Movie Reviews: The Invention of Lying, Whip It, Zombieland, Paranormal Activity

A BEAUTIFUL LIFE “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing,” Oscar Wilde quipped about the virtuous, beleaguered heroine in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A similar constitution is required to endure the misery pileup in Alejandro Chomski’s film about saucer-eyed, abused teenage runaway Maggie (Angela Sarafyan), who roams the streets of Los Angeles quickly finding kind protectors in David (Jesse Garcia), an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who tries to teach her the right way to love, and Esther (Bai Ling), a stripper who instructs her new charge to recite the Post-it affirmations that adorn her dressing room (“All things are possible for the ones who believe”). Based on the play Jersey City, by Wendy Hammond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Deborah Calla, A Beautiful Life dispenses with continuity and credibility (when your career as a pot dealer is thwarted, try selling handmade beaded jewelry) to become the latest risible, City of Angels–set sudser about broken souls and crossed paths destined for the trash heap. Scream, smash, slap, cry, repeat. The only respite: fleeting scenes of Debi Mazar as a librarian, rocking a cardigan and reading glasses. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN “Everything I write ends up being about loneliness,” said the late writer David Foster Wallace in a 1999 interview. Wallace was trying to get at the core of his Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a four-part short story he wrote as a series of monologues, which, in turn, are presented as a transcription of interviews that an unnamed woman conducted with dozens of men. In a dizzying whirl of language, Wallace’s fictional men explain how they feel about the women they’ve loved or, more often than not, have failed to love. Actor John Krasinski, deeply affected by Wallace’s work, has been developing the stories as a feature for years. All of which makes it even more painful to say that, as a film, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a disaster. Wallace’s monologues are funny, profane, intense and, at all times, deeply emotional. The plot specifics of each man’s story — the who, what and where — are secondary to the clutter of language. Wallace used language as a kind of protective padding for his interviewees, and the reader, at his own pace, must dig deep to find the essential truths. Filmmakers, even great ones, are always battling the clock, a dilemma that left Krasinski little choice but to cut each monologue down to its bone. The stilted storytelling that results often rings false, and the monologues — delivered by some very good actors (Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale) who come across as first-year theater students — no longer add up to much. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN In Search of Beethoven plays like a good, if necessarily condensed critical biography. Drawing from archival letters, interviews with contemporary musicians and historians, and a generous selection of live music, Phil Grabsky’s film takes us through the life and work of its imposing subject, moving from Beethoven’s days as the “piano virtuoso of Vienna” in the 1790s through his establishment as that city’s leading composer and his subsequent personal troubles and declining production. What’s interesting about the film is not so much its re-creation of the man’s life or its presentation of his character — which hew closely to romantic notions of the stubborn, increasingly erratic genius — but its consideration of just how revolutionary his body of music was compared to that of his predecessors. The film’s real resource is its impressive array of talking heads, their intimate familiarity with the music, and their ability to impart graspable insight, as when two subjects offer different readings of the Ninth Symphony’s seemingly incongruous ending. Only the angry outburst of one expert, who uses Beethoven’s genius to deride contemporary art and “video clips” as comparative trash, imparts a sour elitist whiff to the proceedings. (Music Hall) (Andrew Schenker)

THE INVENTION OF LYING The Invention of Lying’s plot hook sounds like a pileup of Jim Carrey–Tom Shadyac concept comedies. Ricky Gervais’ fuzzy parable exists in an alternate universe where nobody has made a word for “truth,” because nobody tells anything but — until one man discovers how to say “things that aren’t.” That man is The Office’s auteur, also co-writer/co-director here. As in that calling-card work, Lying is interested in self-deception as a survival technique. Basically a good sort, Gervais’ Mark uses his gift to ameliorate the sting of the matter-of-fact on the meek — nobody here has heard the old “Everything’s going to be all right” before, and it’s a revelation. In a moment of unction, Mark improvises the comforting idea of heaven, along with a Man in the Sky making up the guest list. Playing to a more credulous public than Jesus, he doesn’t need miracles, and the viral spread of TV news makes him an overnight prophet. At times, it feels as if Gervais has made a film as two-dimensional in its smug secularism as Bruce Almighty was in its vacation Bible-school pandering. When the jokes based on universal social ineptitude wear with use, the film remembers unrequited love. Gervais plays schlub beautifully, testing and discarding a dozen ineffective inflections, sweetly suppliant in hurt. But though Lying brushes more big ideas than commonplace comedies, it hasn’t taken those ideas through enough drafts to work out their implications or — harder still — make them killingly funny. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)


