This Week's New Releases
dir. Tom Shadyac
Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) is a TV anchorman—you're supposed to remember/give a shit about his cameo in Bruce Almighty—recently elected to Congress on a groundbreaking "Change the World" platform. The family (one wife, three sons) packs up and moves to a spanking new D.C. suburb, where a stray dog immediately bites Evan on the penis. Off to a great start, guys.
In 2003's Bruce Almighty, Bruce mostly uses his powers to take a look at ladies' underpants. Fair enough. Evan Almighty, on the other hand, is all about God, and not at all kidding. "Ryan did the cutest thing," says Evan's wife on their first night. "He asked if we could all pray together... I prayed we would become closer as a family." As it turns out, the "big man Himself" (Morgan Freeman) is listening (!), and devises a magnificent plan to save Evan's family: by sabotaging his job, destroying his neighborhood, and risking the lives of thousands.
God announces that Evan is to build an ark. By way of encouragement, God sends all the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields to Evan's office, where they poop all over John Goodman. Then, Evan wakes up with the world's worst Bible beard ("Why do you sound like Evan Baxter but look like a Bee Gee?") and a burlap robe he can't take off. Next, there are a bunch of unbearable Old Testament jokes ("Do we have anything unleavened?"), a clumsy ark-building montage in which Evan (not actually almighty) receives many "boo-boos," and the truly terrible realization that Evan's wife's name is Joan (OF ARK! DO YOU FUCKING GET IT?). The film culminates in an actually-kind-of-exciting ark blast through the flooded streets of Washington, D.C.
Steve Carell is obviously a genius, and the early moments of Evan Almighty are almost funny. But as the film progresses and his beard grows whiter, Evan's attitude turns to beatitude, and all attempts at comedy are displaced by the Good Word. Sorry, but a movie is not going to trick me into believing in God—especially a movie in which God crushes an entire neighborhood because he prefers pretty trees to human progress.
God loves you; he just doesn't want you to have a house. What a dick. LINDY WEST
dir. Luc Besson
The black-and-white Paris of romantic bridges and empty streets in Luc Besson's new odd-couple comedy is so striking that it might take you a while to notice how awful the film is. Or maybe just until one of the movie's incoherently imagined characters opens his or her mouth. The director who brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element may be a gifted visual stylist, but his screenwriting talents are, ahem, somewhat more limited. To clarify, I'm not talking about the subtitles. I live in Paris and parl-ays France-ay fluently, and the dialogue in Angel-A is of the insufferably feverish and non-sequitur-heavy sort that sounds like it was written by a hyperactive teenage smartass who's been grounded in his basement for months (or perhaps a Quentin Tarantino sans rhythm or wit).
Bearing the burden of the stinkiest lines are French-Moroccan comic Jamel Debbouze, as an anxiety-ridden petty criminal named André, and Danish-American supermodel Rie Rasmussen, as a leggy blonde named Angela who just might be the one to save him. (Look at the film's title. Now look at the girl's name. That's about as clever as this movie gets.) As the two team up and scramble around town, you'd do well to tune out their incessant yammering and just take in a gorgeous, surreally deserted City of Lights. Besson is clearly aiming for something like a fairy tale, but a work this forced and self-absorbed can only end up feeling terribly earthbound. In other words, très boring. JON FROSCH
Killer of Sheep
Some of the most powerful images in all of black cinema (from Oscar Micheaux to Kasi Lemmons) are to be found in a black-and-white movie that Charles Burnett completed 30 years ago: Killer of Sheep. (1) Boys battling with rocks, concrete, and cardboard shields; (2) a standing girl with a dog mask on her head; (3) boys standing upside-down with their legs against the wall of a house; (4) a car engine falling out of the back of a "skoroskoro" (a beat-up car); and, my favorite, a young couple dancing to Diana Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Indeed, the scene of the couple dancing, which is the core of the movie ("core" being used in its original sense—"heart"), stands as one of the triumphs of late-20th-century filmmaking. The music (a blues beat and piano arranged with lush strings), the words of the song ("Lord, this bitter earth/Yes, can be so cold/Today you're young/Too soon you're old"), the couple (the moody husband, played by Henry G. Sanders, and his world-weary wife, Kaycee Moore), the way they move (sad, slow, and soulful), their clothes (ordinary), their facial expressions (almost totally indifferent to the intimacy of the moment)—all of these parts work to make something that captures the spirit of the times, the mid-'70s, the transitional period from traditional black neighborhoods (supported by factory work) to post-industrial neighborhoods (devastated by the crack market). What we see in Killer of Sheep is the twilight of the black worker, the man who labored too hard for the small cuts of bacon he brought home. The black worker (symbolized in Killer of Sheep by Henry G. Sanders, by his toils in the dying meat factory, by his early baldness, by his sleepless eyes) is exhausted; he has made little or no gains in late-capitalist society; he is crumbling at the very moment that factory jobs are going east and south. Between the dusk of Killer of Sheep and the dawn of Do the Right Thing is "Night of the Living Basehead[s]." CHARLES MUDEDE
A Mighty Heart
dir. Michael Winterbottom
I am constantly defending Michael Winterbottom. He has no style, true, but a refusal of style in this auteur-fixated age is kind of cheeky. I sincerely like the tricky visuals of 1998's I Want You and his recent, freewheeling take on Tristram Shandy; in Winterbottom's post-9/11 political films—In This World and Road to Guantánamo, both containing documentary elements—the passionate humanism is so loud you can feel it doing damage to your eardrums.
