Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi

Also: Bright Young Things, The Brown Bunny, Criminal, Evergreen, Love Me If You Dare, Red Lights, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, and Warriors of Heaven and Earth.

Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Varsity

This beautifully crafted Israeli film follows the struggles faced by 16-year-old Shlomi (Oshri Cohen) as he attempts to find himself amid the chaos of his colorful family. His overbearing mother is convinced he's slow (though he can whip up gourmet feasts on a dime); his perverted older brother taunts him with exploits about a sex life that may or may not be fictitious; and his father (kicked out for infidelity) sulks around dreaming up ways to win back his wife (hint: Even pretending to have a fatal disease doesn't guarantee forgiveness). Shlomi is so preoccupied with navigating his overly dramatic family that his own dreams are lost, at least until his grandfather encourages him to embrace his life, which means embracing the beautiful next-door neighbor and a more challenging education. This film, with its use of bright, lively colors and stunning shots that seem to overflow with life, is constructed in a gentle way that is guaranteed to touch all audiences. Cohen has gigantic, innocent eyes (which apparently won him the part) and a gigantic future ahead of him. (NR) HEATHER LOGUE

Bright Young Things

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Egyptian

Stephen Fry knows a lot about the pain that's smothered underneath most laughter. As an actor, he brought out the heartbreak of the epigrammatic Oscar in 1997's Wilde, and he himself has displayed a complicated public temperament as one of Britain's most talented wits. He seems a perfect choice to direct an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1930 acid satire, Vile Bodies, a classic short novel in which several bright young things find their drunken, desperate, everything-for-a-joke party days ever more difficult to sustain in an England headed for World War II. Yet, somehow, the movie only really works when it leaves the sadness just to the side.

Things are, in fact, pretty wonderful as long as Fry (who also adapted the source novel) wants to keep us amused. Armed with what is perhaps the best ensemble cast we'll see all year, the film is a lesson in lightning-quick British insouciance. Writer Adam (Stephen Campbell Moore) feels real love for sweet social butterfly Nina (Emily Mortimer) but can't seem to hold on to the necessary funds to wed her. Meanwhile, they're both having far too much fun avoiding reality with a bunch of other carefree spirits: Miles (Michael Sheen), recklessly bored and insistently gay; Simon (James McAvoy), a gossip columnist with a sharp pen; and, best of all, alcoholic Agatha (Fenella Woolgar), who wakes up pickled in the home of the prime minister and tells his horrified family, "I shall write the tenderest thank-you letter, I promise."

The blotto, bohemian misadventurers are a riot—Woolgar's lovable souse steals every scene she's in—and Fry surrounds them with old pros: Simon Callow, Jim Broadbent, and Peter O'Toole all show up in terrifically funny character bits. Moore and, particularly, Mortimer (who is as achingly chipper as she was in Lovely and Amazing) both make appealing innocents, but Fry can't create that unnerving feeling that the world is always about to collapse beneath their frivolity. They seem to be having an awfully good time as far as we're concerned; tragedy is as big a wet blanket to us as it is to them. The movie doesn't quite ring as true when the music gets terribly meaningful and melancholy and everybody starts moping around—and it certainly isn't as much fun. (R) STEVE WIECKING

The Brown Bunny

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Varsity

Vincent Gallo stole my story! I came up with the idea of an emotional invalid driving cross-country, stopping every few states to neck with supermodels, then berating a girl midfellatio when I was 14! Of course, it was a wet dream, and I was too embarrassed to commit it to paper, so irony of ironies, now I'm reviewing his exhaustingly pretentious, pompous, self-indulgent, smutty fantasia!

Bunny has generally been labeled as "unwatchable," as you've likely heard, unless you're an admirer of Gallo's maverick, fuck-you-if-you-don't-understand-me aesthetic or find impish charm in his megalomaniacal interviews. I weigh in for the latter camp, just barely; Gallo challenges us to do all the heavy lifting in unearthing the poetry in a threadbare, half-mute road-trip dirge. While his dare is admirably progressive and necessary, Bunny plays like one of Lars von Trier's high-concept symphonies: It's hell to sit through.

