Zoe meets Stan (O'Loughlin), an organic-cheese monger. Throughout their courtship, crises are incoherently manufactured, involving Stan's struggle to pass an econ test at CUNY, Zoe's eligibility in the Single Mothers and Proud Group (which, confusingly, seems to include dyke couples making predatory lez eyes at the newcomer), and our heroine's final-act lesson on learning to trust. Though fans have long given up hope that Karen Sisco will ever be reborn, why does Lopez, post-motherhood, now seem intent on reinventing herself as a screen presence even blander than Kate Hudson? (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

GO  THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION James Ivory and cast make every scene flutter with feeling in this adaptation of Peter Cameron's 2002 novel, written for the screen by Ivory's collaborator of 50 years, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Omar (Omar Metwally), an American Phd student, shows up unannounced at a secluded Uruguayan country estate to petition the household of novelist and suicide Jules Gund for permission to write the great man's biography, the completion of which would guarantee a professorship (a fate worse than death, it's implied). Omar must impress Gund's stranded 28-year-old mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his shunned 40-something wife, Caroline (Laura Linney) — loathe to publicize their ménage — and his elder brother, Adam (Anthony Hopkins, with Hiroyuki Sanada his longtime companion). These are Merchant-Ivory cosmopolitans, people who quote Persian poets before dulcet landscapes. But even life among this aristocracy of the sensitive is not without complexities, with everyone trapped in their age-appropriate life-crises. Arden and Omar's flirtation is interrupted when his girlfriend (Alexandra Maria Lara) arrives; dashing, weak Omar, less self-willed than the average heroine of a 19th century marriage novel, hereafter recedes behind the women. Best is Linney, conquering scenes as the acrid and touching Caroline, her regal bitterness a shield against nostalgia, dressed Park Avenue–posh to drink alone. (Nick Pinkerton) (Playhouse, Royal, Town Center)

DEATH AT A FUNERAL It doesn't take much to improve the first Death at a Funeral, the flat Frank Oz–directed Britcom of 2007; a few tossed-off references to Jet and sickle-cell anemia will do it. Though the plot of Dean Craig's original script remains almost entirely intact (he receives the sole writer's credit), the tweaks by star-producer Chris Rock — who replaces the pallid ninnies of London with a mostly African-American extended clan gathered in Pasadena to say good-bye to a deceased patriarch — yield some particularly sharp specifics. Rock plays elder son Aaron, whose successful-writer younger brother, Ryan (Martin Lawrence), has made his riches off books titled Mama's Secret, Black Hurt and Rhonda's Tiny Box. Eulogizing Dad before learning about his life on the "waaaaay down-low" (Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the extorting secret boyfriend), Aaron refers to his father's "love of Golden Girls, especially when it went into syndication." But Rock's interventions can't compensate for excessive fealty to dumb gags involving watery poop and designer hallucinogens. Some cast members bring welcome controlled mania: Tracy Morgan, as a hypochondriacal friend of the family, further hones his logorrheic outbursts. Others, like Luke Wilson, as a scorned suitor of Zoe Saldana, are such null presences that they should have been in the original. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)

GO  FIVE EASY PIECES Jack Nicholson — hair thinning, 33, a Hollywood scenester who by 1970 had seemingly missed his shot at being a star—became just that as Bobby Dupea, a Bakersfield oil-rig hand who spends free nights fooling around on his hash-house waitress girlfriend (Karen Black). Happier bowling a strike than playing Chopin, Bobby's a stalled Salinger-esque prodigy who can do both. Family matters bring him back to the boyhood home, on an island in Washington state, where the walls — a gallery of so-serious WASPs brooding in black-and-white — show the family pretensions he's disappointed. Equally uncomfortable in Buck Owens denim and Bergman turtleneck, Bobby relaxes his sneer for the "cracker assholes" he's been slumming with only to lash out at "pompous celibates" like the caricatured intellectuals his brother hosts (at least the crackers can have an honest good time). It was Easy Rider's success that greenlit Five Easy Pieces — but director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman's film is totally human, trading Rider's counterculture mythopoetics for a study in the charisma of disdain (which Nicholson personifies) and how rebellion and loutishness are often indistinguishable (ditto), never excusing the pain Bobby causes. Set against the stillness of cinematographer László Kovács' luminous landscapes, now restored for the film's 40th anniversary, it's a great work of the Discover America Seventies. (Nick Pinkerton) (Nuart)