FAME Baby, look at me. Gone are Leroy’s cornrows, short shorts and leg warmers: The anodyne adolescents in 25-year-old Kevin Tancharoen’s directorial debut (written by Allison Burnett) suggest not the charismatic, street-smart pupils at Performing Arts, but the Up With People squares. Don’t you know who I am? Like all good drama queens, the students in Alan Parker’s 1980 original, which unfolded during an unmistakably Koch-era New York, took up space (blocking traffic on West 46th Street) and disrespected authority (dropping f-bombs in class, smashing school property). They also did drugs, had sex (and abortions, if necessary) and stayed up past midnight. The new class at P.A. is strictly PG, sharing a chummy coffee with the vocal instructor (Megan Mullally) who takes them on a karaoke field trip to Lucky Cheng’s, where not one drag queen is visible. Light up the sky like a flame. Though his gayness was awkwardly shoehorned in, carrot-topped Montgomery was at least undeniably out in Parker’s film. His closest analogue — many of the kids in the remake are race and/or gender inversions of the original characters — merely alludes to homo leanings through emo, Efronesque bangs and a slightly swish carriage. Members of the class of ’80 struggled to stay in school despite homelessness and crime; the greatest crisis in ’09 finds a student’s Sesame Street work schedule affecting her GPA. The sanitized moppets in the new Fame sing the body generic. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

MORE THAN A GAME More Than a Game follows Akron’s Fab Four (later Five) kids on the basketball court, from their “Shooting Stars” traveling youth team into high school and a run of championships. The reason this documentary tells their story — instead of that of the team that miraculously upsets the by-then-nationally-recognized starters in junior-year playoffs — is because one of the Fab was LeBron James. Ignored in the film’s discussion of LeBron’s transition to premature fame is his attempt to swing early NBA eligibility after the loss, which wouldn’t jive with the “all for one” ethic, among the film’s many pep-talk lessons. The ostensible director here is Kristopher Belman, an Akronite who played court videographer to King James’ St. Vincent–St. Mary team, but final cut belongs to LeBron Inc. The recent PR flub of Nike henchmen confiscating footage of James getting gently dunked on in a pickup game testifies to the powerful trust authoring James’ legacy. The film could be a tie-in to the recent ghostwritten autobiography, Shooting Stars. Most obtrusive, though, is the contribution of Harvey Mason Jr., producing and soundtracking, who sets Game adrift on an endless sea of crashing crescendos. Good game footage, a few clear looks at the kids behind it, but mostly as processed as Space Jam. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Grove; The Landmark; The Bridge; AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15) (Nick Pinkerton)

PANDORUM Despite too many cheap, sound-cue scares and a slow-boil plot that veers between tension and tedium, Pandorum — a dead-serious horror/sci-fi pastiche that unimaginatively borrows from everything from Alien to WALL-E — gets sort of interesting. Flight engineers Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) awake from a years-long “hypersleep” aboard the Elysium, a massive spacecraft launched from the increasingly uninhabitable planet Earth in 2174. With no memory of their mission, they find themselves in an abandoned wing of the craft, a predicament they discuss at great and scintillating length (“It’s cold in here!” Payton declares. “It’s fucking dark in here!” Bower retorts.) Eventually, Bower ventures out to get the 411, encountering mummified corpses of his fellow crew members and then the gooey, writhing mutants marauding through the craft in search of human flesh. A team slowly materializes out of the terrorized survivors Bower meets on his way to try and reset the craft on its course to Tanis, an Earth-like planet. Much slimy mutant battle ensues. Director Christian Alvart clearly attended horror’s new paint-shaker school of direction (motto: shaky = scary!), but the script’s twisty, end-of-the-world intrigue saves this otherwise leaden film from total self-destruction. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

