03/14/12 4:00am

Seeking Justice
Directed by Roger Donaldson

Otherwise preposterous from start to finish, the Nicolas Cage thriller Seeking Justice can be commended for exactly three displays of restraint. The rape that sets the frantic plot in motion is kept predominantly off-camera. The story seldom resorts to that tired “no one believes the hero is innocent” staple. And director Roger Donaldson—who does not blanch at excess—allows his notoriously cataclysmic star only one outburst, though it’s a doozie: Cage’s English teacher bellows the virtues, as exercised by Shakespeare, of writing down violent thoughts versus acting on them, to a class of indifferent inner city thugs.

Elsewhere, Donaldson proves an indefatigable noise enthusiast, as he sets up rapid-fire chase sequences along roaring highways, at a clanking demolition derby (a mere excuse to plug the Superdome) and finally at an abandoned mall with no shortage of high drops. Some of these set pieces are admittedly nerve-racking—chiefly, the foot chase on the freeway—and some are enjoyably silly (two bad guys spill onto a moving escalator; Cage plays chicken with a pursuing cop). But generally, the screeching, the jump cuts, the ominous tinkling-glass score, distract from an already convoluted story.

That story involves the violent rape of Cage’s wife (January Jones, in a pouty, pedestrian role), the vigilante group (led by a creepily hairless Guy Pearce) that offers to knock off the rapist, and the chaos that ensues when Cage accepts their offer. Apparently, the “small favor” Pearce asks of Cage in exchange involves his murdering a similarly reprehensible offender. Furthermore, our frazzled protagonist discovers that just about everyone in New Orleans is mysteriously in-the-know, either supporting or turning a blind eye to the vigilantes.

The plot thickens to a degree that is less intriguing than muddy, and while Donaldson and screenwriters Todd Hickey and Robert Tannen have some winking fun with their own outlandish ideas, they don’t wink quite enough to render Seeking Justice a high-camp affair. With its unimaginative title and nagging whizz-boom effects, not even Cage can elevate it above straight-to-video status.

Opens March 16

03/16/11 4:00am


Directed by Greg Mottola

It’s a shame that Paul, boasting the talents of Superbad director Greg Mottola and a diverse, loopy cast from both sides of the Atlantic, turns out to be only intermittently funny. It’s certainly a one-joke premise: an alien that physically resembles the Mars Attacks! villains turns out to be as harmless as…well, as harmless as Seth Rogen in an alien suit. But with just a little more wit, and a little less resorting to explosions and gunfire, Paul could have stretched its silly, self-mocking premise to Anchorman-level heights of absurdity.

Two overgrown British nerds (Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the screenplay) embark on an RV road trip from Comic-Con to Area 51. Hilariously un-self-conscious, they waddle through churlish Hicksville, giggling incredulously at people’s prejudices. It’s a bro-mance, no question, but with far subtler gay-panic jokes than in most American bro-mances.

Unfortunately, once Pegg and Frost stumble upon the titular alien (voiced by Rogen), they become subsidiary characters in their own movie. Enlisted to help Paul escape from hostile authorities (Jason Bateman, Joe LaTruglio and Bill Hader, all sadly underused), their mere function is to faint and stutter on cue whenever Paul reads a mind, heals a wound disappears. The dry wit of the early scenes flies out the window, never to return.

Rogen manages a few sassy lines, most of them serving to debunk crass myths about aliens (“How much can I learn from an ass?” he retorts, when Pegg asks if he’ll be probing them). But generally, Paul is a blandly insouciant creation. There’s a gold mine of potential laughs that can be tapped, for instance, from the realization that Rogen has been watching Earth’s progress for the past 60 years, but this is never explored. Most of the film, in fact, makes far less fun of its self-imposed cliches than it should.

Paul is partially redeemed by Kristen Wiig’s superb turn as a Bible Belt-bred, half-blind girl, who tags along with the gang and promptly sheds her Puritan values. Most of Paul‘s wonderfully inventive streams of profanity (example: “Ain’t that a bag o’tits!”) are delivered by Wiig; finally, here’s a bro-mance film where the girl actually outshines the bros.

