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Movie Reviews: Young People Fucking, A Secret, Ping Pong Playa

A Secret
Strand Releasing

ALICE NEEL Alice Neel is a spiritual and tonal clone of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s icky, self-aggrandizing 2003 documentary about his father. Like Kahn, Andrew Neel plays a dual role here as both director and grandson of the eponymous Alice, a well-known portraitist. And also like Kahn, he insists on picking at the scabs of his family’s secrets until we feel embarrassed for him. In one scene, the filmmaker exchanges a volley of “fuck you’s” with his father; in another, he prods his uncle to discuss childhood abuse. Alice comes off best: always painting, never whining, despite a lack of funds or fame. When the brash, bad-boy theatrics of Abstract Expressionism consumed the 1950s art world, Neel’s figurative humanism was so unfashionable that she and her children lived on welfare. Still, she sketched on the streets of Greenwich Village and took lovers of a most unsuitable sort, including a dope fiend. Neel is a compelling subject, but she’s more alive in one of her paintings than in all of the voluminous video footage her grandson thrusts upon us. (Music Hall) (Julia Wallace)

BANGKOK DANGEROUS By way of introduction, globetrotting assassin Joe (Nicolas Cage) tells us the rules for survival as a hit man, the most important being: Don’t get emotionally attached to anyone. As soon as he breathes those words during his cold-as-ice voiceover, alert moviegoers will instantly peg Bangkok Dangerous as another of those dopey crime thrillers in which the hardcore, badass antihero inexplicably decides one day to lower his guard and open his heart, causing all kinds of hell to break loose. Adapting their 1999 Thai film, Hong Kong directors and brothers Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye) start things off promisingly, draping the Bangkok locations in a sleek neon sleaze that suggests low-down B-movie pleasure. But soon Joe, who’s in town to kill four targets, takes in troublemaker Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) as his apprentice and falls for the deaf-mute shopkeeper Fon (Charlie Yeung), and the sinking realization kicks in: These people are taking this nonsense seriously. What follows is a series of ponderous training montages — shoot those melons, Kong! — and painfully precious courtship scenes between Joe and Fon, stranding an audience that just came to see some cool shoot-’em-ups. They do happen eventually but not before Joe reveals his soft side by bonding with an elephant. You heard me. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

DAVID & FATIMA Politicians and filmmakers, one might conclude from director Alain Zaloum’s suffocatingly simple movie David & Fatima, have developed similar approaches over the years: platitudes, platitudes, platitudes. But in the case of this Israeli-Palestinian twist on Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers and their warring clans inhabit a world too complex and too dusty with ancient conflicts for such banalities to ring true. The result is a film so emphatic in its treatment of the parallels between David Isaac (Cameron Van Hoy) and Fatima Aziz (Danielle Pollack) that the handful of affecting moments, like the lovers’ dance in a dilapidated shack by the Dead Sea, end up as whispers drowned out by the political din. More typical is the clumsy opening sequence in which David and Fatima’s mothers, going into labor, meet while en route to the hospital, perhaps spurring David’s belief that “if we pretend everything is OK, the world might change.” By the time Martin Landau swoops in as a radical rabbi who denies love’s power to conquer all, it’s too late: The humanist Realpolitik he imparts with his steady voice and watery eyes has gone distinctly out of vogue this year. “Do you think this is some kind of joke?” David’s sister asks him after discovering his tryst. “Some exercise in Middle East politics?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes. With Tony Curtis as a wizened romantic named Schwartz. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Matt Brennan)

THE DOORMAN In The Doorman, director Wayne Price uses documentary techniques, including a pitch meeting with his actual producer, to suggest that his study of Trevor (Lucas Akoskin), a doorman whose gigs at the world’s hottest clubs have brought him microcelebrity status, is too good not to be true. And for a while, you might believe it: The parade of ladies pushing boobs and busses in Trevor’s face in the hopes of getting past the velvet rope seems depressingly authentic, and then there’s Trevor himself, a sharp-dressed wag — as metrosexual, apparently, as a bag of rainbows — who gets a warm greeting from Padma Lakshmi and testimonials from club owners, like Amy Sacco. About halfway through, though, Trevor’s exploits (ecstatically deluded and on a power bender, he alienates his employers and is summarily exiled from the glamorous life) go from hard-to-follow to hard-to-want-to. Price moves from disturbing believability to lame laugh grabs, setting his satirical agenda off-kilter. Not until the goofy closing credits does the film hit its tonal stride and nail what could have been its saving, salient theme: the absurd lines fancy people draw (and obey) to make themselves feel special on a Saturday night. (Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)

