This Week's New Releases
No End in Sight
dir. Charles Ferguson
No End in Sight is the documentary tale of how the United States government systematically dismantled (i.e., irretrievably fucked) the nation of Iraq. It is not a story about why they did it (though all signs point to "on purpose"). It is also not about the Iraqi people, or the American people, or the troops on either side.
The bulk of the film rests on interviews with players both major (retired general Jay Garner, who led the immediate postwar reconstruction effort in Iraq; former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage) and minor (journalists, analysts, diplomats). Interspersed is news footage and plenty of press-conference comedy from Secretary of Smirk Donald Rumsfeld ("I don't do quagmires"). From the initial invasion, to the months of looting (State Department official Barbara Bodine describes "people coming in with industrial cranes" and physically tearing the infrastructure apart), to the disastrous disbanding of the Iraqi military, de-Baathification, and the current[ly failing] troop surge, the film is a step-by-step guide to building an insurgency from the ground up.
For the most part, No End in Sight avoids the kind of loaded, bumper-sticker editorializing that sucks the marrow out of fruitful discourse (though the point that Truman took two years to plan the invasion of Germany, while Bush rushed into Iraq in 60 days, seems a tad oversimplified). The film works best when it leaves the conclusions up to its interview subjects (such as Colonel Paul Hughes, his mind almost comically blown by willful incompetence), who are more than happy to damn their former bosses all to hell.
I came home from this movie, weary and worried, and watched Bill O'Reilly devote half an hour of outrage to whether or not you should teach a baby to say "bitch" (he's against it). The future is fucked. LINDY WEST
dir. Matthew Vaughn
An imitation The Princess Bride, Stardust isn't sufficiently confident to become the next classic of wacky fantasy. The dialogue is unquotable. The story is clichéd (when it attempts comedy) and overly literal (when it fumbles for romance). And who knows how long it's going to take for people to decide that the existence of a manly man with an affection for frilly underthings isn't in itself hilarious.
The masculine mincer is Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), the leader of a band of lightning-bolt-collecting pirates, and he has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, in which a young man (Charlie Cox) in the town of Wall jumps a barrier to magical Stormhold, hoping to secure a chunk of fallen star and his beloved's heart. The trouble is, the star has taken the form of a headstrong girl in a silver nightgown (Claire Danes). It's not so easy to get a piece of her—or to keep her company while remaining devoted to the demanding tease back home. Meanwhile, the star is pursued by a witch in search of immortality and a set of warring princes, some of whom are wisecracking ghosts.
Claire Danes seems like an awfully earthbound choice to play a gaseous orb, but her endearing awkwardness is a godsend once her character begins literally glowing in proportion to her amorous feelings. (How embarrassing—for her character and the movie.) And Michelle Pfeiffer is delectable in the straightforward role of the wicked witch. But the guys don't compare: Charlie Cox is so earnest during his character's abrupt transition between dork and hunk I didn't even crack a smile; the squabbling princes have shallow personalities and even less wit; and cross-dressing pirates are always boring. Even when they're played by Robert De Niro. ANNIE WAGNER
Ghosts of Cité Soleil
dir. Asger Leth
In 2004, powerful pro-Aristide gangsters (known locally as chimères, or roughly, "ghosts") ruled over Haiti's largest slum with menacing guns and fistfuls of cash. Focusing on two loosely allied brothers, one who says he'd like to be a legit politician and one who calls himself 2pac, Ghosts of Cité Soleil starts out as a fast-paced but nonspecific portrait of the neighborhood, its people, and its leaders. A faint storyline eventually materializes through the unlikely figure of Lele, a French aid worker who—how to put this politely?—seems completely intoxicated by the brothers' power.
Thanks to swanky camera work that lavishes as much time on the brothers' glistening pecs as it does on the bewildering political context, it's not difficult to see where Lele is coming from. But her transition from international do-gooder to fawning girl toy is still startling. It tweaks so many sensitive areas: an American prude's disbelief at the sight of a virtuous woman being sexual, horror of miscegenation—not to mention the somewhat less controversial notion that you shouldn't be banging virtual slumlords when you're trying to provide medical care to their tenants.