Opens March 18

02/09/11 4:00am

Orgasm, Inc.

Directed by Liz Canner

From the title, you expect Orgasm Inc. to posit a long-awaited solution to the belief that men achieve more sexual pleasure overall than women, and that female pleasure is generally deemphasized in modern culture. Surely director Liz Canner, in her debut feature documentary, could bring to light an amazing new sex toy, or sexual position, or mind trick, to help women gain the upper hand in this regard.

Yet Orgasm Inc. is instead a bracing attack on the very concept of Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD), as it has come to be known by the scientists, sexual therapists and medical device developers looking for quick-fix solutions. But how many women actually benefit from the drugs, creams and machines engineered by medical giants and start-up technology groups alike? Wouldn’t most women, Canner and her more skeptical subjects seem to be asking, reach that zenith through less stress, more sleep, more love at home?

Canner achieved her answer over nine years of filming, starting as a chronicler of Vivus’s unsuccessful launch of a Viagra equivalent for women and ending with footage of the FDA rejecting the testosterone patch Intrinsa last year. In between, she proves her muckraking mettle, provoking a marketer for a cosmetic genital surgery company to admit her disdain for such mutilation; revealing sex expert Laura Berman to be a shill for Viagra; and exposing outright the lies of Orgasmatron creator Dr. Stuart Meloy, who admitted the inefficacies of his product to Canner only to tell a much more successful story to Fox News days later. Watching Meloy pull the Orgasmatron wire out of a middle-aged women’s spine will haunt you for days—it looks like the Alien incubation scene in reverse.

Mostly, though, Orgasm Inc. is lighthearted in tone. Canner abandons numbing talking head interviews, favoring wry camera tricks such as filming one subject disgustedly watching another’s disingenuous TV interview. But at times Canner seems too hesitant to determine a better solution for women unable to achieve orgasm. FSD is certainly a spurious conceit worthy of ridicule—but such women may appreciate more comprehensive conclusions than “Seek a therapist” or “grin and bear it—not everyone was meant to have an orgasm!”

Opens February 11

02/24/10 4:00am

The Yellow Handkerchief
Directed by Udayan Prasad

In Udayan Prasad’s The Yellow Handkerchief, William Hurt is so effortlessly commanding he upstages even the evocative post-Katrina Louisiana backdrops. Somehow, he manages to play his character as stoic, foreboding and mournful all at once.

But at its outset, The Yellow Handkerchief intends to be more of an ensemble piece than a star turn vehicle, so it’s off-putting when Hurt’s character eventually becomes the film’s pivotal focus. Prasad and screenwriter Erin Dignam wind up pushing Hurt’s co-stars, and in turn the complexities of the plot, into the periphery. And that’s frustrating when the other two actors are as talented and quirky as Kristen Stewart and the British upstart Eddie Redmayne.

Hurt is a taciturn ex-con just sprung from jail; Stewart is a lonely 15-year-old estranged from her father and boys her age; Redmayne plays an awkward teen, prone to babbling non-sequiturs. The three meet at a bus depot diner in Nowheresville, Louisiana and, when bad weather derails Stewart and Hurt’s travel, they finagle their way into Redmayne’s beat-up car and head for New Orleans, discovering each other, learning lessons.

At the tender age of 19, Stewart embodies the quintessence of adolescent girlhood—with her high, often vexed forehead and wandering, curious eyes, she always comes off as slightly aloof but in secret need of affection. Here, she brings a coquettish sexuality to her scenes with Hurt, whom she idolizes as both a father figure and the epitome of sturdy manhood.

Redmayne is hilarious as he tries to mask his naïveté with bumbling attempts to entice Stewart, who flirts back somewhat but is ultimately indifferent. And as Hurt reflects on his stormy past relationship with Maria Bello, which was also fraught with mixed sexual signals, we keep waiting for a real rapport to develop between him and Redmayne, for Hurt to pass on what he learned from his mistakes with women.

Unfortunately, the movie suddenly turns Hurt’s backstory, at first glimpsed only in rapid-fire segments, into an extended flashback, as Hurt dictates and Stewart and Redmayne tearfully listen. While Hurt gives a tour-de-force performance throughout, his co-stars are given less and less to do as the movie nears its end, which, given the true-life grit of its set-up, seems awfully pat.

Opens February 26

10/07/09 4:00am

St. Trinian’s

Directed by Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson

If you think the pinnacle of comedy is the sight of suave British actor Rupert Everett in pitiful drag, well, you’ll still probably be bored to conniptions by St. Trinian’s. Released two years ago in the UK, this high-spirited but utterly empty ode to schoolgirl skullduggery is an update on the long forgotten 1954 Alistair Sim romp The Belles of St. Trinian’s, itself adapted from Ronald Searle’s WWII-era comic. No wonder this flimsy nonsense is more stale and flavorless than re-refried Delta fare.

Everett plays Camilla Fritton, the frumpy yet randy headmistress of the titular school, a countryside sinkhole with an abundance of cobwebs and skeleton fragments. The potty-mouthed nurses drink martinis! The youngest kids take anger management and shoot the heads off toy ducks! The school dog humps visitors’ legs! The dog gets hurled out of a window!

Anyway, for no discernible reason, Fritton’s prissy niece (Talulah Riley) is forced by her father (also played by Everett) to enroll at the school, and is met with expected disdain from her rebellious peers. But after proving her mischievous mettle in a chaotic field hockey game, Riley gets made over into a sultry vamp by some classmates, who thus accept her. Riley in turn grows to appreciate all the school’s unseemly goings-on and, in the face of shutdown threats by the miserable Minister of Education (miserable-looking Colin Firth, who should know better), helps spearhead a high-concept heist to save it.

St. Trinian’s is so uninspired that not even the innately hilarious Russell Brand—as a shady bootlegger who buys Chem lab-brewed vodka from the girls—can spice up the limp proceedings. Directors Oliver Parker and Barnaby Thompson don’t make the faintest attempt to breathe life into their cliched characters, as the requisite cliques of nerds, pop culture-obsessed airheads and Goths (or, as one character so wittily calls them, “emos”) come off as indistinguishable. Despite their presumptuousness, the vixens are as uninterested in sneaking off with male counterparts as the bookworm preteens; the nerds advocate blowing things up and other wrongdoings as much as the tough girls, and so on. As a result, the kids are both unsympathetic and dull; the audience is called on to root for ciphers that cheat, and for a school that turns a blind eye. The whole affair makes Mean Girls look like the epitome of fresh.

Opens October 9

07/29/09 4:00am

Directed by Max Mayer

Adam’s standout scene, perfectly demonstrating the epic disconnect between its two central characters, is entirely non-verbal. Beth (Rose Byrne), having just discovered unfortunate news about her father, is clearly in need of comfort from her boyfriend. But Adam (Hugh Dancy) remains alarmingly opaque. She hugs herself as if to instruct him, but he merely pantomimes her gesture. In desperation, she places his hands on hers. He does not react. Finally, Beth breaks down crying.

That Adam is stricken with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, is almost an afterthought. For Adam, the superb directorial debut of Max Mayer, is far more of a tragedy about miscommunication — albeit with several wry laughs — than it is another sweet-natured portrait of a lovable, afflicted loner.
While Dancy deftly embodies Adam’s various inabilities — to self-edit in conversation, to grasp boredom or sarcasm in others, for instance — he never manipulates the audience into pitying him, or finding these traits cute. We feel for Adam’s limitations, but we also see, through Byrne’s stunningly convincing performance, how frustrating they would be even for immensely patient schoolteachers like her. When she snaps at Dancy, you feel his hurt, but Byrne never seems unreasonable.

The film mostly traces Byrne’s point of view of the relationship — first she’s bewildered at Adam’s aloofness, then she falls for his unusual excitement with what most people dismiss as minutiae — and it’s heartbreaking to watch her attempts to integrate him socially, to teach him how to ingratiate himself, consistently fall flat. But not once does Byrne’s overriding tenderness for Adam’s  child-like nature seem improbable.

