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Movie Reviews: The Edge of Heaven, The Foot Fist Way, The Strangers

Chop Shop
Jon Higgin

GO  BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER My first boyfriend was a juicer. Steroids were the drug of choice at my high school, having washed into the Canadian suburbs in the early ’90s on the same raft as crushed-velvet dresses. As described in Christopher Bell’s documentary, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, a similar phenomenon played out in his hometown of Poughkeepsie. Beginning with a Spurlockian account of his upbringing as the second of three sons who all loved the World Wrestling Federation, worshipped Rambo and developed distorted body images, Bell spirals outward into the culture of outrageous expectations, and the resultant generation of should-be average Joes who believe that greatness is their birthright. For the Bell brothers, that meant transforming their genetically rotund physiques into bloated beefcake. Having avoided the havoc that steroids wreaked on his siblings, Bell sets out to interrogate the politics of “cheating” in sport, the disputed dangers of juicing (the pro-steroid testimonials are a marvel of rationalization), and the grotesquerie of an industry that has sprung up to exploit male inadequacy and an entire nation’s worth of relentless dissatisfaction. Bell finds the epitome of that tragedy in his own family and digs unflinchingly at its roots. Like Bell, my boyfriend became obsessed with bodybuilding; like Bell, he wanted to be as big as his older brother. Like Bell, he’d be 33 years old today, had he not taken his life at the age of 28. (ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Michelle Orange)

Jon Higgin

Chop Shop

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

 

GO  BLINDSIGHT It’s difficult to find anything bad to say about a movie featuring six adorable, blind Tibetan children who are determined to climb a 23,000-foot peak just north of Mount Everest. The subjects are everything a documentarian might wish for: charming, emotive and optimistic in spite of their tragic back stories: Tashi was abandoned by his family and forced to beg on the streets of Lhasa; Kyila’s father and twin brothers are blind too. Their sorrows are only compounded by Tibet’s horrendous treatment of its blind — Buddhists there consider the malady a punishment for sins in previous lives. Luckily, Blindsight director Lucy Walker, who is vision-impaired herself, does justice to the full range of these children’s experiences, treating them as intellectual and emotional equals and refusing to patronize or exoticize them. The mountain-climbing at the center of the film is, paradoxically, its least compelling aspect. Watching the group of Gore-Tex-clad figures stumble up a stony path left me with a few too many questions about the structure and purpose of the expedition: The kids seem dangerously unprepared for the altitude, and their American guides come off as clueless and self-absorbed. Blindsight works best when it casts off the constraints of the adventure tale it wasn’t meant to be and settles into a deft and humanistic treatment of blindness in Tibet. (Sunset 5) (Julia Wallace)

 

BONNEVILLE Three middle-aged Mormon ladies from Idaho tie scarves around their heads, don sunglasses, and fly across the American landscape in a convertible like they’re in Thelma and Louise, yet this rarity in cinema — a graying cast in a female-bonding adventure — couldn’t be more dull-humored or predictably maudlin without just calling itself The Bucket List 2. Arvilla (Jessica Lange) wants to honor her late husband’s wishes of spreading his cremated ashes, but her bitchy stepdaughter (Christine Baranski) will steal her house away if she doesn’t send what’s left of “Daddy” to Santa Barbara. Road trip! Accompanied by sassmouth Margene (Kathy Bates) and prissy pragmatist Carol (Joan Allen) — the latter a plant for the Latter-day Saints: “Oh my heck, I think I just drank vodka,” or “Coffee? What kind of a Mormon are you?” — Arvilla sets out on a journey of enlightenment in which all three women will learn a little something about themselves, and how best to make us roll our eyes. Director Christopher N. Rowley and writer Daniel D. Davis have created a safe fantasy world where all truckers are gentlemen, as are the hitchhikers, and women stereotypically break anything they try to drive. (Culver Plaza; One Colorado; Regency Fairfax; Town Center 5) (Aaron Hillis)

 

GO  CHOP SHOP You come away from Chop Shop with a mood, the voluptuous sum of its fine-tuned parts: the way a run-down patch of Queens is always flooded with mud; hot dogs smoking from a sidewalk barbecue; the muffled, incantatory chant of “LET’S GO, METS!” that spills out into the parking lot of Shea Stadium, where a 12-year-old boy, dodging the eye of security, pries off hubcaps with a screwdriver. His name is Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), and he steals to keep food on the table and his sister (Isamar Gonzales) away from truckers and their $40 tricks. They’re streetwise orphans, squeaking by on Ale’s meager odd jobs and his dream of independence, as ill-advised as it is poignant, in the form of a rusty old broken-down van that he yearns to one day rehabilitate into his very own bright and shiny tacomobile. All this is imagined by Ramin Bahrani, the acclaimed writer-director of Man Push Cart (2005), though Chop Shop derives much of its value from the sense of being found, not made. All due props to Ale and Isa, wonderfully authentic and nicely harmonized, but the most engrossing character here is Willets Points, an industrial stretch of unpaved urban flotsam — and “another euphemism for urban blight” per Mayor Bloomberg, gentrification glinting in his eye. (Sunset 5) (Nathan Lee)

