Around the Bend

Also: Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Primer, Rick, Shall We Dance?, and Zelary.

Around the Bend

Opens Fri., Oct. 15, at Metro and others

Early in writer-director Jordan Roberts' profoundly flawed debut feature, an eccentric codger intones: "A family carries each other" (grammar, it seems, is not part of the shared family burden). That codger is Henry Lair (Michael Caine), a crotchety patriarch who kicks off at a Kentucky Fried Chicken 10 minutes into Bend, prompting a grudging reunion between his estranged son, Turner (Christopher Walken), and grumpy grandson, Jason (Josh Lucas, with a stick up his ass to rival Billy Crudup's in Big Fish). In accordance with the old man's will, lugging an urn full of Henry's ashes, the two set out on a scavenger hunt that requires them to dig up family secrets and, strangely, eat unhealthy amounts of fried chicken. Each stop on the Henry Death Tour involves a KFC, which might explain how Bend was financed; either way, what sort of kindly old man forces his only living relatives to recreate Super Size Me with poultry?

The film's familiar menu promises standard-issue intergenerational bickering and bonding, which Roberts garnishes with stale attempts at humor. When the duo consults a lawyer about Henry's will, the lawyer's senile mother dodders about the apartment, looking confused. Alzheimer's—now there's a surefire laugh riot! Later, Walken trades an urn containing a complete stranger's ashes for a dog abused by its redneck owner. None of this makes Bend come alive as a David O. Russell-style black comedy, and Roberts even manages to waste Walken's deadpan comic genius. Caine, at least, redeems himself by dying early; audiences may wish his costars had followed suit. (R) NEAL SCHINDLER

Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Runs Fri., Oct. 15–Thurs., Oct. 21, at Grand Illusion

Tsai Ming-liang's latest feature concerns the inner life of a poured-concrete cavern in the heart of Taipei, a shabby temple unspooling a 1966 martial-arts flick—Dragon Inn—to a handful of devotees. Because the theater is about to shut down, there's a superficial resemblance to the canned nostalgia of Cinema Paradiso. But Goodbye is far less sentimental and considerably funnier than the old Miramax pocket liner. It's also a movie of elegant understatement and considerable formal intelligence.

In one sense, the movie is a superimposed double feature. The action is entirely confined to the Fu-Ho theater; we hear Inn's music and the whir of the projector, while the big screen (within the screen) opens a glorious chasm of deep space in the gloomy bunker. In some shots, the internal movie registers only as patterns of light shifting on the empty seats. Meanwhile, Tsai's trademark monsoon allows for the contrapuntal pitter-patter of water leaking through the roof.

Tsai's characters include a young woman with a severe limp who takes tickets at the box office and cleans up after the show; a little boy attending the movie with his nostalgic grandfather; and a lonely Japanese tourist, who alternates between watching the movie and hopefully cruising the largely empty theater. "Do you know this theater is haunted?" someone asks the tourist. Indeed it is. Poltergeists noisily gobble their sunflower seeds. A pair of feet suddenly materializes over the tourist's shoulder. Two of Inn's original actors, Miao Tien and Chun Shih, are in the audience watching their younger selves on screen. But Tsai is less concerned with nostalgia than a sense of cosmic ritual or what might be called the "historical uncanny."

Goodbye puts the history of Taiwanese popular cinema between brackets, since Inn was among the most influential martial-arts films ever made, helping put Taiwan's popular cinema on the international map. Goodbye consigns that popular cinema to the crypt even while receding farther in time to evoke the increasingly archaic motion-picture apparatus itself. While Tsai's long, static takes are basic Lumière, his narrative evokes the lost world of silent cinema. A prolonged gag is derived from a spectator's efforts to retrieve her fallen shoe. A wordless scene in the men's toilet is a small masterpiece of comic timing. Later, the ticket taker makes an arduous journey, leg brace clanking, down an endless corridor and up the narrow stairs to the booth, where she leaves a portion of her meal as an offering for the phantom projectionist, as if to say, "Thanks for the show," regardless of whether the movies now only exist as ghosts. (NR) J. HOBERMAN

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Runs Sat., Oct. 16–Mon., Oct. 18 and Wed., Oct. 20 at Northwest Film Forum

Call him the anti-Cheney. Warm, witty, and unpretentious, the famous lefty historian and author of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn hasn't exactly mellowed into his 80s. Film clips of his involvement in the civil rights movement (when he taught at, and was fired from, all-black Spellman College) and the anti-Vietnam War movement show one mellow fellow, quick with a smile and amazingly unbitter about being billy-clubbed by the cops. Based on his autobiography of the same name, this documentary/hagiography presents a thoroughly admirable figure in a thoroughly pedestrian manner: talking heads, testimonials, old news clips, still photos, and voice-overs from his works read by Matt Damon. It makes Ken Burns look like Scorsese, and no one who's already read Zinn's works will find the film particularly illuminating or novel.