Mayer occasionally missteps: Adam’s tantrum scenes sometimes resort to Rain Man-like histrionics; the annoying twee pop soundtrack — by now a Fox Searchlight “small film” staple — is used once too often to evoke substance; and a few of Adam’s self-analyses (“I’m not Forrest Gump, you know”) seem forced. But he deserves merit for not only tackling but intertwining two of the most trite film subjects — disability and romance — and for drawing out two amazingly multifaceted performances in the process.

Opens July 29

04/29/09 4:00am

Battle for Terra
Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas

“Hey, at least the 3-D was cool,” you might find yourself saying upon exiting the humorless, heavy-handed animated feature Battle for Terra, incapable of generating a more trenchant response. You might not even reach that paltry conclusion, as you probably removed your 3-D glasses several times, just to see something distorted and surprising to distract you from the film’s stone-faced anti-war breast-beating.

Director Aristomenis Tsirbas’ story may at heart be a parable on pacifism, but it nonetheless seems confused about its causes. After the teen-aged alien protagonist Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is punished by her father for rebelling against the teachings of her tribe’s “elders,” you expect a stab at Maoism — mainly because the highest-ranked elder is draped in red. But then Mala’s Dad is kidnapped by human soldiers — all blank-faced chiseled jawline and booming basso — who’ve been ordered to colonize the alien planet and replace its air supply with alien-killing oxygen. Only the nice pilot Jim (Luke Wilson), and a not-sassy-enough robot (the usually hilarious David Cross, doing a lame nod to Johnny-5) can help Mala end the war. Could a war on air be a metaphor for (gulp) a war on oil?

Tsirbas lacks a solid angle, in a film that variously seems in favor of peace, anarchy and treason. It’s also hard to detect any moral amidst all the thunderous plane combat and Mala’s non-stop gasps of “No!” and “Jim!” The dialogue is steadfastly serious, the characters indistinct from one another — the aliens are all cuter, noseless versions of E.T., with sutured-on ponytails and plaintive, frightened eyes as wide as whirlpools; the humans express terror, outrage and pride in the same cue-card reading monotone.

All that’s left to react to, really, is that sweet 3-D gloss: sleet you can practically touch, flakes of debris you can practically choke on, adorable aliens, sauntering like airborne seahorses, you can practically cuddle with.

Opens May 1

06/18/08 12:00am

At first, Hancock boldly employs the Cable Guy approach, transforming one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars into a misanthrope. Will Smith’s preference for playing jocular wiseasses who can tear even the most towering beasts a new one has grown irksome. But here, Smith seems to be assassinating his extroversion, sleepwalking through the unshaven, perpetually drunken title role: an immortal but loathed underground superhero. Even when Hancock skyrockets to a crime scene, landing oppressively enough to shatter a whole cul-de-sac, or hurls one snarling meanie up another’s asshole, Smith lets CGI do all the work, scarcely lifting his arms. The obnoxious put-downs are there, but they’re laced with arsenic and delivered with the same mumbling, squinting approach. It’s a hilarious break from form, deftly steered by director Peter Berg, who helmed the tar-black comedy Very Bad Things.

Jason Bateman, playing the unctuous PR rep who helps mitigate Hancock’s public image, is also delightful. But once Smith shaves, the film loses all grit, all verve. It ditches the PR plot entirely and delves into Hancock’s convoluted and sappy past, which he can’t remember due to an amnesia incident, but which predictably involves Bateman’s wife (Charlize Theron), and which goes back eons.

The lunacy of the plot twist would be acceptable if it were given the appropriate loony-bin treatment. Instead, the story shifts between trite slapstick and humorless exposition — if we are told, for instance, that Smith was scarred in a Constantine-era battle, why not show it? With no passion or excitement in its slo-mo-riddled finale, no satisfying pay-off to the characters’ fates, not even an interracial love fest — mainstream Hollywood’s most feared device — Hancock becomes a sell-out disguised as against-the-grain whimsy.

Opens July 2

05/07/08 12:00am

Filmed over four years in 18 countries (he couldn’t get permits for Mars?), Tarsem’s The Fall is everything and nothing all at once. Every one of its virtues is inevitably linked to an insufferable problem.