GO  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY For Katie (Katie Featherston), a San Diego college student, things have been going bump in the night since she was 8 years old and a ghost attached itself to her. The unseen being that has been benignly haunting her for years thrills Katie’s loving but skeptical boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), who sets up a video camera to capture any supernatural goings-on. For his debut feature, reportedly shot in seven days at a cost of 15 grand, writer-director Oren Peli works wonders with stationary camera footage of the sleeping couple: The bedroom door moves, slightly; lights in the hallway go on and off; a shadow passes the bed. As the nights go by, the presence, seemingly annoyed at being recorded, begins upping the ante, and soon it appears that poor Katie is on the verge of channeling her inner Linda Blair. Grounded by strong performances by newcomers Featherston and Sloat, who pretty much have the movie to themselves, Paranormal Activity, which demands to be seen in a crowded theater, is refreshingly blood-free — the fact that its old-school scares caused seemingly jaded 20-somethings at a recent midnight screening to squirm in their seats suggests that there’s hope for the world after all. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Chuck Wilson)


THE PROVIDENCE EFFECT Tucked in the closing credits for Rollin Binzer’s documentary The Providence Effect is a line noting that all proceeds from the film will be donated to Providence St. Mel, the school that the film celebrates — which might explain why so much of it plays like an infomercial. Located on Chicago’s East side, in the midst of a drug- and gang-infested neighborhood, Providence is one of the best performing schools in the country thanks to what we are told is the revolutionary approach to education set in place by the school’s founder and president, Paul J. Adams III, a former civil rights activist who has made education his battlefield. The first half of Providence is filled with platitudes and the repetition of buzzwords like “poverty” and “achievement,” but nothing that explains Adams’ policy in nuts-and-bolts terms. Just past the halfway mark, though, the camera follows the school principal on her daily rounds, and we finally see what all the fuss is about: a robust music program, teachers given the freedom to innovate their approach, and school initiatives that send students around the world for study. The film never completely shakes the feel of being more an advertisement than a documentary, but once it settles into a concrete illustration of Adams’ philosophy (“You’ve got to believe and expect that the children can achieve”), it becomes riveting. (Monica 4-Plex; AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15) (Ernest Hardy)

GO  RASHOMON Akira Kurosawa’s ritualistic, exotic, philosophical action flick effectively invented Japanese cinema for non-Japanese filmgoers, despite the movie’s global-village synthesis. A samurai crime story with an investigative Citizen Kane flashback structure, Rashomon is a mesmerizing play on the mechanisms of fiction which not only contributed a concept to courtroom journalism but counts among its descendents movies as varied as JFK and The Usual Suspects. Presented in a new 35mm restoration produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

A SERIOUS MAN The shtetl shtick that opens Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie — Jewish peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who may or may not be a Dybbuk — tips its hat to the great existential comedy that A Serious Man might have become if it wasn’t buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography. Set in 1967, in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood like the one the Coens grew up in, A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and — passing as sages — a clutch of yellow-toothed, know-nothing rabbis. At their center is the beleaguered academic, Larry Gopnik (played by the excellent stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), a decent geek clinging desperately to his rapidly shredding status quo as his family and his job threaten to fall apart. By way of plot, Larry suffers buckets of abuse from this crew, then seeks spiritual guidance where none is forthcoming until, either by accident or grand design, his life seems to get better all by itself. If this were it, the movie would be no more than another dreary exercise in Coen Brothers sadism. But the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious — and God help the rube who can’t take the joke. For an expanded version of this review, go to (ArcLight Hollywood, The Landmark) (Ella Taylor)