When it screened at SIFF this year, Ghosts of Cité Soleil was intensely polarizing, but opinions didn't seem to split along the expected lines. Conservatives may despise the way the film reproduces the glamour of violence, but liberal viewers can get equally worked up at the notion that they're slumming or objectifying black bodies. But people on either side of the spectrum were transfixed at the film's searing examination of power backed by force. This daring, even reckless doc presents a flash of glamour too terrible and too politicized to burn very long. ANNIE WAGNER
Daddy Day Camp
dir. Fred Savage
This review, just like the movie it's reviewing, is going to be bad. Not poorly written (although I make no promises), but merciless, unforgiving, and perhaps overbearingly negative. Why? Because there is absolutely no reason why this vapid, Meatballs-wannabe, ridiculously childish movie needed to be made and I will never forgive Annie Wagner for making me go see it.
Daddy Day Camp isn't the least bit entertaining, and if it weren't my job to sit through it in order to save you from making the same mistake, I would've walked out two minutes in.
The acting is poor, even from star Cuba Gooding Jr., who looks tired the whole time and is clearly so over this Daddy Day (fill in the blank) bullshit—it's no wonder Eddie Murphy didn't sign on to do the sequel. But it's not like the actors had decent material to work with in the first place. Most of the jokes are made at the expense of the fat dude and the others involve puking, farting, and/or poop. Clever! Bodily functions are hilarious!
The characters are insultingly shallow. There's a redneck kid with a mullet who asks to be called "Mullet"; there's the scrawny geek who's allergic to everything and pukes all the time; there's the "hot" girl who's constantly lusted after by the D&D-playing shy nerd; there's the hot girl's sidekick who's not as traditionally attractive, but a lot more sassy; there's the fat redhead who's one part bully/one part bed wetter; and then there are the two kids who belong to the movie's stars, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a low-rent John Goodman, and who are remarkably normal. Motherfuckers.
Take your kids to see Ratatouille. Fuck, take 'em to see Underdog! Just please, please, please do not take them to Daddy Day Camp. MEGAN SELING
dir. Jorge Gaggero
Two women living together, with one doing the other's dirty work, is a powder keg of a setup. But in first-time filmmaker Jorge Gaggero's Live-in Maid, Beba (Norma Aleandro, a screen veteran) and Dora (Norma Argentina, who actually cleaned houses for 20 years) stay unsettlingly quiet as their lives play out against the backdrop of Argentina's 2001 financial crisis.
Beba is a rich woman who has lost her money. She's peddling facial creams door-to-door and putting off selling her gold earrings. She's also trying to hang on to Dora, her live-in maid of 35 years, who takes the train at the end of every week back from Beba's refined Buenos Aires apartment to her own dirt-floored shantytown shack.
Gaggero keeps the lid tight on the epic tension that brews between these women, which is why the film is gripping, even though not much actually happens. Aleandro and Argentina do most of the (incredible) acting without speaking. Meanwhile, everything around them seems vulgar and loud, from Beba's rich-lady friends to the crowds of women screaming for anti-aging face creams at desperate cosmetics rallies to the obliquely referenced threat of the banking crash.