For newbies, however, I suppose the plod may at least whet their appetite enough to inspire them to pick up a few Zinn titles at the corner bookstore. (A People's History has sold over one million copies.) And they can always go out for popcorn during long, dull digressions on a 1968 Hanoi prisoner-exchange trip and labor strife at Boston University during the 1970s. Certainly, the film would make almost anyone (save Cheney) want to meet the man, who's still actively writing and speaking from semi-retirement. But the film would also be a lot more interesting and engaging if it were skewed to current events. There's a snippet of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and a coda on Iraq in which Zinn asks rhetorically, "Will Iraq be a democracy? The real question is whether the United States will be a democracy."

The worst thing a documentary can do to a historian is make him a figure of the past. To its near discredit, Train almost manages to ennoble its subject into fawning irrelevancy. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Primer

Opens Fri., Oct. 15, at Varsity

A repeat-viewing brain twister to file alongside millennial puzzle films like Mulholland Drive and Memento, Shane Carruth's Primer unites physics and metaphysics in an ingenious guerrilla reinvention of cinematic science fiction. Its analog-egghead approach may be the freshest thing the genre has seen since 2001. A surprise winner at Sundance, Carruth's prodigious no-budget debut is the nerdiest and most plausible time-warp fantasy that movies have ever dreamed up.

In a garage deep in the Dallas suburbs, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (a superbly antsy David Sullivan) work covertly on what they call "the box," which seems to involve an old catalytic converter and some copper tubing. Put a Weeble in it, and fungal proteins breed at an accelerated rate. Put a watch in it, and really inexplicable things start to happen. Before long, Abe and Aaron are talking about building a box big enough for themselves.

At once clinical and lyrical, practically compactor-pressed at a mere 78 minutes, Primer exists in a haze of naturalistic confusion. Fitting for a film about the limits of knowledge, it doubles as an experiment in narrative inference. Scenes begin and end in medias res. Meaning is elided, occluded, or embedded in texture and ambience. The overlapping dialogue, a rush of lab-speak gobbledygook that at times resolves into a sort of techie poetry, suggests David Foster Wallace rewriting David Mamet.

But Carruth gives his time-travel fantastical scenario a seductively prosaic veneer. The protagonists casually toss off lines like "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon." And as physical impossibilities arise, so do real-world ethical impasses: Living each day twice, Abe and Aaron exploit their prescience for stock-market gains, leading to more grandiose abuses. Complicating matters, a double is spawned each time their machine is utilized; and a narrator switches from past to future-conditional tense.

Primer is both a deadpan satire and a heartening embodiment of DIY enterprise. Carruth, an engineer with no previous film experience, shot only one take of every scene on Super 16 stock. The movie's final third—a what-the-fuck snarl of recursive cycles and causal short circuitry—is where Primer essentially turns into an experimental film (and to judge from festival screenings, loses a good number of its viewers). Its fissured disorientation powerfully conveys an infinite unraveling—a sense that nothing less than space-time as we know it is spinning off its axis. (PG-13) DENNIS LIM

Rick

Opens Fri., Oct. 15, at Varsity

Woody Allen once wrote a classic essay, "Notes From Overfed," after reading both Dostoyevsky and a Weight Watchers pamphlet on a plane trip. Daniel Handler—better known as Lemony Snicket, whose $200 million Jim Carrey movie A Series of Unfortunate Events opens Dec. 17—wrote Rick after a bad day at work followed by a viewing of the opera Rigoletto. He turns Verdi's malevolent hunchback into a malevolent Manhattan businessman, Rick (Bill Pullman). Victor Hugo spent four days writing the original play, The King Amuses Himself, which Verdi then spent 40 days adapting into operatic form. Handler allegedly turned Rigoletto into Rick in 24 hours, and director Curtiss Clayton (Gus Van Sant's brilliant editor) shot it in 20 days for peanuts.

So it's a quick sketch, crude yet effective. At first, it seems a rehash of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. Corporate drone Rick gratuitiously, cruelly humiliates a job applicant (Sandra Oh), who puts a curse on his head. Why's Rick so spiteful? Perhaps because he hates his company's twentysomething CEO, Duke (Tadpole's Aaron Stanford), a caricature of Harvard MBA types. Pullman's and Stanford's faux-bonding badinage beautifully skewers the false heartiness and moral ugliness of companies with uplifting names like Enterprise or Endeavor. Here at the Image Corporation, the product isn't the point, it's all about manipulating people!

