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Movie Reviews: This Is It, Boondock Saints II, Gentlemen Broncos, The House of the Devil

BOONDOCK SAINTS II: ALL SAINTS DAY The Boondock Saints filmmaker Troy Duffy certainly makes for an easy target — at least his former friends thought so when they made the 2003 doc Overnight, a rise-fall-and-turnaround portrait of Duffy’s hubris and recklessness during the making of his first and only film. To his credit, not only did Duffy get his 1999 crime thriller made for less than half of the Weinsteins’ promised budget, but its crippled release still found an excitable cult following from VHS to Blu-ray. Here, then, is the inevitable sequel, and if you don’t already know about the devout Irish Catholic twins McManus (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) who deliver vigilante justice to Boston’s underworld with the help of a rogue FBI special agent, don’t sweat it: That’s also the plot of Boondock Saints II’s childish daydream. Willem Dafoe’s gay fed is out, replaced by his sexed-up protégée Julie Benz, and the Saints are joined by Clifton Collins Jr. as a goofy but loyal Latino brawler who helps them find a mysterious priest killer and tries to look badass while walking in slow motion. John Woo outgrew stylizing movies like this in the ’90s, but Duffy is still chasing his perfect slide-and-shoot, except now with more self-satisfied posturing, awkward pop culture referencing, casual homophobia and racism, and the most vulgar co-opting of religious iconography this side of Dan Brown. (Selected theaters) (Aaron Hillis)

THE FALL It’s really hard to make William Devane look bad. The venerable Knots Landing actor has survived countless made-for-TV movies, as well as Battle of the Network Stars, but even a seasoned pro like Devane is tripped up by John Krueger’s dreary directorial debut, The Fall. Devane plays a blind judge in a murder trial in which a hotshot gubernatorial candidate (Frank, blankly played by Scott Kinworthy) represents his brother (Tony, a brooding Benny Ciaramello), who is charged with killing a Catholic priest. If that isn’t enough melodrama, Krueger also throws in subplots involving drug-dealing cops, videotaped sex and church pedophilia. Everything is equally unconvincing: The legal scenes suggest the writer has never been inside a courtroom (let alone seen an episode of Law & Order), the prison scenes are laughable, and the relationships between the brothers and the women in their lives are just plain creepy. (A sex scene featuring Frank and his wife includes this howler: “Let’s make a fucking baby, Mr. Governor!”) Krueger’s film is so loopy and nonsensical that at times it verges on The Room–esque, so-bad-its-fascinating camp. But for those who stick around long enough to hear poor Devane bark, “Justice isn’t blind!” (remember, he’s a blind judge), it’s clear that The Fall is really just a dull, poorly acted courtroom drama with glossy, autumnal cinematography and an implausible twist. (Sunset 5) (James C. Taylor)

GENTLEMEN BRONCOS Nothing if not consistent, Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre director Jared Hess again presents adolescence as a depressive, outsider experience; makes light of the working class for being, well, poor; and nearly bests the Brothers Coen when it comes to drawing all of his characters from the shallow end of the gene pool. There are moments in Hess’ third self-conscious cult film, Gentlemen Broncos, that exude a fetishistic, low-fi splendor, as Hess envisions the Buck Rogers–meets-Barbarella fantasy world of an introverted Utah teenager (Michael Angarano) writing a pulp science-fiction opus. But both Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years and the life of its author are subject to so much projectile vomit, animal flatulence and innumerable plays on the word anus that even first-graders may find their tolerance tested. “You took my nads!” and “Eat the corn out of my crap” vie for their place in the catch-phrase canon, and an animatronic deer fires missiles out of its ass, though its Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, who handily steals the show as a bestselling fanboy scribe sky-high on his own pomposity. Hess deserves credit, I suppose, for so effectively channeling his inner 7-year-old. I preferred spending two hours in the company of Spike Jonze. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Scott Foundas)

GO  THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL The Devil, apparently, lives in an out-of-the-way gingerbread Victorian, just past the cemetery, where college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is lured for overnight house sitting by an elegant, forbidding couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, both queerly overly intimate). Though its poster and opening title freeze-frames threaten ’80s kitsch, The House of the Devil drops the quotation marks quick, lingering over wet autumn atmosphere in a couple of well-scouted locations (underpopulated campus; cold, quiet house). Pumping the audience with inhale-exhale zooms and out-of-the-way close-ups, director Ti West’s ratcheting of suspense in this alone-in-an–empty-house tale is proficient if not psychologically piercing in the best Let’s Scare Jessica to Death fashion. What makes House stand out above the bad crop of October horror is Donahue, who commands the frame as soon as she is left alone by her out-of-tune best friend (and mumblecore alum), Megan (Greta Gerwig), who oppresses every scene she plays with strenuous cutesiness and sticky line readings. Gravely gorgeous in the style of a storybook Snow White, Donahue gives eloquent reaction shots, and nails West’s pièce de résistance, a bounding, Walkman-soundtracked Jazzercise dance through the house. Would that this scene’s control had carried into the finale, which panicks into videocam illiteracy just as a steady hand is needed most. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

 

JUMP The Austrian-born photographer Philippe Halsman immigrated to America during World War II and became one of the seminal photographers of his time, known not only for his witty “Jump” series, featuring the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon, but also for his remarkable collaborations with artist Salvador Dali. In the handsomely produced but dramatically inert Jump, screenwriter Ryan James and director Joshua Sinclair (both making their feature debuts) look back to 1928, when a 22-year-old Halsman (played by Ben Silverstone) was put on trial for murdering his father. The Halsmans, Jews at a time when Austria was falling under the spell of the Nazis, see history record Philippe’s trial as a textbook case of anti-Semitism at work. In a film heavy on speechifying and low on insight, Halsman’s accusers, who include B-movie goddess Sybil Danning, are depicted as hillbillies with mean stares, while Halsman himself comes off as a whiny narcissist — and an uninteresting one at that. As his lawyer, the late Patrick Swayze works wonders with regrettably trite dialogue, and though Jump can’t be termed a crowning glory, it’s lovely to see Swayze looking more handsome than ever, and drawing on a deep well of resources — actor first, heartthrob second. (Music Hall; Monica 4-Plex) (Chuck Wilson)

MAKE THE YULETIDE GAY It’s old news that American queer cinema is splintered between movies with serious artistic and intellectual aspirations and those which, like the bulk of contemporary pop culture, are aggressively mediocre. Make the Yuletide Gay falls into the latter category. Written and directed by the prolific Rob Williams (Long-Term Relationship, 3-Day Weekend), the film follows the coming-out journey of Gunn (Keith Jordan), a handsome, closeted college senior who travels home for Christmas only to have his wealthy boyfriend (tragic family tale in tow) show up on his family’s doorstep. Ruh-oh. Jordan is charming and talented; his performance is the film’s saving grace. But even he can’t overcome the script’s juvenile sexual humor (bad puns; relentless and lame innuendo), overly broad characters (Gunn’s parents are lifted straight from the bad St. Olaf tales that The Golden Girls’ Rose used to tell), and the creaky turning of the plot from one predictable scenario to the next on its way to a pat happy ending. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

SAW VI If you haven’t followed the series up until now, there’s not much point in trying to catch up with the agonized convolutions of the Saw saga’s plot line. Somebody tried to explain the plot of Saw III or IV to me once, and it took a half-hour — this film, presumably like its predecessors, is a bumblefuck involving a serial killer, Jigsaw (a thin-lipped Tobin Bell, now intoning from beyond the grave), who devises Fear Factor/The Pit and the Pendulum–style deadly dilemmas for his victims. Taken just as an objet d’art, Saw VI — gray, grisly, solemn, stupid — would be about the most dismal thing I’ve ever laid eyes on, the argument against film preservation, but it vaults into the realm of real detestability through pretensions of relevance: having Jigsaw go after faddish bad guys such as usurers made to cut their own pound of flesh, and a team of insurance-company employees looking out for the bottom line. Yes, Saw VI, you’re a vehicle for positive social action. Suggested plot for the inevitable Saw VII: Jigsaw captures and tortures “artists” and studio execs who have money and access to a supple, potentially transcendent and ennobling medium but instead make a lot of Saw movies. (Citywide)(Nick Pinkerton)