GO  SURROGATES A montage of news footage crisply introduces the not-too-distant future, where the world’s white-collar professionals live vicariously through plastic-smooth swimsuit-cut surrogate bodies, psychically remote-controlled by flesh-and-blood selves abandoned to storage and pallid vegetation. These superdurable avatars are free to live in (somewhat timidly imagined) consequence-free hedonism. No real victims means no crimes, hence not much work for our FBI agent (Bruce Willis), until an unheard-of murder draws him to the ghettos of the offline human minority. As he investigates, director Jonathan Mostow takes the tired anti-authoritarian formula of dreadlocked granola resistance against well-equipped state thugs, and knots it in noirish contortions. Surrogates are played by human actors with the slightest emotional attenuation, recalling all-CGI movies that spend untold millions reinventing life. Willis is fine, as both his blond action figure (Zack Morris hair) and his actual self, in trusty bruised-palooka mode. Mostow does good meat-and-potatoes genre work, coherent even when reckless — which is why you probably don’t know his name. His Internet-era smash-up Fahrenheit 451 comes in nice and lean, with room for a couple of cherry action pieces — that surrogate bodies can be guiltlessly plowed over liberates his car chase, and Radha Mitchell does fine acrobatics in high heels. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)


WHIP IT Drew Barrymore, making her directorial debut, is blunt onscreen and off- about her inspirations for this tale of an anguished debutante-turned–roller grrrl: Take a little bit of Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (a teen townie trying to escape his humdrum existence and dad on a 10-speed), toss in Adrian Lyne’s Foxes (bored suburban girls screwing and drinking to Boston and Donna Summer), and add John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (good girl makes bad choice in boy) and a bit of George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (sports violence as metaphor for outsider’s struggle). The only thing that keeps Barrymore’s effort from playing like an American Movie Classics rerun is the soundtrack, an alterna-rock all-skate to which Juno’s Ellen Page goes ’round and ’round an Austin, Texas, roller-derby rink during her rather sudden rise from klutz-on-wheels to girl-power poster child. Page’s beauty queen Bliss Cavendar is ultimately the least interesting character in the film — a more-good-than-bad youth in revolt clashing with an overbearing but well-meaning Mom (Marcia Gay Harden), a sweet but disinterested Dad (Breaking Away’s Daniel Stern), the best friend with big plans (Alia Shawkat), and the mopey-dopey indie rocker who fucks her over (Landon Pigg, a singer-songwriter making his, um, acting debut). Highlights: Andrew Wilson as the roller girls’ coach (ah, so there’s the Wilson brother who can act) and the roller-derby vets (played especially well by Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig) about whom we learn just enough to wish the movie was focused on them instead. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

ZOMBIELAND The zombie movie — that evergreen vessel for all manner of social and political allegory — gets stripped down to its “Holy shit! Zombies! Run!” chassis in this fitfully amusing romp directed with little ambition and even less distinction by first-timer Ruben Fleischer. Set in a not-too-distant future (Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic 2012, due for release in November, is on the marquee at Grauman’s Chinese) where most of mankind has gone flesh-eating crazy from a Mad Cow–style pandemic, Zombieland follows the requisite hardy band of uninfected survivors as they, like the Griswolds before them, make their way to the promised land of a Southern California amusement park. Woody Harrelson leads the charge as a leathery urban roughneck in the Snake Plissken mold, with Jesse Eisenberg (typecast, yet again, as a virginal neurotic), Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin (playing a couple of scam-artist sisters) riding shotgun. Ho-hum zombie mayhem lurks around every bend, but the movie’s comic tone becomes increasingly strained (as does Eisenberg’s logorrheic voice-over), up to and including an indulgent movie-star cameo by a certain deadpan genius usually more discerning in his choice of projects. Who ya gonna call? How about John Carpenter. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

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