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Movie Reviews: The Great Buck Howard, Perestroika, Knowing, Sin Nombre

Perestroika

GO  EXPLICIT ILLS A tender ensemble slice of inner-city Philly life to wash out the foul taste of Crossing Over’s far more explicit ills, The Hottest State star Mark Webber’s directorial debut is also, not surprisingly, stronger than either of Ethan Hawke’s stints behind the camera. Having spent time squatting while being raised by a single mom, Webber has been an outspoken activist against urban poverty, thus his all-star indie cast tends to serve as collective mouthpiece for his lefty politics. The lived-in performances include Lou Taylor Pucci as the artist who has to sell pot to survive, Paul Dano as a struggling actor battling the melancholia of an unhelpful world, Rosario Dawson as the working-class mother of a young asthmatic (newcomer Francisco Burgos, a tad too precocious for his own good), and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter as Jimmy Fallon’s new house-band emcee — but also, a vegan entrepreneur. Executive-produced by Jim Jarmusch and lensed with luminous saturation by Patrice Lucien Cochet, the film is confidently polished, and thankfully more sweet-tempered than preachy, given that every narrative thread has an underlying theme of social injustice. As it leads up to a neighborhood-wide rally that brings every character together, it’s a shame that Webber (in a marching cameo) has already surrendered his drama over to a last-act tragedy (poverty’s fault, of course). For that, I too protest. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

GO  THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD No one does raging unlovability quite like John Malkovich, who’s a total gas when he drops the bombast that often bogs down his more serious roles. Not that Buck Howard, the once-great mentalist now playing to half-empty theaters in Hicksville, lacks for pathos — or for glory. His lounge act is excruciating, his standup terrible, but his one gift, locating his paycheck in the clothing of an audience member, has never let him down — until now, it goes without saying. Based on a magician known to writer-director Sean McGinly, this loudly dressed, insecure blowhard with a pumping handshake and severe anger-management problems may also be an ambivalent tribute to Jerry Lewis. Either way, Malkovich swallows up the screen, and when he’s out of frame, the movie feels slack and slow. Hobbled by lack of definition, Buck’s assistant and McGinly’s alter ego, Troy (Colin Hanks), a law school dropout with dreams of writing, comes across as pallid and passionless, while the talents of Emily Blunt as a go-getting publicist and Steve Zahn as a small-town fan go wretchedly to waste. While it laments our decaying faith in magic and mystery, The Great Buck Howard is rarely mawkish. McGinly sheds no tears for this clown, and he makes a beguiling case for following your bliss all the way to Bakersfield, if that’s where it lies. (The Landmark; Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

KNOWING Carefully coded so as not to scare away secular audiences who just wanna see stuff blow up, this lugubrious thriller is still the closest Hollywood has come to addressing the question: What would a Christian Apocalypse movie look like with a big budget, a talented director, and star power of higher wattage than a discount Baldwin brother? Here comes the answer: like a glum hybrid of the Final Destination movies, an Irwin Allen disaster bash, and the kitschiest parts of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Nicolas Cage plays a widowed scientist who discovers that the time capsule his kid brought home from school is actually a numerically coded map to 50 years of calamities — essentially prophecy from the Book of the Number 23. The template has changed little since the Mark IV Rapture shockers and Ron Ormond Christploitation epics that traumatized church youth groups in the 1970s: Disbelievers will get face time with Revelation, undergo a foxhole conversion, realize their pastor father was right all along, etc. — but by then, it’ll be too late. What has changed significantly is the expense of the scare tactics. I, Robot director Alex Proyas, helming a project once meant for Donnie Darko’s Richard Kelly, withholds and deploys his show-stopping CG catastrophes with unseemly zeal: It’s hard to take the movie’s high-minded talk about determinism seriously with p.o.v. shots of human bugs splattering on a subway windshield. By the time winged messengers arrive from on high, one longs for the hardheaded heresy of Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