Motocross racer Bud Clay (Gallo) drives from New Hampshire to L.A. beset by haunting memories of ex-love Daisy (Chloë Sevigny). His daily drudgeries are meticulously detailed in all their first-person, bugs-splattered-on-the-windshield glory, and his sporadic, ethereal encounters with similarly soft-spoken Women of the Road are painfully awkward (if inexorably gorgeous). Like Billy Brown—protagonist of Gallo's debut, the far more accessible, quirky Buffalo '66—Clay is a childlike introvert, a grown man who speaks dreamily of "liking girls" and disparagingly of competing "other boys." Gallo/Clay ultimately receives a notorious real-deal Hoovering from Daisy/Sevigny—a cynic would call this the ultimate manifestation of Gallo's unchecked narcissism—and much of their tragic back story is finally revealed in a cathartic, five-minute postcoital breakdown. It's not nearly enough to justify the middle finger Gallo stuck in our faces for the first 85 minutes, but the melodramatic coda is a fitting signature on an incomparably strange, confrontational statement about the nature of our basest expectations of cinema. (NR) ANDREW BONAZELLI

Criminal

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Meridian and Metro

So who's the criminal in Criminal, Steven Soderbergh protégé Gregory Jacobs' remake of the sleek, sexy 2000 Argentine con-man flick Nine Queens? Everybody, starting with young East L.A. punk Rodrigo (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mamá También). He's got a cute baby face you want to pinch, and he uses it to simulate innocence as he hoodwinks a casino hostess with the old can-you-give-me-change-for-a-50 routine. It works once, but he's green enough to try it twice and gets busted. Just as house security is about to eject him, a cop intervenes, cuffs him, and drags him out to his car.

The cop's another criminal: con man Richard (John C. Reilly, virtuosically playing the opposite of his milquetoast dupe in Chicago). Richard was great at impersonating Popeye Doyle in the casino, and mostly he gets by in the guise of a businessman. But his mug, with its Republican cruelty and bulldog crease above the nose, is respectable but not nice, and he could use Rodrigo's winsomeness to score bigger scams. If the kid is up to it.

Oh yeah? Can Richard convince a woman on the street to give up her purse within minutes? Rodrigo beautifully proves he can, and Jacobs stages his initiation rites with fingers as nimble as a con man's—in this kind of movie, the director is the criminal in chief. Jacobs handles it like an old pro, with the energy of a new jack burning to claim some turf of his own. You can't believe it's a first film—partly thanks to veteran cinematographer Chris Menges, who makes the camera seem like a criminal, too, nervously following the con men, sweaty and edgy. You feel as if it wants to look over its own shoulder to be sure it's not being followed.

Deftly, Jacobs sketches their characters on the run. Richard feels nothing for his marks; Rodrigo feels bad about how good he is at robbing old ladies by playing on their kindly heartstrings. Rodrigo insists he's only in the game to raise dough for his ailing dad. Richard is particularly keen on screwing his own siblings out of their inheritance: femme fatale Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at a top hotel, and Michael (Jonathan Tucker), a dim-bulb bellhop. He gets the chance when a visiting Irish plutocrat (Peter Mullan) appears bearing the ultrarare 1878 Monroe Certificate, worth some $750,000—not exactly handbag money.

This kind of stuff is rote in most crime movies, but Jacobs plays it fast as Ping-Pong with a brand-new ball. A tight script, superb actors, a caffeinated camera, a puckish sense of humor—this is a remake that doesn't feel reheated. One movie, and already Jacobs is a heistmeister. (R) TIM APPELO

Evergreen

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Pacific Place

Fresh from SIFF and Sundance, the maiden effort of writer-director Enid Zentelis was shot in the seedy cinema terra incognita of Everett. It's got some of the virtues of Gus Van Sant's bad-side-of-Burnside debut, Mala Noche, and of Smoke Signals, the Sherman Alexie tale that was the only Northwest film before Evergreen to get into Sundance. It boasts an accomplished cast of character actors, a radiant Seattle ingénue, a drizzly, gritty look, a soundtrack by two guys from über-group Wilco, and a new directing talent worth watching.