GO  SKIN If ever there were a true-life tale that laid bare the laws of South African apartheid in all their arbitrary lunacy, it’s the one dramatized in Anthony Fabian’s straight-ahead biopic of Sandra Laing, the visibly black daughter born in the 1950s to white Afrikaner parents as full of denial as they are of protective love. The inconvenient fact that most Afrikaners have some black ancestry spurred even greater rigidity in the application of institutional and private separatism. Played as a child by the charmingly open-faced newcomer Ella Ramangwane and as an adult by the exquisite British actress Sophie Okonedo, Sandra is turned into a human shuttlecock, classified and reclassified as black or white, according to the needs of her doting but racist father (ably portrayed by Sam Neill) and the schools and government agencies that have no idea what to do with her. Every minute of Sandra’s life is defined by her color, which makes her story here feel oppressive and overdetermined at times. Yet this workmanlike but enormously moving movie makes the case that apartheid really does control her life, even her decision to rebel and fall in love with a black man. That Sandra finally avoided becoming a walking Greek tragedy was due as much to her own survival instincts, sharpened by nonstop adversity, as to the collapse of a toxic regime. (Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

 

THIS IS IT If you’re a Michael Jackson die-hard, prepare to be thrilled — and heartbroken. This Is It, the documentary created from film footage of Jackson’s rehearsals in advance of what was to be his final, 50-show run in London, provides ample evidence that the self-proclaimed King of Pop was awake, pretty much intact and still smooth as butter on the dance floor. Prosecutors should use this film as evidence at any criminal trial, because it offers a portrait of a man who most certainly doesn’t seem to be on the verge of death. He’s alive at the beginning of the film, and he’s alive at the end.

This Is It was produced by the Jackson estate and L.A.-based concert promoter AEG Live, the company that was financing the London gigs. Director Kenny Ortega was Jackson’s creative director for the shows, and plays a prominent role in the footage as the artist’s collaborator and unofficial hype man. So this is the cleanest, most positive spin on the last days of Michael. Who knows what other, potentially more dynamic stories hide inside the 100 hours of footage from which This Is It was culled? Grey Gardens, this is not.

But this is it, so let the whitewashing begin.

Structured as a reverse-engineered look into the London production, This Is It introduces us to the dancers, musicians, technicians and choreographers, all of whom are wide-eyed with wonder at their place in the world: watching MJ spin to “Wanna Be Starting Something,” robot to “Bad” and conjure insanely fluid motions through “Billie Jean.” We see the remarkable sets, the 3-D graphics, the team of dancers. We hear that voice channel “Human Nature” — such a bittersweet song, conveyed through a vessel that touched a billion hearts. We see him as an artist with a bit of a temper, we watch him giggle and growl. When he has trouble with his earphones, with a frustrated smile he says, “I’m trying to adjust my inner ears — with love.” We see him aim a Tommy gun at Humphrey Bogart. We pay witness to Michael as a musician, a boss, an actor, an insistent taskmaster. Wonder at his outfits, in part created by “scientists in the Netherlands.”

The problem is that Ortega offers only the public Michael. We witness him through the eyes of his employees in a film designed not only to illuminate Jackson’s final days but also to set the terms of future conversation about them. Troubles and concerns remain subtext. Yes, he’s a little rickety. But he was 50. That anyone could move the way he does in this footage — at any point in a lifetime — is a wonder. We see it over and over again. We see him not as an alleged child molester or a helpless, drug-addicted wreck but as a force of nature and, above all, a dancer.

But the cracks are there. The most revealing moment arrives as Jackson is being foisted up into the air on a cherry picker. With the crew watching and Ortega guiding him, Jackson lifts off, and you can hear real worry in Ortega’s voice as the singer lets go of the handrail: “Michael,” he says, “please hold on,” and it feels as if he’s talking about way more than the cherry picker. (Citywide) (Randall Roberts)

 


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