Automorphosis (U.S., 2008) Harrod Blank has been making movies about lavishly customized "art cars" since he was in college. Automorphosis is a fascinating look at the people behind some of these cars. We meet Uri "Spoon Man" Geller who has covered his car with utensils and a German guy who drives around in a hamburger-shaped three-wheeler. "It's difficult to go against the grain," admits Blank, whose car is a Volkswagen Beetle painted bright colors, and covered outside and inside with knick-knacks. Oh yeah, it also makes a variety of chicken noises and has slogans on it ("stop apartheid," "safe sex"). "I grew up a little bit different from the other kids," admits Blank. His odd sensibilities come through loud and clear in this fine film. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10. *** (Jeff Niesel)
Defamation (Israel/Denmark/U.S./Austria, 2009) An Israeli Jew, Yoav Shamir explores the nature of anti-Semitism in this very personal (and controversial) documentary. Shamir says he's never experienced anti-Semitism and sets out to debunk some of what he perceives to be myths. Like a Jewish Michael Moore, he conducts a series of interviews designed to make some sense of a sociopolitical problem. He first visits his grandmother, who tells him about his family background, and he follows a group of high-school students as they travel to Europe to study the Holocaust. His methods (mostly man-on-the-street interviews) aren't entirely sound but, like Moore, Shamir is so good-natured as he addresses the issue, you can't help but sympathize with him, even if he is a bit misguided. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7. *** (Niesel)
Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution (France, 2008) Concerns about the quality of the food we eat and the implications it might have on our health aren't just taking centerstage in the U.S. In France, one of the world's largest consumers of pesticides, organic farming has become a topic of heated debate. We see one such debate at a UNESCO conference in the opening scenes of this documentary. Thankfully, the film isn't all about numbers (though there's plenty of that) and farming techniques ("How do I keep mildew from growing on my vines?" asks one vineyard owner). Director Jean-Paul Jaud spends most of his time in a rural French village where the mayor has declared that all students' lunches must be organic. Alternating between scenes of legislative battles and images of children planting their own vegetables gives the film a nice balance and suggests that putting ideas about healthy lifestyles into practice really shouldn't be so difficult. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3. *** (Niesel)
From Paris With Love Reviewed at clevescene.com.
The Great Adventure (Sweden, 1953) A nature documentary about farm boys who rescue an otter, this film was a festival favorite when it was originally released. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4.
Late Spring (Japan, 1949) A widower tries to marry off his daughter in this classic Yasujiro Ozu film. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5.
The Wedding Song (France/Tunisia, 2008) Two girls — one's Jewish, the other's Muslim — are engaged to be married in Karin Albou's Tunisia-set World War II film. But many things (poverty, family, the war) get in the way of their pre-arranged happily-ever-afters. For one thing, Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré) doesn't even like the guy she's supposed to marry. And the Muslim man that Nour (Olympe Borval) is set up with works for the Nazis. Plus, Myriam clearly has a thing for her pal. The girls are best friends, sharing every secret, laugh and tear since childhood. The love stories at the center of The Wedding Song are just part of the movie's drama. There's class divide (even among the Jews and Muslims themselves, both of whom are persecuted by the Germans, albeit in different ways), racial barriers and sexual politics to overcome. But mostly the film is about the two girls. The Wedding Song hinges on their relationship, and the terrific Brocheré and Borval save the film from its ponderous thoughts on race, class and sex. Eventually, everything collides and the war catches up to them, exploding their personal problems into something the whole world — regardless of race, class or religion — can understand. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:25 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, and 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7. *** (Michael Gallucci)
Wild River (U.S., 1960) Set in rural Tennessee, this Elia Kazan film features Montgomery Cliff as a guy who tries to get a woman to leave her property before it floods. At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7.
