Monday, November 16, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Bruno (2009) ** In his various incarnations — Ali G, Borat and now, at feature length, Brüno — Sacha Baron Cohen leads his audience in a two-step of squirming discomfort and smug affirmation. Like Borat, this film offers both succor and sucker bait for liberal-minded viewers who may feel harassed and hemmed in by prevailing and ever-shifting cultural sensitivities. In Brüno, the main character’s foreignness — he’s from Austria, identified as the land of Hitler but not of Wittgenstein, Schwarzenegger or Freud — is at once amplified and trumped by his homosexuality. Brüno, a strapping fellow with good cheekbones and an obsession with high fashion, minces and swishes his way from Vienna to Los Angeles and then makes improbable and sometimes very funny excursions to Africa, the Middle East and the American South. Wherever he goes his bizarre fashion sense and his utter lack of inhibition elicit raised eyebrows, angry scowls and occasional bursts of full-blown rage. The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. Grade: C-

Expired (2008) ***½ This funny, sad, offbeat, sometimes off-the-beat romance is one of those precariously balanced movies that might fall to pieces with a different cast. It’s possible that two actors other than Samantha Morton and Jason Patric might do justice to Cecilia Miniucchi’s story about two badly matched Santa Monica, Calif., parking enforcement officers who stumble and grope into a relationship. But it’s hard to think of a better match for the stubborn idiosyncrasies of Ms. Miniucchi’s visual style and worldview than these two. For the most part, Ms. Miniucchi’s bleak perspective seems more honest and heartfelt than her movie’s eccentric visual style. Grade: B

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009) **½ At one point during this film, a grubby-looking comedy about the art of the sale, two alligators crawl across a car lot. Who brought the alligators? a bewildered man asks. We’re the only ones who can hear his question amid the shrieks of the customers and salesmen and the whir of a buzz saw that brings a guy on stilts and in an Uncle Sam costume down to size. From one angle this frenzied moment looks like a metaphor for the American auto industry, but it’s just a throwaway in a comedy without a shred of obvious filmmaking and an endless stream of good, bad, sometimes terrible, often absurd jokes. Grade: C

Humpday (2009) ****½ To guys everywhere: Humpday has your number. With X-ray vision, this serious indie comedy, written and directed by Lynn Shelton, sees through its male characters’ macho pretensions to contemplate the underlying forces hard-wired into men’s psyches in a homophobic culture. Think of it as a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith buddy film turned inside out. It is all the more remarkable for having been conceived by an empathetic woman with no apparent ax to grind and a sensibility tuned to the minutiae of straight-male bonding rituals. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but some observant Venusians understand the brute fundamentals of Martian psychology. Grade: A

Is Anybody There? (2009) **½ Sooner or later it comes to this: Alfie develops senile dementia and lands in an old-age home. That unsettling thought crossed my mind while savoring Michael Caine’s portrayal of Clarence Parkinson, a grumpy old traveling magician nearing the end of his life in John Crowley’s film Is Anybody There? Mr. Caine’s face may have aged (he is now 76), but from the glint in his eyes and his snaggle-toothed smirk, he is still Alfie Elkins, the mischievous, devil-may-care seducer of Alfie, the 1966 hit film with which his name is still synonymous. Innocent he is not. His character here, known onstage as the Amazing Clarence, has scooted around the English countryside for untold years demonstrating magic in a rattletrap camper painted like a circus wagon. When he pulls up at Lark Hall, a ramshackle seaside house that has been turned into a retirement home, he knows it is the final stop in his peripatetic itinerary. The film, which teeters between comedy and pathos, is essentially a two-character exercise from the Harold and Maude school of tear-jerking whimsy. Grade: C

The Limits of Control (2009) *** The walking man in The Limits of Control, a Minimalist exercise in the key of cool from Jim Jarmusch, wears through a lot of shoe leather during his feature-length tramp. One of cinema’s men with no names, credited only as the Lone Man, this peripatetic figure is played (and walked and walked) by Isaach De Bankolé with a determined gait and inscrutable gaze that initially reveal almost as little as the elliptical storytelling. Like Mr. Jarmusch, the Lone Man doesn’t share his intentions until he reaches the end. By that point, though, if you’ve paid attention to the cues and opening credits, you will be steps ahead of both. Grade: C+

My Sister’s Keeper (2009) **½ The prospect of a child’s death is so awful that to broach it in a movie or a book requires a special measure of caution and sensitivity. Or so you might think. But at least since Victorian novelists from Charles Dickens to Louisa May Alcott dispatched under-age angels to heaven on cataracts of tears, dead or dying kids have provided ready catharsis and money in the bank. In modern day commercial fiction, and in Hollywood movies, childhood mortality is handled with sometimes cynical care. It can authorize righteous, vengeful violence or else reawaken the dormant possibilities of melodrama. Nothing else quite guarantees the same queasy intensity of feeling. My Sister’s Keeper, based on a best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, is an unapologetic — shameless? ruthless? — weepie, exploiting the grave illness of a lovely, lively, blameless girl from start to finish. But it has ambitions beyond mere ghoulish mawkishness. The director, Nick Cassavetes, has in the past, in movies like The Notebook and John Q, attempted a kind of honest manipulation, wringing outsize waves of emotion out of more or less ordinary situations, and trying to hold on to some notion of realism in the process. Grade: C

The Open Road (2009) Unseen by me.

Star Trek (2009) ****½ A bright, shiny blast from a newly imagined past, Star Trek, the latest spinoff from the influential TV show, isn’t just a pleasurable rethink of your geek uncle’s favorite science-fiction series. It’s also a testament to television’s power as mythmaker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from. The original captain (William Shatner, bless his loony lights) and creator (Gene Roddenberry, rest in peace) may no longer be onboard, but the spirit of adventure and embrace of rationality that define the show are in full swing, as are the chicks in minis and kicky boots. Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission ("to boldly go"), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up. An origins story directed with a sure touch and perfect tone by J.J. Abrams, the fully loaded film — a showcase for big-studio hardware, software, muscled boys who can act and leggy girls who aren’t required to — turns back the narrative clock to the moment before the main characters first assembled on the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a sleek spacecraft that invariably sails into intergalactic storms. Even Utopia needs a little bang. Grade: A

Thirst (2009) ***½ Sang-hyun, the hero of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, is many different things: a Roman Catholic priest; a selfless volunteer in a dangerous medical experiment; a reluctant faith healer with a cult following; a vampire. And Thirst itself, which won the Jury Prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Mr. Park has long been a favorite, is equally protean. It is a bloodstained horror movie, a dark comedy, a noirish psychodrama of crime and punishment, a melodrama of mad love, a freehanded literary adaptation (of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin) and, of course, a vampire movie. Grade: B+

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