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Movie Reviews: Women Without Men, The Square, After.Life, Phyllis and Harold

AFTER.LIFE Somewhere in Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo's awkward debut feature is a macabre and almost quaint gothic mystery begging to be left alone. After blowing up at her boyfriend (Justin Long) over dinner, Anna (Christina Ricci) drives off and suffers a disastrous crash — then gets chatty on the mortuary slab. The funeral director (our friendly B-movie bear Liam Neeson) says she's a halfway-there soul whom only he can hear, but what of the Deschanel-eyed spooky kid who thinks he saw her up and about in a synthetic red slip? What might have played well as a multipage Poe rumination gradually gets pulled to bits by thudding Ricci-Neeson face-offGis in the poster-ready funeral-prep chamber, and Long hissy-fits over being denied access to his would-be fiancée's body. There's potential in the filmmaker's comfort with drawing out still moments and slipping into dark visions without drawing boundaries (and Ricci's ample naked lounging lends a certain Continental touch). All of that just as easily turns into dead air and, by the end, a revelation telegraphed so unremarkably that it's hard to enjoy — not to mention Neeson's missed opportunity for vamping it up a little, what with a script that has him calling the corpses in his charge "you people!" (Nicolas Rapold) (Citywide)

THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO'S POND As a rule of thumb, it's never wise for vacationing college students to assemble and then play a dusty, ancient-looking board game they discover behind a basement wall. The ill-fated fools in the amusingly silly The Black Waters of Echo's Pond do so nonetheless and end up possessed, one after another, by demons that prey on each person's hidden desires and secret sins. Director Gabriel Bologna — son of veteran character actors Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna — and co-writers Sean Clark and Michael Berenson waste a lot of time getting their nine sex-obsessed youths in front of that murderous board game, but once they do, the movie shifts into gear. Cleverly designed, with intricate moving parts, the game contains tarot cards, creepy skeletal totems and, in its center, a shimmering faux pond in which players can witness the truth about past events in the lives of their companions. As truths unfurl, resentments flare, and soon the kids are slaying each other with all manner of sharp objects, including, of course, a chain saw. Bloody and gory, but in a friendly way, this is a movie for old-school horror fans who understand that sometimes, bad is good. (Chuck Wilson) (Citywide)

GO  BREAKING UPWARDS Four years into their relationship, New York City 20-somethings Daryl (Daryl Wein) and Zoe (Zoe Lister-Jones) love each other but are bored silly; the sex is rote, the daily routines irritating. Rather than break up bitterly, they agree to part ways slowly, by taking "days off" from their relationship before eventually beginning to see other people. At first, their plan seems daring — in a gimmicky way — but gradually they really do begin to move apart and, at different points, each starts to mourn the loss of the other. Reportedly drawing on their own romantic relationship, Wein and Lister-Jones have co-written a low-budget romantic comedy that's smart and lively and, in the end, quite affecting. Making his feature debut, Wein, who made the superb AIDS documentary Sex Positive, directs in a free and easy style that occasionally feels aimless, until one remembers that aimlessness is a crucial part of being young. Buoyed by veteran character actors such as Peter Friedman, Julie White and Andrea Martin, as well as the charismatic young star-to-be Pablo Schreiber, Breaking Upwards is, in the end, all about the loving looks Daryl shoots Zoe, and she shoots back. (Chuck Wilson) (Sunset 5)

DATE NIGHT "We are not these people! We are a boring couple from New Jersey!" complains Claire Foster (Tina Fey) to her husband, Phil (Steve Carell), in Date Night. Phil and Claire are middle-class suburban parents whose plans for a night on the town are thwarted when they're pulled into a web of crime and conspiracy. They wanted a night off from mundane matrimony; they learn that they're better off bored. Fey has become associated with comedy that's fast-paced, cerebral and laden with cultural references; even more than Carell, she's hurt by the transition from a sitcom that regularly operates on multiple levels (30 Rock) to a film squarely aimed just north of the lowest common denominator. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museums) glosses over the seeds of social satire inherent in the premise, and instead tries to make his movie all things to all quadrants — straight-faced violent action flick, slapstick comedy, relationship comedy, sanctimonious ode to family values. A jumble of genres, tones and styles, Date Night ultimately strains to be a serious movie about marriage, with one joke: that, even when surrounded by excitement, Claire and Phil revert to being dull. But in practice, their dullness is just dull. In a great romantic comedy, sex is the subtext of all conversation. In Date Night, the conversation is bland, the sex is left mainly to spies and criminals, and the subtext? That's apparently too much to ask of a boring couple from New Jersey. (Karina Longworth) (Citywide)