A Mighty Heart, about the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, may be read as a continuation of these people-centric politics. But there is a glaring difference. Though the actual human subjects of In This World and Road to Guantánamo participated in their films, one of the subjects of A Mighty Heart is no more (he had his head sliced off by terrorists in Pakistan) and the other, one can only presume, wants to look as pretty as possible for the camera. Mariane Pearl is played by her friend, Angelina Jolie, in what could be uncharitably described as blackface. (Pearl is a light-skinned, curly-black-haired Frenchwoman of Dutch and Afro-Cuban descent; Jolie's skin is tinted, her contact lenses are deep brown, and she's wearing a tightly corkscrewed wig.)
Pearl, a freelance journalist, was pregnant during the ordeal of her husband's kidnapping and eventual beheading, and Jolie's character owes more to her own carefully cultivated image as a globalized matriarch than anything you'd recognize as a journalist's persistent hunger or a wife's panicky devotion. She coos over the Pakistani baby next door and looks dewy and bereft while assorted fixers and diplomats and a police captain (the great Irrfan Khan) connect the dots and investigate. The detective work is enough to sustain interest, but it cannot squash the irritating maternal martyr complex that's developing center stage. This movie proves what you've known since Gia: Angelina Jolie is fundamentally unable to play ordinary people. ANNIE WAGNER
La Vie en Rose
dir. Olivier Dahan
Even if you're like me and find most musical biopics depressingly formulaic, you might think Oliver Dahan's Edith Piaf movie is a slight cut above. Sure, it checks off all the genre's requisite ingredients (childhood trauma, drug addiction, troubled relationships), and is about as consistent as its heroine's mental and physical health. But stretches of the film, which traces Piaf's rise from Parisian poverty to international stardom, feel uncommonly—even thrillingly—intimate.
The good stuff in La Vie en Rose follows a dreadful first act, in which Dahan re-creates Piaf's miserable childhood in 1920s Paris with such ostentatious "period" detail you feel you could catch consumption just watching it (that's not a compliment). It's when the newly famous Piaf (Marion Cotillard) tours in New York that the movie wakes up: There she meets a fellow French expat, married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who woos her over an uneaten pastrami sandwich. Their fragile romance—alive with the magic and neediness of two lonely foreigners connecting in a new city—strips the chanteuse of her raspy bravado, delicately unveiling the person beneath the genius (something these films rarely do). Cotillard acts with astounding passion and skill all the way through, but when she plays Piaf's romantic hunger, she's sublime: no longer a mercurial vocal powerhouse, but simply a woman in love.