At his exec's desk, Duke conducts one-handed IM with an unknown ingénue—he goes by BIGBOSS, she's VIXXEN. Surprise! She's Rick's daughter, Eve (Agnes Bruckner). During the horrid corporate ritual of the Christmas party, Eve has a ravaging date with destiny. So does Duke—Rick's hired a hit man (Dylan Baker, so spruce it looks like he parts his hair with an axe). The hit is out, and the curse is on.

Handler's satire of his former corporate masters is as sharp as an icicle to the eyeball. The acting is aces all around. But Rigoletto won immortality with its tunes, not its bloody book. Even though the bizarrely versatile Handler is part of Stephin Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields, Rick's spare soundtrack doesn't elevate it above its operatic improbability and absence of dramatic suspense. Still, it's fascinating: a small, perfect, gleaming clockwork illustrating evil and folly. (R) TIM APPELO

Shall We Dance?

Opens Fri., Oct. 15, at Metro and others

Philip Roth once said he envied writers in Eastern Europe, because their imaginations had the hard fact of Communism to strike sparks against. Western writers are free, and therefore sparkless, irrelevant. It's that American lack of repression that ruins the new Hollywood remake of Masayuki Suo's 1997 Japanese hit about a salaryman who yearns nightly on the commuter train for a mysterious woman he glimpses in a dance studio. Ballroom dancing frees his mind, and his booty follows, but he has to keep it secret because real salarymen don't dance.

Since dancing has no stigma in America, the movie's premise makes no sense transplanted from Japan to Chicago. Also, American businessmen are slick, upbeat, unintrospective—they don't know from Japanese melancholy. As the accountant in midlife crisis, Richard Gere can sort of dance, but he cannot convey yearning. He's as smug as Michael Jackson's pet boa constrictor Muscles after it swallowed Michael's parrot. And Jennifer Lopez is even more smug as the mysterious dance-studio woman of his inchoate dreams. J.Lo has no mystery. Her startlingly negligible, half-hour part as Gere's nonromantic dance partner is her second-worst, after Gigli.

Susan Sarandon does her wide-eyed thing as Gere's puzzled wife, and Gere is watchable enough. All the dance-class comic foils are horrid, however: Stanley Tucci as a bald guy with a bad wig and big teeth as false as this film; The Station Agent's Bobby Cannavale as a gay guy in macho denial; Omar Benson Miller as a fat guy. Lisa Ann Walter nobly struggles against an insulting, mouthy-fat-gal character, nearly redeeming it.

Nothing redeems the script by Under the Tuscan Sun screenplay author Audrey Wells. It wanders, zombielike. Once- talented sellout director Peter Chelsom, who gave us Serendipity, emits an even more rotten cotton candy fantasy this time. The dance scenes have none of the drama of Strictly Ballroom and Chicago. Chelsom resorts to speeding up the spins of Gere and J.Lo, vainly trying to get the lead out. There is no narrative buildup to the ballroom competition, and the climax—a ripped dress—is anticlimactic. The climax to Gere's terpsichorean obsession with J.Lo, set to the title's tune from The King and I, captures the unsettling celibacy of Anna's thing with the King, but not the ebullience of the tune. In sheer desperation, Chelsom tries to resolve things emotionally via a wearyingly lengthy music-video of Stephin Merritt's droningly melancholy song with the lyric, "The book of love is long and boring." The movie is long and dishonest and incoherent.

By all means, watch Shall We Dance this weekend. Just make sure it's the original on DVD, not the senseless, sexless Hollywood travesty. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

Zelary

Opens Fri., Oct. 15, at Metro

It takes a (Czech) village: When Prague resistance fighter Eliska (Anna Geislerová) learns that the SS is after her, she flees to the mountain hamlet of Zelary to become the wife of a farmer whose life she once saved. Director Ondrej Trojan tells her journey with little sense of narrative pacing (certain events seem to happen twice) and even less of character (Eliska accepts her hausfrau destiny with inexplicable passivity). Only the ensemble cast of yokels is rendered with any consistency, their lives portrayed as a cycle of drinking, copulation, and more drinking. The Oscar-nominted Zelary strands its protagonists in a hermetically sealed world where time runs in place. It's a feeling that viewers of this two-and-a-half-hour epic will come to know all too well. (R) DAVID NG

 
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