 

GODSPEED His relationship with God complicated after his wife and son are incomprehensibly murdered, small-time Alaskan "faith healer" Charlie Shepard (Joseph McKelheer) moves to a trailer in the woods, grows his beard out, finds solace in the whiskey bottle and inks out all the lies in his Bible — till it's almost completely black. Not that Charlie was a saint before the unsolved crime, having cheated with a prostitute and begun his descent into alcoholism, but it's his murky reverence for the Gospel that fuels co-writer/director Robert Saitzyk's brooding, slow-burning northern-gothic drama/revenge thriller/backwoods horror. Suspense is introduced along with angelic teenager Sarah (Courtney Halverson), the daughter of one of Charlie's sick parishioners, who asks for help and brings the broken evangelist to the very men responsible for his family's slaughter. Amid gorgeous panoramas, blood spills in the name of loony, misinformed good intentions. The tone fits the material, and the performances are surprisingly measured, but Saitzyk's sappy pontifications on loss, redemption and zealotry don't register as headily as they're meant to (every character gets at least one melodramatic speech), and the spirituality invoked feels about as sincere as the Christian who only attends Christmas mass. (Aaron Hillis) (Sunset 5)

LA MISSION Watered-down Jungian analysis meets a GLAAD-approved weepie in Peter Bratt's second feature, starring brother Benjamin Bratt (who also produces) as a neck-tattooed macho who will finally realize the damage his rock-hard masculinity has caused during a funeral for a teenage gangbanger, his tears mixing with the rain. As subtle as a face punch, La Mission nobly continues a necessary conversation about homophobia, but paves the way to hell with its own good intentions. Che Rivera (Bratt), a 46-year-old widowed Muni bus driver, spends his off hours boxing, cruising in his lowrider, raging against the gentrification of his S.F. neighborhood of the title, and inviting his UCLA-bound son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), to pickup basketball games. Jesse, however, prefers male bonding of a different sort, like Castro boy-bar fun. When Che discovers evidence of Jesse's night out, it's gay panic at the Frisco: He pummels and disowns his son. As the Bratts tick off the usual coming-out-narrative plot points, La Mission strains to be both a thoughtful tale of one man's emotional rehabilitation and a critique of outmoded, sclerotic patriarchal customs in Latino culture. It's a laudable goal but one that too often becomes nothing more than a series of teachable moments — suitable for awareness training at a PFLAG meeting but too earnestly didactic to have much lasting effect. (Melissa Anderson) (Monica, Playhouse, Sunset 5)

MID-AUGUST LUNCH Watching this lauded but fatally slight comedy of manners about a middle-aged Italian who finds himself caring for four spunky old dames, it's hard to believe writer, director and star Gianni Di Gregorio also co-wrote the bloody Mafia hit Gomorrah. Amiably self-deprecating to a fault, the semi-autobiographical Mid-August Lunch features Di Gregorio as Gianni, an aging slacker who cares for his demanding mother (Valeria de Franciscis) in their decrepit Rome apartment. Forced to take in several other matriarchs in order to win a reprieve on his overdue rent, Gianni wakes up to a functioning community of vibrant broads (all gallantly played by nonpros) whose preference for fun over balanced cholesterol levels provides whatever charm can be wrung from this desultory slice of life. By contrast — and if that's the point, it remains unexplored — Gianni is a pale ghost of a man who desires nothing and does little more than rustle up dainty dishes, knock back white wine by the liter and, in a coda you can see coming from scene one, whirl the randy old girls around in a valedictory living-room dance. Indeed, the only whiff of passion comes from the sadistic care that has gone into putting garish clothes and makeup on the mother, which give her the ghoulish air of Jeanne Moreau in a fun-house mirror. Of all the ritzy festival awards Mid-August Lunch has won (including Best First Film at Venice), it rates at least Bologna's Golden Snail Award for Best Food Feature. (Ella Taylor) (Monica, Music Hall, Playhouse, Town Center)

PHYLLIS AND HAROLD There's a secret busting out of Cindy Kleine's documentary about her parents' long and — depending on whom she talks to — unhappy marriage, but it's a pretty banal one. Kleine's mother, Phyllis, an upstanding Long Island Hadassah lady, didn't have to look beyond her workplace to find a lover with whom she conducted a clandestine five-year affair, which she briefly revived in her 70s. We learn little enough about this man to make us wonder if he was all that different from Phyllis' husband, the dentist. What's interesting about the filmmaker's rummage through her parents' conjugal closet — another in a thriving subgenre of domestic-turmoil docs as told by their spawn — is the abyss between the husband's and wife's points of view. Once a fleshy man of appetites awkwardly hitched to a bright, intense, buxom emo-glamour-puss, the unintrospective Harold, who apparently remained ignorant of his wife's infidelity until he died, remembers the period of her indiscretion as his "golden years." But that's not the only pathos — it's also that these two lived together for 59 years as strangers. Was Phyllis a self-absorbed drama queen who would have found any marriage inadequate given time, or a prisoner of the postwar suburbs wilting for lack of fulfillment? Either way, her daughter has it easier — she makes movies, knows arty types who're good for blurbs, and goes home nightly for her dinner with Andre (yes, that Andre). But I'm not entirely sure why she made this film. (Ella Taylor) (Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Laemmle’s Fallbrook 7)

 

THE SQUARE The Square — indebted to The Postman Always Rings Twice — fails to raise (James M.) Cain. The feature-helming debut of stuntman Nash Edgerton, co-written by brother Joel Edgerton, this Down Under noir confuses incoherent body pileups with "twists." Cheating construction-site manager Ray (David Roberts) and beautician Carla (Claire van der Boom) want to ditch their Sydney spouses and start anew, with the help of a duffel bag full of cash stashed in the attic by Carla's mulleted husband. An arson plot goes wrong, a halfwit is impaled, a baby is imperiled, a blackmailer is chained to a motel sink — all convoluted plot developments (with multiple holes and inconsistencies) that add zero suspense but increase your suspicion that the Edgerton boys simply thought more was better (as opposed to 2008's excellent, pared-down Postman rethink, Jerichow). Or maybe they were hoping to distract viewers from their film's most lethal flaw: two adulterous leads as sexless as Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Australia. (Melissa Anderson) (Nuart)

GO  WOMEN WITHOUT MEN Adapted from Shahrnush Parsipur's novel of the same name, Women Without Men opens with an act of suicide and the voice-over, "And I thought, the only freedom from pain is to be free from the world." Directed by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, the film follows the interwoven, tragic paths of four women in Iran during the summer of 1953, when political upheaval stirred by Western power plays resulted in the fall of democracy and the fanning of religious fundamentalism. Fledgling political activist Munis (Shabnam Toloui), whose suicide opens the film, lives with her brother, who browbeats her about her failure to conform to religious dictates; bone-thin, dead-eyed Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) works in a brothel for a brutal madam before running away; the devout Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni) dreams of nothing but marriage until an act of violence forces her to reevaluate her life; and unhappily married Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) flees her marriage to a boorish army officer after a past love — a cultured man — returns to her life. Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Shoja Azari, Neshat employs dialogue that is often didactic, but that weakness is forgiven in the face of stellar acting from the ensemble and gorgeously composed and shot images — from the carefully draped bodies in a bathhouse to the desolate Zarin's trek down an isolated road as the fabric she's clothed in flaps around her body. (Ernest Hardy) (Music Hall, Town Center)


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