Evergreen is a coming-of-age story wherein only the guy gets to come, rudely and too fast. First-time movie star Addie Land, a Seattle high-schooler, is winsome as Henrietta, 14, a penniless newcomer to a small town who falls for her philandering plutocrat classmate, surly Chat (Noah Fleiss). Henri (as she's known) lives with her hard-bitten single mom (Cara Seymour) and old-world crab-apple granny, so Chat's mansion wows her. She doesn't even grasp the dysfunction of Chat's philandering gambler dad (Bruce Davison) and agoraphobic, light box– addicted mom (Mary Kay Place).

The sense of place is resonant, and Henri's white-trash milieu rings true. I dig Smoke Signals veteran Gary Farmer as a worker at the town's Northwest Indian casino (a scene Zentelis knows well, having worked in one). His jalopy reminds me of Nellybelle on Roy Rogers. But Chat's family is drawn ineptly compared to Henri's—they're not characters, they're a collection of tics. The dialogue is peculiar, stiff, lifeless. The plot has no idea where it's going or how to get there if it did. There are some strong shots, especially the iconic one of Henri climbing a mountain of logs at the mill. But as promising a director as Zentelis is, she needs to find herself a new screenwriter. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

Love Me If You Dare

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Uptown

Sometimes the French make it easy to hate them. Case in point: writer-director Yann Samuell's interminable bit of Gallic whimsy in which two cute, insufferable kids spend a couple of decades goading one another into increasingly destructive pranks until they become attractive, insufferable adults. The original French title is Jeux d'enfants, which translates into "children's games," and which, I imagine, has a lot of audiences in France nodding their heads going, "Ah, oui: jeux d'enfants!" as though this thing were just dripping with symbolism about the games we all play on our paths to love and happiness, or some such rot. For us Anglophones, though, it's Love Me If You Dare, and trust me—you daren't.

In case you're wondering just how sticky this film really is, I should tell you that within the first few minutes, 8-year-old Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe) is given a tin carousel by his adoring mother (Emmanuelle Grönvold), who's dying of cancer. When he asks her if she's ever seen such a beautiful carousel, she says that, yes, she has—in her heart. If you have no gag reflex and keep watching beyond this, you'll see the confused, alienated Julien befriend impoverished Polish émigré Sophie (Joséphine Lebas-Jolly) and watch them work through their outcast status by passing Julien's tin box back and forth as the impetus for a series of dares. (Ruin my sister's wedding! Swear in class! Pee in the principal's office! and other knee-slapping jeux d'enfants.) Soon, the two little brats are all grown up and played by Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard, who can't admit that they're in love and so proceed to wreak havoc on each other's lives with the little tin box in tow. An hour and a half later, you'll want to tell them just where they can put that little tin box.

Samuell has a candied visual style reminiscent of Amélie and a couple of gorgeous, expressive leads who can't overcome the fact that they're playing petty, horrible people. I guess we're supposed to take Julien and Sophie's selfish cruelty with a wry, knowing tsk-tsk because, well, you know how jeux d'enfants are. All I know is, by the time Sophie was saying, "Julien, I no longer know when you're playing or not," all I was thinking was, "Julien, I no longer care." (R) STEVE WIECKING

Red Lights

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Seven Gables

Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the antihero of Cédric Kahn's strange new suspense film, is a defeated-looking everyman. He's not henpecked, exactly, but he feels that his high-powered lawyer wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet), emasculates him daily simply by being herself. Yet when it's time to pick the kids up from summer camp, Antoine does his damnedest to wear the pants: He manfully downs several beers and a Scotch, then gets behind the wheel, picking fights with Hélène throughout their short, agonizing road trip. After his third drink break en route, he finds Hélène vanished, though not without a trace.

