Monthly Archives: February 2008

The Counterfeiters

Adapted from Adolf Burger’s memoir The Devil’s Workshop, this skillful, absorbing, Oscar-winning Austrian feature involves a Russian-Jewish counterfeiter (expertly played by Karl Markovics) who gets arrested in Berlin, winds up in a German concentration camp in 1944, and is put in charge of a secret forgery unit. Staffed by prisoners who’ve been granted special privileges, the unit counterfeits pounds and dollars in a plan to wreck the British and American economies, and one of the prisoners, a member of the communist resistance, attempts to sabotage the effort. Written and directed by the able Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Inheritors), this poses some tricky moral questions, and its troubling ambiguities rank a cut above the dubious uplift of Schindler’s List. In German with subtitles. R, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Other Boleyn Girl

This drama about Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) being groomed essentially as prostitutes to service Henry VIII (Eric Bana) might have qualified as some sort of bodice ripper/history lesson. But despite a certain amount of moral outrage and good performances from the lead actresses, it’s neither sexy enough to qualify as good trash nor serious enough to pass for history. (For starters, according to many sources, the real Mary was older than Anne, not younger, and far more promiscuous than she is here.) At least the script, adapted by Peter Morgan (The Queen) from a Philippa Gregory novel, explains how the Church of England came into being. The competent but stiff direction is by Justin Chadwick; with David Morrissey and Kristin Scott Thomas. PG-13, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ritalin Rebellion [CHARLIE BARTLETT]

From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 2008). I believe this was my last long review before I left my staff job there. — J.R.

CHARLIE BARTLETT ***

Directed by Jon Poll

I just rewatched Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, a radical and rebellious teen movie I gave four stars in 1990. I think it holds up, and apparently I’m not the only one: the average rating of the 62 customer reviews it has on Amazon.com is four and a half out of five stars.

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The new rebellious teen movie Charlie Bartlett isn’t as good or as radical; it’s more an edgy comedy than a rabble-rouser. But it reminded me of Pump Up the Volume in many ways: it’s one of the first features for a middle-aged director; it captures teenage despair leading up to a suicide attempt (successful in Pump Up the Volume, unsuccessful here); one of its lead characters has a school administrator as a father (the hero in Pump Up the Volume, the heroine here); and it depicts a general disgruntlement about the way schools are run, culminating in a student uprising. The movies are even comparably derivative of others: Pump Up the Volume plundered some of its best ideas from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band, Network, and Talk Radio, while Charlie Bartlett seems especially indebted to Mumford, all the way down to its final blackout gag.… Read more »

Vantage Point

At a historic summit in Spain against global terrorism, the U.S. president (William Hurt) is shot, a bomb explodes, and two federal agents (Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox) rush to find the culprits. This gripping if ridiculous thriller repeatedly backtracks to present the same events from different viewpoints, though ironically it has no viewpoint of its own, just a desire to pile up plot twists and extend a thrilling car chase ad infinitum. Milking an international crisis for thrills may seem tasteless, but of course the news media do it all the time, which is highlighted by the movie’s shameless lack of interest in such drab matters as political motivation. If you’re up for good nihilist entertainment, look no further. With Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, and Edgar Ramirez. PG-13, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Charlie Bartlett

A rebellious teen comedy that isn’t as good or as radical as Pump Up the Volume, but still feels like a shot in the arm and is full of irreverent energy. Jon Poll’s debut featurewith a witty script by Gustin Nashcenters on a wealthy, frequently expelled title hero (Anton Yelchin) who becomes the most popular kid at his high school once he starts prescribing and selling pharmaceuticals to his classmates that he acquires from his own shrink, and then leads a revolt against surveillance cameras in the student lounge. Despite an ineffectual subplot about the hero’s absent father, there are some good satirical riffs here on adult hypocrisies (with Robert Downey Jr. especially good as the beleaguered, alcoholic school principal), a few echoes of the underrated Mumford, and lots of high spirits. With Kat Dennings, Hope Davis, and Tyler Hilton. R, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Prisoners Of War

Starting with From the Pole to the Equator (1987), the Milan-based couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi have excelled at compiling silent archival footage, encouraging the material to speak, both historically and poetically, through masterful use of music, tinting, and variable speeds. (Their mystical reverence for the footage is reflected in how they commune with it by keeping film cans around the house before opening them.) Drawn from many war museums, this 1995 work is the first part of a World War I trilogy, and it’s a spellbinder, alternately beautiful and horrifying. It concentrates on POWs in prerevolutionary Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but there’s also some extraordinary combat footage. The few Italian intertitles, most of them identifying dates and locations, are unsubtitled. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Be Kind Rewind

The sweet-tempered Michel Gondry works well with sharp-edged material (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but his projects as a solo writer-director have been soft and surreal celebrations of innocence that threaten to drift off into whimsy (The Science of Sleep and now this feature). Danny Glover entrusts his run-down video shop in Passaic to clueless assistants Jack Black and Mos Def, who accidentally erase all the videos and decide to shoot their own low-rent versions of popular hits. Their project is a great success with customers, but the studios object and Glover gets an eviction notice. This anachronistic tale goes beyond Capracorn to evoke Depression-era fare like One Hundred Men and a Girl in which the charm is overtaken by mush. One wants to protect this, but it’s hard not to gag on the cuteness. With Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow. PG-13, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Pornographers

