Movie Reviews: The Fall, I for India, Mister Lonely
THE BABYSITTERS Used to be that babysitters only solved mysteries or got caught in the middle of Mafia deals. Now, they’re charging $200 to eat a cock-meat sandwich. How did we get here? So wonders a comatose Shirley (Katherine Waterston), pert brown nipples trying to break on through to the other side of a wafer-thin white top, and as The Babysitters leaves the Ecstasy-laden party that the teenage madam organizes for her clients and backtracks to the fateful day when Michael (John Leguizamo) sowed her groove thang, the obsessive-compulsive high-schooler asserts: “Sometimes I do stupid things. I don’t know why.” Like her, David Ross’ film parses the rise and fall of a babysitters’-club-cum-prostitution-ring with a near-unwillingness to bust a brain cell, though nuts get a considerable workout. As Shirley introduces her posse of Junos and Heathers to the townies, the occasional social commentary rises to the surface — Ross repeatedly acknowledges the way middle-aged pervs appeal to the insecurities of young girls — but these glints of insight are as colorlessly sketched as the $20 bills that Shirls stuffs under her mattress. Ultimately, the film’s view of female self-loathing and girl-on-girl exploitation is as woefully reductive and painful as the it’s-all-fun-and-games-until-your-dad-gets-in-on-the-action capper and the propensity for Desperate Housewives–style summarizing. (Broadway 4; Culver Plaza; Grande 4-Plex; Regency Academy) (Ed Gonzalez)
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BEFORE THE RAINS British plantation owner and colonialist extraordinaire Henry Moores (Linus Roache) fancies himself a cowboy of Kerala, cavorting around the jungle with his Indian mistress, Sajani (Nandita Das) as he makes plans to expand his operations by branching out into spices. “Today tea, tomorrow ... cinnamon!” Coyly placed portents (a crushed robin’s nest, a prominently displayed pistol) assure us that something is destined to go awry, and indeed, Henry’s life begins to unravel almost immediately: Labor unrest thwarts his plan to build a transport road even as his sharp-eyed wife (the wonderfully headstrong Jennifer Ehle) joins him in India and Sajani’s brutal husband starts to suspect she’s been unfaithful. Henry is less a character than a metaphor for imperialism; despite his buttoned-up bravado, he can’t face the consequences of his carelessness with both Sajani and Kerala itself. As you might expect from a Merchant Ivory production, Before the Rains is saddled with a predictable lushness — even a streak of blood on a dirty window is aestheticized until it looks like stained glass — and the sensuality here can crowd out the sense. Still, director Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist) imparts a sense of wonder and vastness to the film, qualities reminiscent of a Thomas Cole painting; it reminds you of why anyone thought conquering India was a good idea in the first place. (Fallbrook 7; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Julia Wallace)
THE DHAMMA BROTHERS What happens when you put maximum-security prison inmates through the rigors of a 10-day Buddhism boot camp? This is the intriguing premise of The Dhamma Brothers, a slow-moving documentary that follows a group of hard-boiled but thoughtful Alabama prisoners — most of them serving life for murder — as they learn to meditate and follow Buddha’s Five Precepts in the “monastic setting” of a linoleum-floored jailhouse gym. The movie is at its best when the inmates are simply set in front of the camera and allowed to talk about their crimes, and their hopes for sorting out their lives, even from behind bars; they’re far more eloquent than the superintendents and counselors who keep watch over them. But the film’s flabby, rambling narrative structure, which introduces too many bit players without giving enough background on either prison or meditation, prevents us from getting a good sense of who these men are, how they change over the course of the film, or what effect Buddhism really has on them. First-time filmmaker Jenny Phillips — a psychotherapist — made the questionable decision to shoot cheesy, half-assed re-enactments of the inmates’ crimes, and the unquestionably poor choice to undergird the much-vaunted “noble silence” of meditation with voice-overs and mood music. There’s no doubt that the brothers are a compelling bunch, but their story isn’t well-served here. (Sunset 5) (Julia Wallace)
GO THE FALL Something like a pain-fueled, R-rated Princess Bride, The Fall straddles the intertwined worlds of storytelling and story. One half is a child’s-eye-view tour of the convalescent wing of a Los Angeles hospital, set during the infancy of the film industry. Stuntman Roy (Lee Pace), heartbroken to the brink of suicide, finds himself fabricating a tale about a band of brethren brigands to entertain a recuperating 9-year-old girl (Catinca Untaru, so adorable that I vacillated between feeling saccharine-sick and wanting to adopt her). The other half of the film involves the girl’s visualization of this improvised bedtime story, as the multinational, one-dimensional bandits sally forth in billowing slo-mo on an epic journey to topple a tyrannical governor. As Roy’s depression deepens, the story darkens accordingly. Director Tarsem Singh, a commercial-shoot hired gun whose first and only feature until now was 2000’s The Cell, grabbed vistas for his bloviated pictorialist fantasia on cross-continental on-location shoots, pulling together a supersaturated, border-blurring National Geographic travelogue of steppes, deserts and Ottoman extravagance (the director’s Indian origins give the movie’s references to Orientalism an interesting twist). If the human details are often problematic, the IMAX-grade bombast, ceremonial camera and Jodorowsky-esque eclecticism still combine for a singular spectacle. (Broadway 4; Burbank Town Center 8; The Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Nick Pinkerton)
FRONTIER(S) Ah, the triumph of globalization: Give the French a taste of neofascism, race riots and paramilitary crackdowns, and they seek solace in the American cinema’s current favorite pastime — vigorously art-directed torture porn. Coming after the arterial geysers of Haute Tension,Sheitan and the reigning gusher of Gallic gore, Inside, this grisly 2007 debut of writer-director Xavier Gens (making a brief appearance in U.S. theaters four days ahead of its DVD release) takes the most bluntly political tack yet, stranding a quartet of banlieue outlaws at a remote motel staffed by — deep breath — the cannibal/mutant/alcoholic/nymphomaniacal spawn of an unrepentant Nazi. As a satire of France’s recent turn to the right, Frontier(s) is both hysterical and muddled; as straight-up splatter — a Grand Guignol concerto of scalding steam, slashed tendons and table saw, with a solo for exploding head — it’s as relentless as it is hateful, hammily directed and derivative of the dreariest slop in contemporary American horror cinema. But it’s sure to please anyone (anyone?) who thinks the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake is better than the original. (Bridge) (Jim Ridley)
GO I FOR INDIA Optimistic young doctor Yash Pal Suri emigrated from India to England in 1965, where shoddy phone lines and the tedium of letter writing inspired him to purchase Super 8 cameras, projectors and reel-to-reels for staying in touch with the fam back home. Chronologically laying out four decades’ worth of these cine-dispatches as an epically uncomfortable exchange between her father and his disapproving parents, Suri’s daughter Sandhya Suri strikes humanist gold in her feature-filmmaking debut. Dr. Suri’s recordings wax cathartic about the immigrant experience, from his skewed sense of cultural identity to the casual racism of Brits who refuse to spell or pronounce his name correctly, and the director smartly grounds the story with historical context by interspersing timely, increasingly hostile BBC TV clips about the growing Indian populace. I for India isn’t content just to mold years of personal footage into a fascinating drama, as we’ve already seen in such camcorder-obsessed tales of domestic dysfunction as Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation. Winding down as the modern-day Suri and his wife speak to another daughter — displaced in Australia — via webcam (upgrade!), the film manages to lyrically explore the meaning of filial responsibility with a lasting but unsentimental tenderness. (Grande 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)
GO MISTER LONELY The third feature by Harmony Korine, once the reigning Man You Love to Hate of American indie cinema, is just as likely to confound audiences familiar with the director’s prankish rep: a bittersweet fable about faith, the end of innocence and the search for artistic identity, centering on a lonesome Michael Jackson imitator (the winning Diego Luna) who’s summoned by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Samantha Morton) to a remote commune for celebrity impersonators. As a metaphor for artistic development, a celebrity impersonator who must ditch his costume and go his own way is a perilously maudlin conceit, especially if you read him as the filmmaker’s stand-in. But as director and co-writer (with his brother Avi), Korine has an installation artist’s eye (and patience for duration) and a Catskills comic’s affection for the threadbare fringes of show biz. The movie’s unmoored imagery has a lingering plaintiveness that not even its maker may be able to explain. Movies tell the same stories over and over, but I know of only one that evokes mourned innocence in just a three-minute slow-motion shot of a Michael Jackson impersonator and a stuffed monkey aboard a clown bike. (Sunset 5) (Jim Ridley)