 

 

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven wears current events on its sleeve, feeling out the state of German-Turkish relationships as the former Ottomans clean house for E.U. membership, and the demographic earthquake of 70 million Muslims waits at Europe’s door. Examining a Europe whose increasingly porous borders have drastically undermined a long-standing homogeneity is very much at the center of excellent recent work by such divergent sensibilities as Austria’s Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) and Britain’s Shane Meadows (Somers Town). Both films still await a proper U.S. release date, while writer-director Akin once again secures distribution (as he did for his punk-posturing 2004 Head-On) with pseudoprovocations and a superficially deceptive simulacra of Art. Edge of Heaven ups the ambition: Its screenplay is a Dickensian network of happenstance, serving to intertwine six characters of different ages, nationalities and castes. Three parent-child sets fracture, then reconcile/recombine. This expression of growth-through-trauma mostly involves actors hugging and making wistful “older and wiser” expressions while looking into the middle distance. (Everyone gets along. That the Turks believe in a different God from the Germans, and actually believe at that, is apparently not a pressing concern.) If the united Europe aspires to compete with America globally, this is good news — they’ve found their own multiculti Paul Haggis! (Playhouse 7; Royal) (Nick Pinkerton)

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GO  THE FOOT FIST WAY Boorish tae kwon do instructor Fred Simmons (Danny McBride) is a strip-mall hero for whom demonstrating his cinder-block-breaking skills to parking-lot gawkers is “my fucking life.” Fred takes seriously — or at least talks seriously about — the tenets of his combat technique, while completely oblivious to what’s happening just outside his storefront kingdom. He considers himself a warrior; meanwhile, the world is kicking his ass. Director Jody Hill shot The Foot Fist Way mock-doc style; it’s probably best, since nothing much happens in the film, as it ambles from sketch to sketch. There’s only the loosest of plots, involving Fred’s bleached-blond wife (Mary Jane Bostic), who fucks around with her boss, sending Fred into a tailspin — and providing the punching bag with further reason to act like a douche bag. There’s something real about this guy — and something real nasty about him too, something that lingers after the movie’s choked a few laughs out of an audience that won’t know whether to pity Fred or punch him. Truthfully, The Foot Fist Way is no different than an episode of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm: This is irritainment, something you snicker at while covering your eyes, praying this guy never gets loose in the real world, when, in fact, he’s your next-door neighbor. Or, God forbid, you. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE The most jarring thing about Hollywood Chinese, Arthur Dong’s survey of Chinese representation in American film from the silent era to the present, is its lack of fury — that and Ang Lee’s belief that he’s a subversive. Half of the running time is devoted to clips both expected (The Good Earth) and refreshing (Marion Wong’s undiscovered The Curse of Quon Gwon), the other to the musings of politely enraged talking heads. Dong spotlights Chinese stars throughout Hollywood’s history, suggesting at one point a parallel between the tragedy of Anna May Wong’s thwarted stardom and Joan Chen having to follow The Last Emperor with Salute to the Jugger. Luise Rainer and Christopher Lee appear to rationalize — if not exactly apologize for — their contributions to the legacy of yellow face, and though Hollywood’s racial insensitivity is largely written off as a product of its time, Stephen Gong, the obligatory university scholar, and actor B.D. Wong up the ante somewhat, the latter exploring the nexus of sexuality and race in his life and regretting having cashed in on the “Asian-American desexualized chip.” Dong never suggests that we need fewer middlebrow Chinese-American filmmakers like Lee and Wayne Wang, but at least he’s ballsy enough to spotlight one interviewee’s point that minorities shouldn’t rely on the majority to give accurate cinematic expression to their lives. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Ed Gonzalez)

 

 

THE MEMORY THIEF Lukas (Mark Webber) is the worst tollbooth worker in all of California, chain-smoking and holding up traffic by rescuing stray dogs. One day, a passing driver inexplicably tosses a copy of Mein Kampf at him; so begins Lukas’s spiraling, Mark David Chapman–esque obsession with all things Holocaust. From volunteering to record survivor testimonies to buying lottery tickets off Auschwitz numbers, Lukas’ is a quick, frenzied descent into insanity. With a committedly unpleasant but spastic performance from Webber, The Memory Thief is the least sentimental “Holocaust film” on record. Writer-director Gil Kofman moves past “we must never forget” into weird and thorny territory, in which sympathy for the tragic becomes a masochistic form of emotional self-gratification. (Lukas’s frequent refrain: “Didn’t you hear? Auschwitz isn’t just for the Jews anymore.”) The film is (perhaps deliberately) as unbalanced as its protagonist, one whose fury ultimately seems directed either nowhere in particular or in too many directions at once — until things eventually devolve into a Taxi Driver riff. Kofman’s lack of textbook sanctimony is to be congratulated, but he could have used something like Ryan Gosling’s centrifugal performance in the similarly uncomfortable The Believer to get somewhere coherent. (Music Hall) (Vadim Rizov)

