dir. Noam Murro
If, as you settle into your seat at a Smart People matinee, you dream of the next coming of dysfunctional- intellectual family specialist Noah Baumbach, your hopes will be dashed by the very first scene, in which our curmudgeonly hero, Victorian- literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), parks diagonally across two parking spaces. An absent-minded professor? In a debut drama from a director of commercials? You don't say.
Smart People, however, is much better than its inauspicious opening and other assorted clichés would suggest. Most of this is due to the acting—Quaid is a downright lovable jerk; Ellen Page plays Juno again, exquisitely—but novelist Mark Jude Poirier's writing turns sharp, surprising corners, and Noam Murro's direction is patient, giving the material plenty of room to sprout out of its ruts.
Lawrence is a widower, and his wife's death has scarred the entire family. His teenage daughter (Page) cooks meals for the family nightly, a task wedged amid a grueling schedule that also includes studying for the SATs and pamphleteering on behalf of the Young Republicans (what is it about Page that makes filmmakers feel she's a natural champion for the unborn?). Lawrence's son (Ashton Holmes) is a nobody toiling away meekly at Carnegie Mellon, where his father teaches. And Lawrence himself is a grumpy, pot-bellied blowhard who refuses to get rid of his wife's clothes.
Into this sour household comes Lawrence's deadbeat adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church), with his penchant for pot and beer and being courteous, and a beautiful ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is both attracted to and repelled by Lawrence's jagged personality. All the collisions occur pretty much as you'd expect, but they bounce off in unexpected directions. Smart People isn't reliably smart (even the most preternaturally talented college students don't get their first poems published in the New Yorker), but it is extremely funny and sweet. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Marcos Siega
In this middling dramedy, Ryan Reynolds stars as Frank, an efficiency expert whose life is calculated down to the second. "List-making is your harbor in the storm of life," Frank's motto goes, and to help live up to it he scribbles incessantly on note cards. Every step of Frank's life—career, marriage, kids—has been planned out in advance, and were it not for a slight miscommunication, his life would have remained safely, and agreeably, bland.
That miscommunication is provided by his wife, Susan (Emily Mortimer), who, hoping to slip a trip to the video store into a particularly hectic day, manages to make Frank late for a lecture in the big city. This seemingly innocent error eventually leads to drinking, which leads to flirting, which leads to Frank nearly committing adultery—and chaos, as the title suggests, ensues.
For a while, Chaos Theory breezes along rather inoffensively, mainly due to Reynolds's sharp comic timing. And then, as Frank's life unravels (due to a string of misunderstandings usually reserved for people named Jack Tripper), he begins to make decisions based on random chance instead of careful planning, and the movie takes off with him. Reynolds's flailing about offers the movie's best moments—unfortunately, this inspired stretch (which includes one of the better fight scenes to come along in a while) is short-lived, leaving only a descent into schmaltz to wrap things up. Chaos Theory has a lot of heart, and for the most part it's an agreeable little movie, but its high arrives too early and leaves far too soon. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
Sex and Death 101
dir. Daniel Waters
Time, TBS, and Diablo Cody have not been kind to the legacy of many once-subversive films, but 1989's Heathers still has its teeth, thanks mostly to an acerbic marvel of a script by then-newcomer Daniel Waters. Blending endlessly quotable dialogue, a wicked grasp of the surreal, and a firm appreciation of the location of the line and the right time to cross it, his startling debut stands, even on the umpteenth viewing, as that all-too-rare work that simultaneously defines and dynamites a generation.
Sex and Death 101, Waters's reunion with former muse Winona Ryder, offers only trace hints of the satirical magic that once was. Told in flashback, the story concerns an upwardly mobile restaurateur (Simon Baker) who, on the eve of his marriage, receives an e-mail listing his past and future sexual partners. After a few tests prove the validity of the mysterious list, he embarks on a series of wacky, seemingly predestined one-night stands. Meanwhile, a fatal femme known only as Death Nell (Ryder) is slinking around poisoning hapless bachelors. Oh, and a trio of enigmatic wonks may have invented a machine that can answer all of life's unanswerable questions.
As the above synopsis may indicate, Waters's movie has a lot on its plate. Too much, really, as the separate plot strands never cohere into a comprehensible whole. Although undeniably funny in fits and starts (it's difficult to hate any movie that makes a reference to Gymkata's training montage), Sex and Death 101 never rises above the level of occasionally witty mess. Given Waters's past history, it's possible, I suppose, to read his film's narrative untidiness and weak-sauce ending as a merciless parody of the current state of playing-it-safe romantic comedies. Probably not, though. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Lucy Walker
Six blind Tibetan children climb a mountain. This sounds either like the beginning of a bad joke or a setup for one of the most forced inspirational documentaries of the last five years. Blindsight is the latter.
Erik Weihenmayer, a blind American who climbed Mount Everest, is the children's guide. He says things like, "Just because you lose your sight doesn't mean you lose your vision." The kids have suffered, to be sure. But the film focuses on their pain with a near-pornographic intensity just so it can work its way to the inspirational money shot. One of the kids says, "We are blind, but our hearts are not blind!" and you can practically hear the director moan ecstatically offscreen.
A blind man leading blind children up a mountain nearly as tall as Everest is, of course, impressive. But the film hits all the easy marks, like a father-son struggle about whether the child should climb the mountain, and doesn't dare to entertain the notion that the father (understandably protective of his son) might not want Westerners to drag him into a highly dangerous situation for the sake of a movie.