The reversal of power at the movie's end comes a little too easily—are we to believe, after all this buildup, that we simply imagined the darker parts of this epic tension? But Gaggero almost earns a happy ending by avoiding melodrama throughout. It's a character study he has made, not a social commentary. And together these characters make an unusually sensitive and fascinating portrait of what money and work mean to women of a certain age. JEN GRAVES
dir. Laurent Tirard
This movie is designed for those who are educated, urban, and middle class. People in the country won't watch it; the urban poor will stay the hell away from it. Why? It's a film about a writer—and a French one at that. Also it has subtitles. As everyone in marketing knows, the urban poor and country folk are tired of reading all of the time. So, Molière is a movie for a person who is happy to read subtitles and to see a story about a writer—and such a person is usually educated, urban, and in the middle class. But what this ideal person is really getting from this movie is nothing more than an escape from the present into a picturesque past of horse-drawn carriages, dirt roads, thick silver coins, fat candle sticks, glamorous salons, dedicated servants, and large fireplaces in large palaces. What else but an escape could you expect from a movie that speculates about what might have happened in a brief and historically blank period of time in Molière's life? Because it's a pure fantasy, the film offers the viewer no education; because it's not a work of art, it offers the viewer's soul no enrichment. Molière might be about an artist, but it is certainly not made by one (the director Laurent Tirard). CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Where have you seen this film before? You saw it in Thumbsucker, in American Beauty, in Election, in Welcome to the Dollhouse, in Napoleon Dynamite, in Me and You and Everyone We Know, in Little Miss Sunshine, in Happiness, in The Puffy Chair. Wherever you look on the landscape of American indie filmmaking you will spot something that looks just like or close to Rocket Science. And what is it that makes these films so similar? Always, their locus is the suburbs; always, they involve quirky teens. And usually the first institution that psychologically traumatizes quirky American teens is the family (the family is either totally nuts or is falling apart or just doesn't understand the quirky teen). The second institution that traumatizes quirky American teens is high school (the high school is soulless or mindless or rigid). Some films emphasize the first traumatic experience—the family (American Beauty, Little Miss Sunshine); others emphasize the second traumatic experience—the high school (Election, Napoleon Dynamite). Rocket Science has a bit of both. There is some Election in it (the high-school devastation) and there is some Little Miss Sunshine in it (the parents of the teen and his crush are totally nuts). There is, however, more Election than Little Miss Sunshine in Rocket Science. In fact, the girl, the crush that causes the devastation, Ginny (Anna Kendrick), looks and acts a lot like Tracy (Reese Witherspoon) in Election. Both take the meaning of "blond ambition" to its terminal point. Both step on a series of men in the climb to their goals. In the case of Rocket Science, one of the male steps is Hal (Reece Thompson), a teen whose posture is bad, who stutters, who falls in love just as his family falls apart. After his father leaves the house, his mother starts dating a Korean-American judge. At night, Hal hears the moans of their interracial beast with two backs. How will he survive this fucking trauma at home? How will he survive the heartless blond, Ginny, at high school? There's also a whiff of yellow peril in the suburban air—Hal's crush, like his mother, is also fucking an Asian. The director of this wholly unoriginal indie flick, Jeffery Blitz, also made Spellbound. CHARLES MUDEDE
Rush Hour 3
dir. Brett Ratner
So much of Rush Hour 3 is lazy, lunky, and spectacularly stupid that it has a certain amount of charm. In fact, in lesser hands (lesser meaning backed by less Hollywood money and clout) its blatant hackery would inspire a certain amount of detached cheerleading. But as it stands—the third entry in an obscenely lucrative franchise that never should've gotten past bungle one—it's worthy of nothing but mockery.
It also makes you truly despise Chris Tucker, since whatever talent he once had has long since dissipated, like a bong hit, into the ether. Watching his third spin as (worst ever) LAPD detective James Carter is like watching a YouTube compilation of his greatest hits—only with higher production values and a merciless 90-minute running time. That lanky, mouthy kid who was so genius in Friday (and smart enough to bail out on its sequels) has been replaced by an army of tired gimmicks; from the Michael Jackson gyrations to the boastful lechery, there is nothing new, inspired, or unexpected in his performance.
Same goes for director Brett Ratner, who has filmed so much of the flick in bland medium close-ups that whatever wonders Jackie Chan was able to choreograph this time around are rendered choppy and dull. The sight of Chan scrambling about the Eiffel Tower should have been a showstopper; as it is, it's all blue-screen effects and Tucker's intolerable shrieking—which, as it turns out, speaks to Ratner's comedic sensibility. How else can you explain the astonishingly awful scene in which Tucker forces a lowly Parisian cab driver to sing our national anthem at gunpoint? Even the previously rabid audience fell into an appalled silence. If only that silence had reached the screen. BRADLEY STEINBACHER