MISS MARCH “That’s four years’ worth of poop,” a doctor remarks when Eugene (Zach Cregger) — who wakes up from a coma after his best friend, Tucker (Trevor Moore), wallops him with a baseball bat, only to discover that his virginal highschool sweetheart is now a Playboy centerfold — voids his bowels. Miss March, which Whitest Kids U’ Know Cregger and Moore also co-wrote and co-directed, sprays like an exploding colostomy bag for 89 minutes. Only a moron would expect a dude road-trip-sex comedy to be more than an aggressive expression of male sexual anxiety. But really, when did women become such vile creatures that they must be stabbed in the face with a fork after a botched blowjob, become near roadkill, and drink dog pee (and love it!)? To make assholes respect you, ladies, try this: Become a Bunny to pay your vegetable boyfriend’s medical bills while saving yourself to have sex with him, or a Slavic lesbian who ingeniously transforms a Perrier bottle into a dildo. Hugh Hefner shows up to give an addled lecture after Eugene and Tucker make it to the Playboy Mansion, and you think: Wasn’t it just last summer that he so sweetly played himself in The House Bunny? (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

 

GO  PERESTROIKA On the evidence of his new movie, Slava Tsukerman, who made the 1982 cult movie Liquid Sky, would make a brilliantly entertaining dinner guest. The Russian writer-director, who thrives on confusion, has emptied the contents of his very busy head and heart into this crowded, talky but immensely likable movie about almost everything in a rapidly changing, uncertain postperestroika world. Tsukerman’s test case for this modest ontological inquiry is a post-Soviet alter ego named Sasha Greenberg, played strong and silent by Sam Robards, who returns in 1992 to his beloved Moscow from self-imposed exile to take in the shock of the new. An astrophysicist who left Russia a traitor and returns a hero, poor Sasha is torn between America and Russia, between science and morality, and between the four satellite women (Ally Sheedy, snippy as ever, plays his wife) who complicate his inner life. Adding to the overstuffed ambiance is a blithely experimental way with form that will keep you busy separating past from present, as Tsukerman ruefully notes the durability of Russian anti-Semitism with or without regime change. His aphoristic screenplay (“Sometimes the price of freedom is collapse”) may sometimes gild the lily, but the amused tenderness with which he treats his hero — if that’s the word for such a porous fellow — and every other blitzed soul in his orbit is completely beguiling. (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

SIN NOMBRE Before setting pen to paper, Sin Nombre writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga purportedly rode the rails in the company of real illegal immigrants traveling from Mexico to the U.S. But from the looks of it, he spent even more time studying Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’s slicked-up slum porn City of God: diminutive kids with guns — check; carefully lit and art-directed shantytowns — check; doomed teen romance — yep, that too. In fairness, Fukunaga’s film isn’t quite as ostentatiously vulgar as Meirelles’: Its loftier aspirations are obvious from the opening shot of El Casper (Edgar Flores), a young initiate in the fact-based Mara Salvatrucha gang, staring fixedly at a photo enlargement of a leafy wooded landscape — a signal flare (along with his teardrop tattoo) that he’s really a soulful poet-dreamer trapped in a violent existence. After his girlfriend is raped and murdered by the gang’s more elaborately tattooed leader, Casper makes a break for it, hopping the same U.S.-bound freight train on which Honduran teen Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her father are heading to the promised land. Meanwhile, Casper’s best friend, Smiley (pint-sized Kristian Ferrer), is dispatched to track the fugitive down — hmmm, do you think these two amigos will find their personal loyalty tested by obeisance to La Mara? Lushly photographed and meticulously sound-designed, Sin Nombre is visceral without being vital, researched without ever seeming lived-in. The best that can be said is that it’s a more honest film on the subject of immigration than the recent Crossing Over — but then again, so is Beverly Hills Chihuahua. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Monica 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)

SUPER CAPERS The geeks who came of age thrilling to blockbusters like the original Star Wars trilogy and Back to the Future are settling into contented adulthood and the joys of child-rearing. But just as George Lucas recently unleashed The Clone Wars as a way to lure his fans’ progeny into his lair, so too does writer-director Ray Griggs’ juvenile Super Capers target the next generation, hoping that kids will be interested in a witless send-up of pop-culture detritus like light sabers, Batmobiles and “Hasta la vista, baby.” The film concerns Ed Gruberman (Justin Whalin), a mild-mannered do-gooder with dreams of being a superhero despite his lack of any discernible powers, who befriends a group of burgeoning caped crusaders. In the revolting tradition of Superhero Movie and Fanboys, Super Capers isn’t so much a filmed entertainment as it is a patchwork of “Hey, remember this movie?” references separated by plot machinations so torturous you start to long for the mind-numbing familiarity of the parody sequences. Wielding dopey humor and a vaguely pro-Christian message, Griggs seeks to create a family-friendly kid’s film that pays homage to the comic-book and sci-fi movies of his childhood. But considering how moldy its satirical targets are, Super Capers will probably just convince young people that what their parents loved sucks. (AMC Broadway; Mann Chinese 6) (Tim Grierson)

 

GO  TOKYO! Does anyone remember Japan? The tri-part Tokyo! revisits the Land of the Lost Decade — or at least its largest city — courtesy of tourist filmmakers Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, plus South Korean neighbor Bong Joon-Ho. Mutants abound as each episode trips the light fantastic. Gondry’s opening “Interior Design” is a vaguely Jarmuschian hipster entertainment about an aspiring filmmaker and his slacker girlfriend, who arrive in Tokyo and immediately succumb to the inexplicable hassles of metropolitan life — with the girlfriend making the more radical adaptation. “Interior Design” evokes Gondry’s pet distinction between animate and inanimate in Japanese terms; “Merde,” the first Carax film of the 21st century, is a more confrontational riff on the most celebrated of Japanese monsters. Carax regular Denis Lavant emerges from a Tokyo manhole — barefoot and green-clad, with one milky eye and a crooked red beard — and, accompanied by a pastiche of Akira Ifukube’s Gojira score, staggers through the garish yet orderly Ginza, grabbing, eating, smoking, and licking, alarming pedestrians (when they’re not documenting his antics on their cell phones). Dubbed the “Creature From the Sewer” by deadpan newsreaders who link him to al Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and Siberian witchcraft, this chaotic eruption is shown to embody Japan’s historical repressed, as well as Europe’s guilty conscience. The creature discovers a subterranean memorial to the Heroes of Nanking and launches an even more destructive attack; captured and put on trial, he’s defended by a French lawyer with a matching milky eye, who translates the creature’s squeaky-voice nattering about his god. As much a form of performance art as a movie, “Merde” offers the funniest urban rampage since Bong’s The Host. Bong’s own “Shaking Tokyo” is a quieter monster movie that addresses hikikomori, a specifically Japanese form of agoraphobia in which a young person retreats into his or her room, sometimes for years. A love story (possibly involving a robot), it’s the anthology’s least flashy filmmaking, but the truest to its location — lugubrious, a bit sentimental, and hopeful that Japan will again emerge from its shell. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

GO  VIRTUAL JFK This elegantly constructed if misleadingly titled class lecture, written and delivered by Brown professor of international relations James G. Blight and directed by a former student, Koji Masutani, asks the question: Can an individual leader take a nation to, or keep it from, war? The conclusion: Individual temperament matters, and John F. Kennedy’s example proves it. Professor Blight, an associate of Kennedy defense secretary Robert McNamara, argues that Kennedy’s 1,000-day reign was basically one continuous crisis — with Cuba, Berlin and Indochina as a cycle of blinking flashpoints. Kennedy was traumatized by the Bay of Pigs debacle and was thereafter, per Blight, the most pressured president in U.S. history. Regarded by the military brass as a “young punk” and taunted by Republican opponents as a wimp, Kennedy was put to the test six times and each time successfully avoided armed confrontation with the Soviets­ — at odds not only with the Pentagon but also his own advisers. As Wilson’s Ghost, a treatise on idealism and American foreign policy, which Blight wrote with McNamara, was haunted by Kennedy’s ghost, so Virtual JFK conjures the specter of George W. Bush. There’s no need to raise the question of whether Al Gore would have responded to 9/11 by going to war in Iraq. Upon its release in New York last September, Virtual JFK seemed a virtual paid political ad for Barack Obama. (Music Hall) (J. Hoberman)


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