Things might be different if Blindsight were well directed. A subplot in which one of the climbers (who was kidnapped and sold into slavery) tries to find his family is interspersed with the climbing footage. No distinction is made as to whether this is happening before or after the climb, or what it really has to do with the rest of the movie. The result is a film as flat as a poster of a kitten clutching a branch that reads, "Hang in there!" PAUL CONSTANT
dir. David Ayer
With its crime pedigree of cowriter James Ellroy (best known for his novels L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid) and director David Ayer (screenwriter of Training Day), you'd hope, maybe even expect, that Street Kings would hit a high mark for the genre. Instead, it turns out to be a bland procedural spiked with moments of unnecessarily heavy violence—an unthinking man's cop movie, complete with a laughably dense protagonist.
Keanu Reeves is Tom Ludlow, officer with LAPD's notorious Vice Special squad, whose strong-arm tactics, eagerness to kill, and general disregard for all things Miranda have attracted the watchful eye of Internal Affairs. Protecting Ludlow is his captain Jack Wander (a straining Forest Whitaker), who has enough juice with the city to keep Vice Special operating despite the slew of investigations. But when Ludlow's former partner—who may or may not have been talking to Internal Affairs—winds up on the wrong end of a barrage of gunfire, the noose tightens, evidence is buried, and Ludlow is forced to take matters into his own hands to find the killers. Then the bullets really start to fly.
For its first two acts, Street Kings lumbers along, coughing up an assault of cop-movie clichés—everything from "He bleeds blue!" to doomed partners, to that old chestnut of flinching as shots ring out during a 21-gun salute. And while it's all solidly constructed (Ayer proves a capable director, even if he overuses aerial shots of downtown Los Angeles for transitions), it's also fairly unimaginative—a rehashing of L.A. Confidential updated and with more empty clips. Worse, it takes Ludlow painfully long to figure things out—and even then it has to be spelled out for him. A certain amount of dimness is to be expected from a blunt character, but when the audience spots the big reveal well before the movie's hero, you have a flaw too glaring to ignore. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Alain Resnais
This classic, overlooked French new wave film from 1963 has pretty much everything you want from a French new wave film from 1963: dizzying jump cuts, smoking, fetching women, louche men, inexplicably emotional dinner parties, lies, purloined letters, abrupt confessions, a casino, a disturbed young man with sunken eyes who is tortured by a terrible secret, morbid seaside contemplations, a scorpion, bicycles, incongruous laughter, more smoking, and so on.
It can be a little exhausting, that French new wave.
For a movie about sexual duplicity and intrigue, Muriel is profoundly frigid. Sexy, silver-haired Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) runs an antique shop out of her chilly apartment in a chilly coastal town in the north of France. She lives with Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), her brooding stepson, whose father has died, who mopes around their seaside town, obsessively shooting short films and ruminating on a traumatic experience he had while serving with the French military in Algeria. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), a stout and mustachioed flame of Hélène's, shows up with his "niece" (actually, his young consort) and endeavors to reseduce Hélène.
Drawing a chart of the amours in Muriel would take all night: Hélène already has a lover, who doesn't seem to mind her slow succumbing to Alphonse, who has a wife and may or may not have had an affair with his "niece," who flirts with everyone, particularly Bernard, who claims to have a fiancée who may or may not be imaginary. Then there's Alphonse's brother-in-law, who may or may not have had a fling with Hélène. But the sex is all offscreen; it might have never happened at all. And that is Muriel's subtle tragic thesis: Sex provokes agony, but it's much ado about nothing.
Director Alain Resnais has directed a few dozen films, including the better-known Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, but this is the 45th anniversary of Muriel, so now's as good a time as any to haul it out of the cellar. According to Adam Sekuler, the program director at the Northwest Film Forum, his is the only theater in America to give Muriel a birthday screening. Which is unfortunate. This chilly, melancholy portrait of sex and its discontents—jazzed up with occasional bursts of disorienting new wave style—is a vintage pleasure. BRENDAN KILEY
The Year My Parents
Went on Vacation
dir. Cao Hamburger
Interrupting an absorbing game of table soccer (it's 1970 in Brazil, and soccer of any kind is extremely absorbing), 12-year-old Mauro's parents abruptly announce they're going on "vacation." The family piles into a blue VW bug and drives toward Mauro's grandfather's apartment in the suburbs of São Paulo. Army and police vehicles make Mom and Dad jumpy, but Mauro (Michel Joelsas) has big blue eyes only for the Orthodox Jews in funny hats walking down the sidewalks. Soon enough, Mauro is squatting with an elderly stranger named Shlomo (Germano Haiut)—his actual grandfather doesn't even live long enough to let him in the apartment—while his parents make themselves scarce.
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is a coming-of-age story told strictly through 12-year-old eyes: Mauro is preoccupied with Hanna (Daniela Piepszyk), the ringleted tomboy downstairs, who's running a brilliant peepshow business out of the back entrance to her mother's dressmaking shop; a cute older waitress with a mixed-race goalie boyfriend; weird, fishy breakfasts; and a whole slew of soccer games featuring Pelé and Tostão. We watch as Shlomo tries to locate Mauro's parents through back channels at the university, but we hear barely a whisper about his parents' presumably leftist politics or the policies of the repressive Brazilian government.
With its pretty cinematography and a novel milieu, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is entertaining enough, but you won't remember much of it a week later. You will, however, take note of all the spontaneous physical affection a person can get away with while everyone else in the room is hollering, "Gooooooooooooool!" ANNIE WAGNER