Avatar It's been a dozen years since king of the world James Cameron won a boatload of Oscars for Titanic. He apparently spent the downtime thinking about how to revolutionize movies with Avatar, his bloated and exhausting sci-fi epic about a tribe of tall, tailed and blue-hued creatures called Na'vi. It's also one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The film is set in 2154 on the forest planet of Pandora, where wheelchair-bound marine Jake Scully (Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington) is recruited for an ongoing project that fuses human and Na'vi DNA, resulting in "avatars" that look like Na'vi but retain human thoughts. It's all very scientific, confusing and geeky. With a new body capable of sprinting as fast as any animal on Earth, Jake's mission is to infiltrate the Na'vi so the military can mine the precious minerals their homes are built on (again, it's all very scientific, confusing and geeky). It doesn't take long for Jake to fall for one of the Na'vi (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek's Uhura) and rethink his assignment. Avatar is pure sci-fi hokum with one-dimensional characters, heavy-handed narration and an unsurprising love story. But you've never seen a movie like this before. *** (Gallucci)
The Book of Eli Written by Gary Whitta and directed by the Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli does a good job of walking the middle ground between the pulpy entertainment of The Road Warrior and the more serious-minded vision of the end of the world seen in The Road. Its story revolves around Eli (Denzel Washington), who walks through a post-apocalyptic United States carrying with him the last surviving copy of the Bible. He believes he has been charged by God to deliver the book to a place where it will be safe, though he doesn't know where that might be other than to the west. Looking for supplies, Eli stops in a small town of survivors that's governed by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has been looking for a copy of the Bible because of its power in social control. The two predictably come into conflict. Washington and Oldman are excellent. So is Mila Kunis as the film's female lead, proving she's just as adept at drama as she is at comedy. *** 1/2 (Robert Ignizio)
Crazy Heart "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," has-been country crooner Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) says with just the slightest tinge of irony at the beginning of this C&W variant on The Wrestler. Writer-director Scott Cooper's debut feature borrows a page or two from such previous twangy sudsers as Tender Mercies and Payday without ever quite finding an identity of its own. Of course, Bridges' majestic, stunningly lived-in performance is more than enough reason to see this modestly compelling sleeper. And as a Tim McGraw-esque country superstar determined to help Blake stage his big comeback, Colin Farrell is equally impressive. Their emotionally charged, exquisitely moving scenes together are the best parts of the film. The only weak link in an otherwise nonpareil cast (which includes Mercies star Robert Duvall as a friendly saloon keeper) is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the single mom/alt-weekly reporter who has a tough-to-swallow May-December fling with daddy surrogate Blake. Cedar Lee Theatre. *** (Milan Paurich)
Edge of Darkness Most of the problems with Edge of Darkness, a remake of a 1985 British TV show of the same name, are the byproduct of trying to turn a six-hour miniseries into a feature film that also has to function as a star vehicle for Mel Gibson. It makes sense to focus on Gibson's Tom Craven, a grieving police officer who investigates the shooting death of his daughter. This is the kind of edgy hero Gibson plays well, and most of his scenes work. But there are just too many subplots and characters for a two-hour movie, especially one with such a convoluted central mystery. As a result, the film never picks up any momentum or builds much suspense. It's too busy trying to cram exposition into its characters' mouths to get into any kind of flow. Ray Winstone is fun in a supporting role, but his character doesn't do anything for most of the movie. This either needed to be about a half hour longer so it could take its time and flesh out the details or else pared down to its essentials as a lean 90-minute revenge flick. ** (Ignizio)
Extraordinary Measures If you're casting the role of a genius scientist, Harrison Ford probably isn't the first name that comes to mind. As it happens, Ford's distant demeanor is rather well suited to the prickly Dr. Robert Stonehill, a research scientist who has conducted extensive studies on Pompe. Stonehill works all night in his laboratory, shrinks from most human contact and blares the Grateful Dead and the James Gang while working. Stonehill's research captures the attention of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a drug-company executive who, with his wife Aileen (Keri Russell), is raising three children, two of whom — Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Velazquez) — have Pompe, a genetic disorder whose sufferers usually die in early childhood. Although it sounds like another Lorenzo's Oil, this is in large part a business story, dramatically illustrating how corporate interests intersect with human suffering in the quest to manufacture "orphan drugs." This is a sentimental movie that might be more at home on television, but it's a heartfelt production, handled with taste and elevated by an A-list cast, fluid direction by Tom Vaughan and a moving musical score by Andrea Guerra. *** (Pamela Zoslov)