GO OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES Closer in spirit to the deadpan stylings of early Zucker brothers than the more obvious slap-shtick of the Austin Powers franchise, director and co-writer Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a frequently uproarious send-up of Jean Bruce’s long-running series of spy novels — a Gallic precursor to James Bond — and the seven straight-faced feature films they inspired between 1956 and 1970. Here, tongues are planted firmly in cheeks as comedian Jean Dujardin steps into the shoes of the preening, chauvinistic Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (a.k.a. OSS 117), who finds himself dispatched to Egypt with a simple mission: “Make the Middle East safe.” On the ground in Cairo, he soon shows his cultural sensitivity by making politically incorrect comments about the Suez Canal and telling an early-morning muezzin to shut up. All the while, the film makes joyous nonsense out of bad matte paintings, obvious miniature effects, unsubtle sexual innuendo and a lead actor who plays the role to clueless, arched-eyebrow perfection. And whatever you do, don’t forget the secret code words: “How is your veal stew?” (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)
A PREVIOUS ENGAGEMENTA Previous Engagement arrives too late to expose the secret lives of mothers. The secret — that older women like sex too — is not only out, but it has long been fodder for film, theater, literature and most recently the bottom feeders of reality TV. Julia, a Seattle librarian played by Juliet Stevenson, is bored to death by her jigsaw puzzle–obsessed husband, Jack (Daniel Stern). She persuades him to take a vacation to Malta, where she plans to keep a 25-year-old date with her first love, Alex (Tcheky Karyo). Turns out the attraction is still there, despite wrinkles, failed ambitions and the presence of significant others. (Alex has also brought along a complication, his thirtysomething lover/assistant, Samantha). Convinced that Julia is the love of his life, Alex forces a confrontation between the married couple. Meanwhile, Julia’s petulant daughters arrive in Malta to show that mom’s life back home is a nightmare of mind-numbing domestic responsibilities. Written and directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin, the movie is alternatively contrived (why would debonair Frenchman Alex continue to pursue Julia after several rude rejections?) and on-the-nose (as when Julia’s rendezvous reignites her artistic creativity) — adding up to a cookie-cutter romantic comedy in which Julia must choose between her two men. Nevertheless, Stevenson manages to deliver a few poignant moments of nostalgia for the pleasures of youth against the stunning backdrop of the Maltese coastline. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Tatyana Gershkovich)
VICE Writer-director Raul Sanchez Inglis tries to do several ambitious, honorable things with Vice, but for much of the action, they cancel each other out. Walker, the head Vice cop, played by Michael Madsen, is a flawed, contradictory man. Early on, he and his new, still-principled partner, “Salt” (Daryl Hannah), find themselves on a moral collision course. So far, so good. Unfortunately, a musical-chairs mystery is also in play: the Vice team is being killed off, one member at a time, in what appears to be mob vengeance over some stolen heroin. Which cop stole the stuff? Could be anybody, including Walker himself — a possibility that fatally challenges our ability to empathize with this man. We see that he loves his mother (here, Madsen gets to shift gears appealingly as an actor), and we’re told Walker was an ace cop before he lost his wife years ago. Yet, these bits of information feel untrustworthy given the story’s more energetic game of whom-do-you-trust. Inglis offers complicated characters and uniformly worthy performances without falsely manipulating us into sympathizing with anybody but tries too strenuously to fuse his warring polarities of character-driven intrigue and plot-driven treacheries into an allegory of redemption. In the end, that feels like one or two big things too many. (Burbank Town Center 8) (F.X. Feeney)
GO WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS Every now and then, a movie comes along that looks so spectacularly, cosmically bad that you fear for the sanity of its producers. What Happens in Vegas? Nothing surprising. It’s a clunker of a title, and the film’s premise — career woman Cameron Diaz and laid-back, laid-off Ashton Kutcher meet cute in Sin City, drink themselves silly, get married, and promptly win $3 million at a slot machine — strains credulity, to say the least. During a custody battle over the money, an activist judge played by Dennis Miller sentences the two to “six months’ hard marriage,” which somehow entails Diaz moving her smoothie machine into Kutcher’s apartment while the young couple endures weekly marital therapy with Queen Latifah. There’s not much here that makes sense — why is Kutcher’s unemployed carpenter living in a sweet Dumbo apartment, while Diaz’s hard-driving Wall Street type is homeless? — but the stars, despite having only a fraction of the charm and talent of classic sparring-but-meant-for-each-other duos, know how to mug for the camera and well up on cue, and somehow that turns out to be enough to carry this trifle. Charming Brooklyn location shots help things along, as does Rob Corddry, who, as Kutcher’s best friend cum lawyer, is crafty enough to cancel out his buddy’s guileless, cowlike brown eyes. (Citywide) (Julia Wallace)
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