 

GO FLOW: FOR LOVE OF WATER One of those charming little documentaries that make you question whether the human race is really worth preserving, Irena Salina’s Flow: For Love of Water makes a fairly urgent three-point case. The first point is that much of the world has almost no access to clean water, yet impractical privatization schemes in Bolivia and South Africa, among other places, have deprived poor people of this vital necessity. Second, even when there’s water available, the bottled-water racket leads companies, like Nestlé, to package it and sell it back, causing lasting environmental damage to the places those companies are siphoning from. The last is the most frightening: We’re using up the planet’s water too fast, and soon, oil wars will be replaced by H20 battles. Salina’s argument trends alarmist — is it really necessary to call water “blue gold,” per activist/author Maude Barlow’s formulation? — but generally rings true. Vomit-inducing shots of blood-red rivers running downstream from slaughterhouses prepare you for the shock of raw-sewage rivers. Aesthetics take a back seat to interviews, footage of water riots (no, really), and protests. Salina concludes with a cry for activism and intervention, but the case she’s already built makes the battle seem unwinnable. (Sunset 5) (Vadim Rizov)

GO PING PONG PLAYA Documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu takes a breather from chronicling heavy-duty outsider artists (In the Realms of the Unreal) and extremists (Protagonist) to try her hand at a popcorn send-up of identity politics you can take the kids to — and it’s not half-bad. Burdened with a perfect older brother and marooned in disdain for his Ping pong–obsessed suburban Chinese-American family, Chris “C-Dub” Wang (a character worked up from a sportswear commercial by Ping Pong Playa’s production accountant/co-writer Jimmy Tsai, who also plays him with dumb-ass brio) succumbs to a severe case of homeboy envy, talking ghetto and shooting baskets with little kids while stewing in a dead-end job and blaming his failure to make the NBA on his short stature. Chris is a good, if rather too long-running, joke, and it’s fun that Yu and Tsai, who know their Asian-American bourgeoisie through and through, skewer the hypersensitivity of minorities with the same acuity that they take down white condescension. Frantically paced, littered with cute kids, and overstuffed with split screens and a rap score, Ping Pong Playa angles a little too hard for tween attention. But there’s no resisting the movie’s antic affability or its irreverence, even with Chris’s unavoidable progression toward the mature appreciation of his roots. (Mann Chinese 6; Mann Glendale Exchange) (Ella Taylor)

RIGHTEOUS KILL Where once the decline of Robert De Niro’s and Al Pacino’s prodigious talent inspired howls of anguish and impassioned critical essays, it’s a sad state of affairs when the best news about Righteous Kill, the cop thriller that stars them both, is that it isn’t awful. New York City tough-guy detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) are investigating a serial killer who’s bumping off heinous criminals acquitted by the judicial system, but suspicion soon turns to the detectives themselves. Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz’s first script was another New York crime drama, Spike Lee’s crackerjack Inside Man, which featured a slew of well-drawn characters as clever as the story’s twists. But Righteous Kill (directed by journeyman Jon Avnet) jettisons most of the wit for macho bluster and a surprise you can see coming down the turnpike. While there’s no point commenting that De Niro and Pacino are playing calcified versions of their once-great selves, at least Pacino is more reserved than usual — a welcome change. But between the film’s police-procedural minutiae and trite thematic concerns (the weight of Catholic guilt, the thin moral line between cop and crook), Righteous Kill isn’t so much bad as it is played out. No wonder the film’s faded stars seem to fit right in. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

GO A SECRET Based on the roman à clef by Philippe Grimbert, a French-Jewish psychoanalyst whose parents committed suicide when he was young, Claude Miller’s World War II domestic drama is unusually attentive to the way that the Holocaust disrupted lives that were messy enough to begin with. Not one but two dark family secrets stoke the hyperactive imagination of François (played by two child actors and Mathieu Amalric), the runty, sensitive son of athletic parents (Patrick Bruel and Cécile de France) whose obsession with the body beautiful weirdly echoes — and is warped by — Aryan ideals. Julie Depardieu is outstanding as the whistleblower who breaks the pregnant silence, revealing to the bewildered boy the cracks in his father’s first marriage, which would erupt into tragedy under the Nazi occupation. Deepened by its complex back-and-forth chronology, deft shifts in perspective, and a significantly counterintuitive color-coding of past and present, A Secret suggests that it’s not illicit passion but rather the crime of denial that has screwed up this family down the generations. The glibly Freudian conviction that the truth sets us free is less compelling than Miller’s evocation of those politically uncommitted Jews who believed that assimilation would save them. But the Germans didn’t give a damn, and neither, as the movie’s deceptively tranquil coda shows, did their Vichy collaborators. (Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