Legion This post-apocalyptic film starts with a bang as Michael (Paul Bettany) drops from the sky and proceeds to cut off his wings and pick up whatever ammunition he can. The film quickly takes a detour to a small diner (appropriately named Paradise Falls) in the middle of the Mojave Desert where a yuppie couple (Jon Tenney and Kate Walsh) are waiting for their Beemer to get fixed, and diner owner (Dennis Quaid) is arguing with an eight- months-pregnant waitress Charley (Adrianne Palicki). All this small-town drama is rather dull and slows the pace of the film. But it's not long before things pick up. Michael shows up at the diner and tells everyone he's a fallen angel sent to kill Charley's baby. Instead, he's disobeyed God and wants to protect her and her child, who is destined to lead humankind out of darkness. Michael and crew fend off numerous attacks, and it's not long before we get some angel-on-angel action when God sends Gabriel (Kevin Duran), who, it turns out, is one mean son of a bitch, to finish off everyone. While the whole angel thing is a good twist, as far as end-of-the-world films go, Legion is nothing special. The various subplots are so corny, they don't effectively give the film the kind of pathos it seeks, and you're more likely to find the cartoonish violence unintentionally funny. ** (Niesel)
The Lovely Bones If you adored Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, don't expect much from Peter Jackson's much-delayed screen version. Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan are all perfectly OK for Abigail and Susie Salmon, but Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Sopranos alumnus Michael Imperioli all seem dead wrong for the roles of father Jack Salmon, murderer George Harvey and detective Len Fenerman. As it turns out, Jackson's overuse of special effects to recreate Sebold's vision of the afterlife and some peculiar casting decisions are the least of the film's problems. The major reason The Lovely Bones leaves an acrid taste is that neither Jackson nor co-adapters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens seems to have understood the appeal of Sebold's bestseller or why it was so emotionally devastating for its legion of fans. The heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year-old girl brutally raped and murdered by an odd-duck neighbor in her central Pennsylvania neighborhood in 1973 — and her post-death observance of how her surviving family members grieve (terribly), and learn to rebound and move on — was primal, bawl-your-eyes-out stuff. Jackson's decision to vulgarize Sebold's story by turning it into a hokey serial-killer thriller basically shits on everything that made it special. ** (Paurich)
A Single Man Based on a novel by the late Christopher Isherwood, Tom Ford's stunningly assured directorial debut hearkens back to '90s "New Queer Cinema" classics like Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin'sSwoon. The film poignantly describes an impactful day in the life of British expatriate college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who is contemplating suicide after the accidental death of his longtime companion (Matthew Goode). Set in 1962 Los Angeles, the period recreation is Mad Men perfection, with a tip of the hat to Wong Kar-wai's über-fetishized mise en scene. Firth delivers a career performance that won him the Best Actor award at last summer's Venice Film Festival, and, as George's loyal friend and fellow Brit expat, Julianne Moore hasn't been this terrific in years. The film is a masterpiece of remarkable style and great, tender feeling.*** 1/2 (Paurich)
The Tooth Fairy Derek (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a brute of a minor-league hockey player who hasn't scored a goal in nine years and has essentially been relegated to an enforcer role, gets nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy" because he hits players so hard, he's been known to knock a tooth or two out. Off the ice, he's a nice enough guy, but when he tells his girlfriend Carly (Ashley Judd) that her kid Tess (Destiny Whitlock) shouldn't believe in things she can't see, he wakes up one morning to find the "Department of the Dissemination of Belief" has issued him a citation ordering him to report to the chief fairy (Julie Andrews). He grows a set of wings and must work as a real tooth fairy and fly around the city, snatching teeth out from under the pillows of youngsters everywhere. Johnson tries his best to relish the role but the stiff dialogue and the film's obvious message have put the Rock in a hard place. While it's amusing to see the burly guy dressed in a fairy outfit, you would think his agent could find him better roles than this. The same can't be said for Billy Crystal, who is dreadfully dry in an uncredited cameo as a mad scientist of sorts that clues Derek into tooth-fairy secrets. * (Niesel)
When in Rome It's never a good sign when a movie uses the tired old "he's standing right behind me, isn't he" gag within its first five minutes. When that's immediately followed by a "food stuck to the teeth" joke, you know you're in for one seriously unfunny comedy, which is the case with When in Rome. Beth (Kristen Bell) is a young assistant curator at a modern-art museum. Her career is going well, but she's unlucky in love. While at her younger sister's wedding in Rome, she takes a handful of coins from a fountain of love. This causes the men who threw those coins into the fountain to magically fall madly in love with her. The rest of the movie is kind of like There's Something About Mary minus the laughs. The guys are all ludicrous caricatures (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder plays a street magician), and Bell and Josh Duhamel are bland in the leads. Mark Steven Johnson directs the film with all the flair of a bad sitcom. This is nothing but formulaic product for undiscriminating audiences. * (Ignizio)