Structurally, and in terms of pacing, Red Lights resembles this year's dreary, fangless marriage dissection The Clearing, with Robert Redford and Helen Mirren; in spirit, fortunately, Lights is much wilder. As it lopes along, Kahn's film racks up unlikely coincidences (the most credulity-stretching one involving an escaped convict), yet Antoine's downward spiral remains compelling. Some viewers may consider Hélène's fate a crude manipulation, an easy way to reverse Antoine's plight. In fact, it transforms the punch-drunk dark comedy that came before into sobering drama that's equally effective. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

Uncovered: The War on Iraq

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Harvard Exit

Tremendously persuasive and tremendously boring, this agit-prop doc from Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) and his self-styled low-budget liberal truth machine creates a challenge to even the most sympathetic, Dubya-hating viewer. Chock-full of talking heads and old news clips, it presents a compelling case that the president and his neocon cronies cooked the intelligence—if not outright lied—as a post-9/11 pretext for enacting pre-existing plans to oust Saddam. Since its on-camera sources include former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson and former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, both of whom have already written essential accounts of the Bush chicanery, the effect is something like being trapped in a locked lecture hall without any coffee while, say, Ben Stein reads aloud the footnotes from those two superior tomes. You can find yourself agreeing with every word and at the same time contemplating a jump through the nearest window.

Oh, how this movie makes you yearn for Michael Moore. No matter how sloppy, inferential, and—to quote Sen. John McCain at last week's GOP convention—"disingenuous" Fahrenheit 9/11 may be, that film has the supreme virtue of being entertaining. For good reason, it won the top prize at Cannes— it works as a movie, while Uncovered reads like a transcript.

Still, for those without time to read Wilson or Clarke, or for some who have perhaps been stranded on a desert island for the last three years, the documentary provides an adequate gloss of a scandal that, during any other political era (i.e., no fear-mongering terror alerts and an evenly divided Congress), would surely merit impeachment of the president. Here, we have the missing weapons of mass destruction, the bogus Iraqi exile "intelligence," the CIA strong-arming from Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin Powell's shameful testimony at the U.N., Condi Rice's panicked backpedaling on Meet the Press, outraged liberal pols like Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy, and, finally, the body bags and flag-draped coffins that Dubya's intransigence hath wrought. There's also a great, unintentionally self-indicting quote from Donald Rumsfeld: "There are a lot of people who lie and get away with it, and that's just a fact." Perhaps, Rummy, perhaps. Or you may be filling out job applications at Wal-Mart come January.

It makes you sick. It also makes you want to use the 83 minutes that might otherwise be spent on this compelling soporific standing on a street corner, registering people to vote. With less than two months remaining before the fall election, it's a little late for stale outrage. It's time to trade the box office for the ballot box. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Warriors of Heaven and Earth

Opens Fri., Sept. 10, at Metro

Legible subtitles would have helped. White subtitles don't work when nearly every scene of a film takes place in the bright light of day. Set in the barren Gobi Desert, the Chinese-made Warriors is meant to be an exciting action-adventure movie, but it fails at that and, instead, is victorious as a corny warrior fight flick. After decades of service to the Chinese emperor, Japanese emissary Lai Xi (Nakai Kiichi) misses his family back in Japan and longs for a homecoming. However, he cannot return to Japan until he fulfills one last duty: capture and execute Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen), a renegade soldier wanted for refusing orders to murder female and child prisoners. The resulting fight scenes are quite amusing—rather than ferocious—as each warrior requires approximately 30 seconds to courageously pull out his sword and pose for the camera before fighting. This adds that unbelievably hackneyed element that we knew would come sooner or later, whether in heaven or on Earth. (R) MICHELLE REINDAL

 
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