 

GO SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO Whether it’s score-settling culture theft, a fever dream of interlinked Wild West mythology, or simply a company casserole of way-cool cinema, this delirious spaghetti Eastern could only have come from the boiling brain of Takashi Miike, the prolific Japanese auteur whose spectacularly uneven films account for the lion’s share of the past decade’s most utterly bat-shit movie moments. His quota increases exponentially with this Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars riff about an ace gunslinger (Hideaki Ito) caught between color-coded clans in a suspiciously Nipponese Nevada town, where samurai swords and postapocalyptic costumes vie for dominance with Gatling guns and cowboy suits. Delivered entirely in phonetic English for unnecessary additional derangement, the garbled, woozily re-created dialogue adds another layer of movie fetishism to the whirling duster coats, blazing sixguns, and Mexican standoffs cribbed from Sergios Leone and Corbucci. The director also borrows favorite tropes from sources as far-ranging as Rambo and Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, enlisting no less a fellow magpie than Quentin Tarantino in the Pai Mei role of special-guest gunfighter. (Pointing that can-opener jaw and speaking in tongues, he sounds like Elvis on an udon binge.) And yet the absurdist bloodshed, anime-to-painted-backdrop stylization and jarring tone shifts belong to no other director, as do the stretches of tedium between outrages. Still, the widescreen framing and saturated color make this one of Miike’s most visually impressive features. (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)

SURFER, DUDE Shot on a shoestring in less than 30 days, S.R. Bindler’s crushingly unfunny comedy is rife with the rough edges of quick shoots but without even the saving grace of a little nervous energy. A shapeless slog with virtually no tale to chase, Surfer, Dude (the coma foreshadows what passes here for clever) amounts to little more than another showcase for the buff, bronzed torso of Matthew McConaughey, who spends the entire movie shirtless (and occasionally pantsless) as surfing legend Steve Addington, an old-school Malibu stoner being pressured to compromise his vaguely defined values by participating in a reality TV show. Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Scott Glenn drift through the proceedings on clouds of billowing cannabis smoke. Weed and waves are the broadly sketched characters’ main topics of conversation. Gratuitous shots of beach bimbos comparing breast implants abound. But there are also, inexplicably, clumsy suggestions that the filmmakers might actually think they have something meaningful to say about So-Cal surf culture. The super 16mm camerawork self-consciously recalls the glory days of Bruce Brown, but there’s not much fun in watching anyone ride the wild surf here, and as Addington morphs into a bland, bargain-basement Siddhartha during a long, pointless breakdown, even the reality TV angle (a road previously traveled by McConaughey and Harrelson to marginally better effect in EDtv) is all but forgotten. Lacking even the train-wreck appeal of a brainless stoner comedy like Half-Baked, Surfer, Dude is a numbing experience at just 89 minutes. (Selected theaters) (Lance Goldenberg)

GO TIRED OF KISSING FROGS From the style and energy of its first images, in which the heroine raids her own refrigerator at high speed, in order to feed the party guests in her Mexico City flat, Tired of Kissing Frogs competes, enjoyably, with the pop-tune rhythms and pratfall-sexiness of many Hollywood romantic comedies. When designer Martha (Ana Serradilla), spying à la Lucille Ball with the help of her psychotherapist friend Andi (Anna Layevska), catches her suave lover cheating on her, she decides to become a systematic “man-izer” the way her ex was a womanizer. She consults an internet dating service, “tired-of-kissing-frogs.com,” then makes the slapstick rounds of every local male who happens to be good-looking and available, all the while ignoring the cute, bumbling daydreamer (Jose Maria de Tavira) who serves coffee at her uncle’s café and may prove to be her True Love if only she comes to her senses in time — tick-tock, tick-tock. Suspense in any romantic comedy is less about “what happens next?” than about “how unpredictably will it happen?” Writer Joaquin Bissner and director Jorge Colon conjure laughs and surprises, despite the fact that mostly everything moves to such a familiar beat. They also seem to have a phobia about letting the audience catch its breath, even in the interest of allowing us to know the characters more — still, better this than dullness. Scene for scene, Tired of Kissing Frogs benefits from an extremely charming cast, a lived-in, satiric sense of the international culture of Self-Help, and the travelogue novelty of two settings (Mexico City and Barcelona) which, in this hyperkinetic context, feel like exotic twins of New York and Los Angeles. (Citywalk Stadium 19; Monica 4-Plex; Mann Plant 16; Playhouse 7) (F.X. Feeney)