Yes, Tarsem should be commended for shooting amidst Namibian sand dunes and Himalayan no-man’s-lands, for finding unknown actors willing to complete his decade-long dream. His story—lifted not from Camus but from the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho —follows a lovelorn, hospitalized paraplegic (Lee Pace) bewitching a little girl (adorable Romanian newcomer Catinca Untaru) with an epic fantasy story. Pace characterizes himself as a heroic bandit and his romantic rival as a Darth Vader-like knight, whose minions grunt and whinny a lot. In exchange for more chapters, the girl does medical errands for Pace which, unbeknown to her, are assisting in his gradual suicide.

The setup promises a richer, darker fantasy than most, to match its narrator’s grim reality. Tarsem gives us images of the bandit and his ragtag accomplices riding on elephants, of an Indian tribe screaming and contorting just to give them directions. A monkey is shot to death and butterflies float out of its heart. Yet all this activity is just a distraction from Tarsem’s depressingly simplistic message of hope in the time of peril. The adventure scenes are as dull, charmless and free of surprise as Pace’s hospital ward. Even with his "more is more" approach, Tarsem can’t achieve in 18 countries what Peter Jackson accomplished in one.

Worse, the unknown actors are also, for the most part, non-actors. (The worst one, Leo Bill, is inexplicably cast as Charles Darwin and draped in a torso-long set of peacock feathers). An A-list action star may have balked at Tarsem’s policies, but he’d surely have lent an air of bravado to the role of the bandit. Pace — whose hospital scenes were shot far in advance of the rest — is convincing as a bedridden mope, unbearably wooden as the bandit. His demonstration of bravery will provoke nothing but howls.

Finally, while Untaru is the film’s greatest asset, she’s simultaneously the impetus for its frequent lurching into incoherence. Speaking in broken English as both actress and character, Untaru is mesmerizingly natural, stuttering, beaming awkward, near-toothless grins when nothing funny happens, twisting her doughy frame about on impulse. But apparently Tarsem was so in love with his star that he tailored much of the film to her stream-of-consciousness ideas, editing and even shooting scenes based on her pre-adolescent responses to their initial content in the script.

This is cute and appropriate in a kindergarten art class, but disastrous in film. And so The Fall winds up embodying an entire day spent babysitting an entitled, ADD-ridden tyke: it’s endlessly creating but not necessarily creative, overstuffed with ideas that detract from its potential brilliance, achingly stubborn about getting its way.

Opens May 9

03/19/08 12:00am

A long overdue breakdancing doc, unhampered by the wafer-thin plot devices of Breakin’ and You Got Served, Planet B-Boy’s boogaloo is more electric than a trance-fest light beam. Never before has a director of this sort of athletic showcase been so appropriately overconfident: Benson Lee is oblivious to the notion of his audience ever tiring of 101 head-spinning, torso-contorting, back-flipping minutes. Even his occasional moments of desperation — staging solo dance sequences in front of the Arc de Triomphe and annoying passers-by, for instance — never detract from the envy-inducing fluidity of the film’s South Korean, Japanese, French and Nevadan championship contenders. Particularly unforgettable is the performance by Japanese team Ichigeki, which thumps and twitches while prostrate to the tune of two discordant turntables and a microphone.

Lee also manages to squeeze in unexpected pathos, as these impossibly agile and competitive youths, who are shown practicing for and then sparring at an annual tournament in Germany, thrive less on potential success than on emotional release. A handful of them merely seek acceptance from their understandably bewildered parents, who worry that the rarely profitable sport may turn into more than a hobby. For the audience, though, the graceful yet macho theatrics become their raison d’etre, taking on an almost tribal synchronicity.

Though the film seems, at its onset, to be humorlessly glorifying its subject, Planet B-Boy is rife with poignantly hilarious scenes. In one, the mother of the French team’s prepubescent blond member explains how her son’s passion gradually eroded away her racism; in another, one of the Korean teams, disgusted with tournament mess hall fare, sneaks kimchi into its third-rate dormitory.

Opens March 21