HANDMADE NATION Sometimes it's easy to forget that film culture does not exist in its own vacuum, and in fact many of the issues facing filmmakers and filmgoers — how to make things and get them out to the world, how to find products beyond what's mass-marketed — also exist in other realms. Though its excessive cheerleading is a major flaw, Faythe Levine's quietly uplifting Handmade Nation functions as an inspirational snapshot of current craft culture, a series of scenes from a scene more than a definitive document. Knitting, printmaking, bookbinding, jewelry, clothes, rug making, decorative items — anything that can be made by hand and sold by plucky retailers seems to fall under the aegis of this DIY offshoot. At one point someone calls crafting a "movement of young women;" though the only men around seem to be boyfriends and husbands, the way in which these activities connect to ideas in modern feminism are left unexamined. The historical aspects of indie-minded crafting, too, both in the origins of the contemporary practice and its deeper roots, are not deeply explored. Rather, Levine hops from expected hip hot spots such as Portland, Olympia, Austin, Brooklyn and Los Angeles to less likely places like Atlanta, Providence, Houston and Milwaukee. Unlike the art-scene doc Beautiful Losers — which shares a bill with the Los Angeles run of Handmade Nation — there isn't a single focal point on which to hang a narrative, and so the film ends up being a patchwork of loosely stitched–together vignettes rather than a singular story. (Mark Olsen) (Downtown Indie)

IN MY SLEEP Marcus (Philip Winchester) is a parasomniac: It looks like he's awake, but he's sleepwalking, a convenient excuse for, say, sleeping with your best friend's wife. And lo and behold, when she turns up dead, it's hard for Marcus to maintain his friendship with said friend, Justin (Tim Draxl). Sure, he didn't mean to kill anyone, but waking up with a bloody knife in your hand would make anyone suspect the worst. The biggest problem with Allen Wolf's thriller is that there are so few characters, it's immediately clear what's going on; there's simply no one to suspect besides the obvious. A slightly bigger problem is that the movie's risible. To kill time while Marcus figures out how that knife got in his hand, there's a Freudian subplot about the origins of Marcus' sleep disorder, with a repressed memory flashback that makes Hitchcock's Spellbound look like a paragon of convincing psychology, plus dream sequences straight out of Glen or Glenda. It's very much an L.A. movie, complete with an endless parade of heavily made-up club girls and two protagonists who work as masseuses; Wolf's camera is so enamored of their chiseled, shirtless bodies that the whole thing becomes unintentionally homoerotic. It may be worth seeing just for the sight of Lacey Chabert — ex–Party of Five kid as neighbor Becky — attempting to interpret Marcus' dreams based on what she once learned in night school. (Vadim Rizov) (Sunset 5)

GO  KENNY CHESNEY: SUMMER IN 3D It's as true of mega-platinum pop stars as it is of wild animals: If you really want to understand their ways, you must study them in their natural habitat. With that in mind, Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D offers invaluable insight into the titular country sensation's massive commercial appeal. Filmed in stereoscopic 3-D during Chesney's 2009 American stadium tour, Kenny Chesney was overseen by 3ality Digital, the same company responsible for 2008's U2 3D, and both documentaries make superb use of that extra dimension to emphasize the sheer enormity and spectacle of arena shows. (After years of watching action-movie crowd scenes populated by CGI pixels, it's downright revelatory to experience Kenny Chesney's real, live swaying throngs of humanity.) Recurring feel-good voice-over musings from the now–42-year-old artiste slow the proceedings, but thankfully, director Joe Thomas mostly lets his protagonist stick to his strengths, which are running around a gigantic stage, connecting intimately with 70,000 fans, and singing his hopelessly hokey country-meets-pop-meets–Jimmy Buffett populist anthems. The knock on Chesney's music has been its total lack of subtlety or nuance. Unapologetically dopey and undeniably ingratiating, the supersized Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D makes a surprisingly convincing argument for big, dumb likability. (Tim Grierson) (Citywide)