 

TOWELHEAD American Beauty scribe Alan Ball makes his dreaded feature-directing debut with another tale of suburban purgatory, featuring yet another erotically stifled military man (though pederasty is the forbidden fruit here). Unfolding around the events of the first Gulf War, Towelhead — cringe — follows Jasira (Summer Bishil), a pubescent half-Lebanese girl relocated to live with her father (Peter Macdissi) in Texas sprawl country. Through parental neglect and her own extreme introversion, Jasira’s been left to piece together the sex-ed basics; as the film’s moronic title broadcasts, her journey will be a “provocative” one — and so Ball, who can’t conceive of human motives beyond the hypertrophic, smutty sexuality that’s his stock in trade, primly divides his characters into avatars of Sick Repression or Healthy Liberation. Hemmed in by her father’s Old World patriarchal prohibitions, her own porn-induced body-loathing, and her touchy-feely G.I. neighbor (Aaron Eckhart), Jasira finds shelter with an “earthy” young Edie Brickell–listening couple (presumably Dukakis voters). Intellectual slackness breeds pictorial indifference in endless gray, underlit rooms strafed with hot splotches of “sunlight” suggesting a perpetual supernova outdoors. That our heroine’s first menstruation is announced by a low-angle shot through the gore-sullied panties will tell you everything you need to know about that famous Alan Ball touch. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Nick Pinkerton)

TYLER PERRY’S THE FAMILY THAT PREYS “You’re a woman scorned with no prenup. That’s a recipe for good livin’’” is just one of the zingers Kathy Bates gets to deliver as Charlotte Cartwright, a rich Southern matriarch whose son (Cole Hauser) is having an affair with Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), the social-climbing daughter of Charlotte’s Bible-waving best friend, Alice (Alfre Woodard). Money long ago corrupted the Cartwrights and now it’s corrupting Andrea, whose cheating ways eventually get her a sock in the face from her absurdly naïve husband (Rockmond Dunbar) — a moment of domestic violence that the usually high-minded Tyler Perry appears to condone. Set in an unnamed modern city, this snail-paced film might as well take place in the 1950s since it seems to have been inspired by one those Hollywood melodramas in which one company employs the entire town, and the only places free from corruption are the church and the local diner. Although juicy secrets spill out on cue in the third act, what’s memorable here is the sparkling chemistry between Bates and Woodard, whose scenes together are a pleasure to watch, even as one thinks that their next outing should be to co-teach a master class entitled, “How To Rise Above Cliché.” (Citywide) Chuck Wilson)

YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING Though its title will undoubtedly attract the curious — and a hearty tsk-tsk from your mother — a more accurate moniker for this sex comedy might be Attractive White People Nattering On. Directed and co-written by Martin Gero, one of the producers of the sci-fi series Stargate: Atlantis, Young People Fucking intercuts the stories of five different couples — actually, four couples and a threesome — as their bedroom adventures build from coy foreplay and screwing to postcopulation powwow. Gero and co-writer Aaron Abrams keep things lively by placing the couples on different rungs of the relationship ladder, running the gamut from long-term partners (Josh Dean and Kristin Booth) who have fallen into a rut to platonic best friends (Abrams and Carly Pope) negotiating a no-strings-attached quickie. Like a nervous first-timer, Young People Fucking tries a bit too hard to give off the impression of experience, and consequently, the film’s explicit dialogue and pseudonaughty tone result in mostly shallow, giggly humor that rarely delves into the kinkiness and hang-ups that make sex a topic both obsessed over and rarely discussed. Watching good-looking people in various states of undress has its merits, and the subplot about conflicted exes (Josh Cooke and Sonja Bennett) shacking up for old times’ sake resolves itself poignantly. But instead of seeming irreverent or refreshingly honest about its subject, Young People Fucking ends up more of a shower than a grower. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)


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