La Vie en Rose hurtles back and forth through time, hitting all the highlights of Piaf's life in impressionistic fragments, and the result is disorienting and a bit scattershot. We never really get a sense of what drove Piaf artistically, and Dahan doesn't shrug off clichés as easily as he does chronology. Yet that middle section gives the movie an emotional momentum that more or less sees it through; the glimpses of Piaf that we get during breaks from the genre's usual histrionics go a long way. JON FROSCH
dir. Timur Bekmambetov
It's difficult to summarize the plot of the Russian fantasy epic Day Watch without sounding like a 10-year-old boy hopped up on Cookie Crisp. Okay, so there's, like, these good magic vampires and evil magic vampires? And they keep trying to make each other fight? And there's this invisible part of the world filled with big mosquitoes? And the main good guy wants to find this magic piece of chalk that can change the past? But then he switches bodies with this woman who used to be an owl? Oh, and then his son is this super bad guy? Who has this way cool paddleball toy that can blow up the world? And this one dude is a kind of were-parrot thing? And he has a talking aardvark that spits plutonium? And then this one woman with an awesome devil-horn haircut drives her sports car across the side of a building? And... and... and you get the drift. (I may have just imagined the part about the aardvark.)
Point being: At a time where most would-be magnum opuses can barely manage to rub two neurons together, director Timur Bekmambetov's film is chockablock with neat ideas—so many, in fact, that they ultimately end up crowding each other out. Much like its predecessor, 2004's Night Watch, the experience becomes weirdly exhausting. It's goofy, monumental fun, until it sort of isn't.
Fortunately, as colossal as the spectacle gets, Day Watch still manages to retain a charmingly low-rent, down-to-earth quality, particularly in the way that the good guys combat the forces of evil with beat-up flashlights and the aforementioned chalk of destiny. Said small bits of charm may not wholly stop the inevitable Slurpee headache, but they do make it much easier to withstand. Did I mention the apocalyptic paddleball? ANDREW WRIGHT
Eagle vs. Shark
dir. Taika Waititi
Eagle vs. Shark is Napoleon Dynamite transposed to New Zealand, with misfit Kiwis in place of klutzy Mormons and real animals in place of ligers. But this heavily accented import traffics in something that Jared Hess would find abhorrent, or at least uninteresting: human compassion. The characters in Eagle vs. Shark are socially clueless dorks, but they're lovable all the same.
Lily (the twisty-mouthed Loren Horsley) is a sad cashier at the fast-food establishment Meaty Boy. But she lives with an older brother who loves her, and she survives. One day Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), an ugly, uncouth motherfucker who thinks he's a freaking martial arts god, strides into the store, and Lily promptly falls in love. The odd-couple comedy takes the two from a Mortal Kombat competition in which all participants dress as their favorite fierce animals to a little seaside town where Jarrod was bullied as a boy.
Just when the film's whimsy approaches unbearable levels—Lily points out that Jarrod has her exact upper-lip mole—a scene of dumbfounding violence saves the day. I don't want to spoil anything, but have you ever seen a full-grown man wallop a newborn puppy? It's not that, but it's close. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Emanuele Crialese
A Martin Scorsese–produced ode to ignorance and superstition in his ancestral Sicily, Golden Door is a generic immigrant's tale that too often mistakes blankness for mystery. It doesn't start off badly, though, thanks to Claire Denis's regular cinematographer Agnès Godard. In bracing sunshine, a couple of Italian bumpkins scramble up a mountain with rocks held fast in their mouths. At the top, they offer the blood-flecked objects to the image of a saint. It's a silent act, fueled by equal parts optimism and suffering, and it's beautifully filmed. Then the peasants pull out propaganda postcards that, for better or worse, represent their vision of America: huge, grotesque vegetables; gold coins dripping off trees. They're trading folk art for kitsch, spiritual wealth for materialist profit.
The mixture of envy and pity that these postcards provoke comes on strong and does not let up. The characters show no sign of outgrowing their naiveté. They're peasants, after all. How are they supposed to develop personalities when they don't even have shoes? Occasional bursts of super-size whimsy (giant carrots floating down rivers of no doubt rapidly souring milk) and the presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg (as an enigmatic Englishwoman migrating alongside the boatload of filthy Italians) do nothing to deepen the story.
The immigrants get on a boat, fight among themselves, die in a big storm, flirt innocently, disembark, get prodded in intimate areas, are tested for imbecility, muteness, and the ability to manipulate wooden blocks, and so on. There are cute old people and cute young people and, yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg—but not a single character musters any sort of personal narrative. They crawl out of an Old World miasma and stride into an equally hazy America, superstitions and ignorance in hand. How uplifting. ANNIE WAGNER