 

SHORT ORDER Sampled in digestible five-minute bites, this culinary comedy indebted to the fluffy artifice of bygone Hollywood musicals would be a fun treat. Inflate those episodic nibbles to feature length, however, and writer-director Anthony Byrne’s debut suffers from whimsy overkill. Although early-20-something Fiona (Emma de Caunes) is skilled enough to be a chef, she prefers to stay a short-order cook at a humble Parisian diner so she can postpone adulthood while pining for the diner’s comely delivery girl, Catherine (Cosma Shiva Hagen). During one eventful evening, these two women and the restaurant’s owner (Rade Serbedzija) go through a series of colorful incidents involving the offbeat likes of a Russian prostitute and an oily rival restaurant owner, all of which are of no discernible importance other than to allow Byrne to dispense life lessons as preciously as humanly possible. Making room for both the occasional ersatz song-and-dance number and a playful sexual kinkiness, Short Order’s willfully self-indulgent style sporadically harnesses the giddy rush of being young and in love while the grown-up world pounds impatiently at the door. But aside from Vanessa Redgrave, who is quite poignant in a brief, ham-free cameo, the film’s shallow cutesiness quickly starts to feel less like a salute to youthful optimism than a warning against romanticizing one’s stunted emotional development. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

 

GO  THE STRANGERS Suggesting an American remake of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them, The Strangers is practically an abstraction: an old-school spooker spun from the blood splatter on a wall, a nearby record player scratching an oldie, a CB radio in the garage, a creaky swing set in the backyard. First-time helmer Bryan Bertino is beholden to genre quota, skidding the relationship of pretty young couple Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) before subjecting them to an after-dark home invasion. But he offers no profound rationale for why she refuses his marriage proposal; like the shadowy stranger who comes knocking at their door (eerily asking, “Is Tamara home?”), it’s something that just happens. What’s up with the bemasked ghoulies of the film’s title? Why all the door-slamming? Who’s Tamara!?! Plying an old-school artistry that begins with a creepy montage of bumblefuck houses and holds up almost without fail until the strangers offer a creepy nonjustification for their transgressions, analog-man Bertino teases with the unknown until he’s left no pimple ungoosed. Sometimes avoiding the synapse-raping bad habits of splat packers Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja is its own reward; doing so without also submitting to Michael Haneke–style hand-slapping is nearly monumental. (Citywide) (Ed Gonzalez)

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STUCK In October 2001, a Fort Worth, Texas, nurse’s aide named Chante Mallard struck 37-year-old Gregory Glenn Biggs with her 1997 Chevy Cavalier, lodging him in her windshield; she allowed him to remain there, and he died two hours later despite his desperate pleas for help. It’s become the stuff of urban legend — this story of the woman who tried to ditch the body and burn the car to destroy the remnants of her horrific crime before she was sentenced to prison for 50 years. Hell of a true-life tale, which gets the extended remix from Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon. Stuck is both darkly comic and disgusting; the name alone reduces the crime to a sick joke. Mena Suvari plays the Mallard stand-in as mean and empty — she’d rather fuck her boyfriend than help the dying man in her garage. Stephen Rea is Biggs, more or less; he’s older than the real guy but still a broken-down, jobless mess wandering the streets when he gets tagged, almost begging to be put out of his misery. Gordon, of course, has taken substantial liberties with the story: The filmmaker wants revenge on the perpetrator, something more than just jail time. Still, he’s got plenty of nasty laughs for those unwilling to see deeper into the bleak, tragic darkness; every dog finds a bone, turns out — you’ll see. (Nuart) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

 

WONDERS ARE MANY One consonant away from an icon of American innocence, “Oppie,” as the spindly genius and nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to his friends, had become a pariah by the time Opie Taylor hit the scene in the 1960s. Oppie had been an innocent in his own right 20 years earlier, when unyielding curiosity about the mysterious force of the atom led him and a band of scientists at Los Alamos to build the most catastrophic weapon known to man. Jon Else’s Wonders Are Many closes in on the Trinity atomic test of July 1945, twinning it with the production of an opera based on those events, called Doctor Atomic, and offering the creative dilemma faced by both operations as common ground. Opera director Peter Sellars calls the phlegmatic Oppenheimer “every dramatist’s dream,” and composer John Adams’ libretto is a pastiche of interview material, Donne poetry and the Bhagavad Gita, which makes for some seriously clunky going in the rehearsals. And director Else’s decision to blend recently declassified footage of nuclear testing with interviews of major players from both the Manhattan Project and the San Francisco Opera Company results in an unusual, occasionally uncomfortable mélange. The historical narrative easily outpaces that of the opera, and at times, the difference between crying “bomb” in a crowded theater and the New Mexico desert takes this otherwise engrossing film one juxtaposition too far. (Monica 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)


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