THE LOSERS Writer Andy Diggle dedicated his snappy DC comic books "The Losers" to '80s screenwriting superstar Shane Black, creator of the Lethal Weapon series. But in adapting "The Losers" for film, director Sylvain White and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Peter Berg strain to achieve the pleasurable mix of cheap laughs and expensive action that Lethal Weapon pulled off so effortlessly with the help of its stellar cast. (In a remarkable example of an actor finding his ideal role, Gary Busey played LW's haywire, half-cocked villain.) What they've produced instead is a busy, unsatisfying comic thriller, poorly acted by a grab bag of new faces and franchise-movie refugees, and set to a hard-rock sound track. The Losers opens with its eponymous team of Special Forces ops staking out a drug lord's South American compound, preparing for attack. The inconveniently timed arrival of a busload of children provides both an opportunity for our heroes to show their nobility, and a herd of adorable sacrificial lambs to set the movie's plot shuddering ahead. One smoldering teddy bear later, the Losers are presumed dead — and loaded for revenge on the shadowy figure who tried to take them out. Who is that shadowy figure? Why, it's Max, played by Jason Patric, about whom it must be said: He's no Gary Busey. While that is a great comfort, I'm sure, to Patric's neighbors, it's little help to the movie, which is filled with stock characters, including Zoe Saldana's Aisha, a sexpot in red leather pants. (Dan Kois) (Citywide)


NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS The great boundary-crosser of Iranian cinema, Bahman Ghobadi purposefully steps over the line with No One Knows About Persian Cats — a quasi-documentary, highly-unofficial panorama of Teheran's tenacious underground music scene and a movie that has accrued additional urgency since its first public screening at Cannes last May. Ghobadi's co-writer, journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from Evin prison on the eve of Persian Cats's premiere; his assistant director, Mehdi Pourmusa, is confined there, arrested last month along with filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The movie's protagonists, indie rockers Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad, have since left Iran, as has Ghobadi. Shaghaghi and Koshanejad play themselves as recently imprisoned performers speeding around Teheran on the back of a motorbike in a frantic attempt to secure travel documents and recruit a rhythm section for a gig in London. The movie tours what Ghobadi calls a "hidden world of rebel musicians," as well as bootleg DVD and fake passport hustlers, with visits to assorted crash pads and basement music clubs. Persian Cats is likable but undistinguished filmmaking, and the performers are a mixed bag of metal bands, traditional ensembles, rap artists and buskers. None seem nearly as political as the former Czechoslovakia's legendary Plastic People of the Universe; the closest thing here to a rock & roll manifesto is the acid trance assertion, offered in English, that "dreaming is my reality." Of course given that everything the movie shows — including two women singing a folk song — is illegal, bravado is a given. (J. Hoberman) (Landmark, Playhouse, Sunset 5, Town Center)

GO  OCEANS An almost miraculously photographed showcase of some of the seven seas' least seen and most incredible specimens, Disney's Oceans (a follow-up to last year's Earth) lets its subjects speak for themselves. Timed to coincide with Earth Day, the film's preservationist agenda is mostly implicit in its wonder at these strangest of nature's people: The blanket octopus, mantis shrimp and a host of protoplasmic jellyfish and bargelike whales turn their crazy-colored eyes and corrugated bellies to the camera, and the message is received. The script is not quite as eloquent: Not even Pierce Brosnan's hushed intonation can redeem space-filling non sequiturs like, "Merely knowing these creatures exist isn't enough to tell the stories of their lives." Taking us from the reefs of Australia and South Africa's shark-infested coves to Alaska's orca feeding grounds, Oceans is a jaw-dropper as a visual travelogue — even its anthropomorphic indulgences (an ocean floor is turned into a rough neighborhood, complete with trespassers and shy weirdos) are winning. Though there is a brief foray into pollution and destructive fishing, Oceans ends with hope: Humans can't be all bad — after all, we made high-definition cameras and learned to breathe underwater not to kill but to get closer to our fellow creatures. (Michelle Orange) (Citywide)

PAPER MAN An artist-in-crisis piece run through a drab but quirk-conscious indie processor, Paper Man is everything a film like Lost in Translation fought not to be. Even its moments of dark mirth and the few grace notes between its stars wind up falsified by writer/directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney's played-out tricks and plainly sentimental overtures. Deposited during the off-season at his Sag Harbor home by his surgeon wife (Lisa Kudrow), failing writer Richard (Jeff Daniels) is tasked with finishing that stubborn second novel. Joining him is a nay-saying superhero named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), an imaginary friend who is more crutch than muse. "Have a productive week," is Kudrow's deadly refrain: Richard is in the throes of a terrifying block, and will conjure a jinx if there's not one handy. Enter Abby (Emma Stone), a local teen who accepts Richard's bogus offer of a babysitting gig; bonding, soup making and rejuvenative storytelling sessions ensue. Stone is radiantly endearing as the smart kid stuck in a shit town with shit dudes; trailed by her own personal Duckie (Kieran Culkin), she makes a host of narrative contrivances feel more natural than they should. The exorcism of Captain Excellent and reckoning of Richard's marriage are even more uninspired by comparison. (Michelle Orange) (Landmark)

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