The visual brilliance of Shohei Imamura’s kinky and satirical black-and-white ‘Scope feature (1966), about a man who makes eight-millimeter porno loops, often suggests the inventiveness of the French New Wave, but not so much the New Wave features of auteurs like Godard and Truffaut as the more illustrative offshoots of that movement, like Sundays and Cybele and Zazie, that applied its dazzling visceral techniques like fresh coats of paint to the material at hand. Often framing his action through windows and fish tanks, punctuating his action with abrupt freeze-frames and fantasy interludes, Imamura attacks the whole question of contemporary eroticism with mordant intelligence, though his style here seems not so much organic as a witty and independent form of commentary. In Japanese with subtitles. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

Definitely, Maybe

A divorced New York adman (Ryan Reynolds) gives his insufferably precocious ten-year-old (Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine) a lengthy account of his early love life, conveyed in flashbacks that begin shortly before his leaving Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign as a political consultant. This highly uneven comedy by writer-director Adam Brooks (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) might be easier to take if it were less infatuated with its own cuteness. With Isla Fisher, Derek Luke, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Kevin Kline. PG-13, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Band’s Visit

This debut feature by writer-director Eran Kolirin follows the confusions and minor comic adventures of the eight-piece Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, which sets off from Egypt to perform at an Arab cultural center in Israel and gets stranded in the wrong town on the edge of a desert. Not much of consequence happens, apart from the musicians communicating with the locals in English and getting housed and fed and entertained by a few of them. But Kolirin has a fine sense of where to place the camera and when to cut between shots for maximum comic effect, and his two lead actorsSasson Gabai as the band’s conductor and Ronit Elkabetz (Or) as one of the localsare terrific. (Incidentally, both are Israeli Jews.) In English and subtitled Arabic and Hebrew. PG-13, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Zegen

Shohei Imamura’s mordant, corrosive satire about Japanese imperialism (1987) is based on the autobiography of Iheiji Muraoka, a Japanese barber in Hong Kong who was ordered by the Japanese consulate to spy on Russians in Manchuria in the early 1900s. Played by Ken Ogata, the barber invests his earnings in a brothel and, anticipating the Japanese invasion of countries stretching from Manchuria to Malaysia, opens a string of such establishments across east Asia and defends his activity as a form of higher patriotism. (None of the action is set in Japan itself.) This being an Imamura film, the caricatures are laid on rather thick, but the high spirits carry the sarcasm. Also known as Pimp. In Japanese with subtitles. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bluebeard’s Castle

After the hostile reception to his 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was virtually banished from English cinema, and most of his remaining oeuvre is a scattered assortment of TV commissions and Australian features. Made in 1964 for West German TV, this rarely seen one-hour adaptation of Bela Bartok’s only opera, based on a libretto by Bela Balazs (later known as a film theorist and as screenwriter of Leni Riefenstahl’s first feature), is a particular standout, especially for its vivid colors and semiabstract, neoprimitive decor (by Hein Heckroth, who also designed the sets for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman). The two performers are producer Norman Foster (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor and director) in the title role and Anna Raquel Satre as Bluebeard’s doomed wife, Judith. In accordance with Powell’s wishes, the English subtitles briefly describe and clarify the action but don’t translate the text. (JR)… Read more »

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins

Martin Lawrence plays the title hero of this slapstick farce, the black sheep of a Georgia-based family who’s worked his way up to become a sort of male Oprah Winfrey on TV. Accompanied by his glamorous fiancee (Joy Bryant) and his son from a former marriage, he reluctantly goes home for the 50th wedding anniversary of his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery) and has to work through old grudges involving his older brother (Michael Clarke Duncan), the orphaned cousin his parents raised (Cedric the Entertainer), and other relatives. A few laughs and a lot of hyperbolic shtick make this a little better than formulaic before the standard-issue resolution. Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother) wrote and directed. PG-13, 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nightshollywood To The Heartland

A good concert film might have been culled from Vaughn’s 30-date LA-to-Chicago tour in September 2005, which showcased stand-up comedians Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco and included bits with Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Dwight Yoakam, Justin Long, and Keir O’Donnell. But this is more like a DVD extra for that film, with family visits, interviews, a few sound bites from the show, and the news that Hurricane Katrina occasioned a few cancellations and benefits en route. Ari Sandel directed. R, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Astronaut Farmer

Billy Bob Thornton stars as the fictional Charles Farmer, a former NASA astronaut trainee from rural Texas who missed his chance to go into space when his father’s death forced him return to the family farm and settle some debts. He’s now bent on launching himself into orbit inside his own rocket, which he’s built in his barnwith the full support of his family, if not government bureaucrats. This ode to harebrained dreaming by brothers Michael Polish (writer-director) and Mark Polish (writer), who also brought us Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot, is supposed to be inspiring, but I found it a terrifying illustration of innocent American lunacy at its most self-infatuated. Thornton and his costarsVirginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Edson, and Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameodo what they can with this questionable enterprise. PG, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »