New in Film for June 5, 2009

Easy Virtue

Quick! Noël Coward—sage or supercilious bitch? No matter where you stand, Stephan Elliott's deliciously cheeky screen adaptation of one of the satirist's lesser-known jabs at the British upper crust will charm your pants off. The movie opens with a contemporary rendition of Coward's "Mad About the Boy," impressively sung by Jessica Biel, her customary luminous self as a Roaring Twenties American race car driver who marries into British aristocracy and finds herself on the losing end of a war of words with the groom's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Though Elliott, director of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, gussies up the action with clever and lyrical visuals, words are what count in this scantily plotted piece (hard to believe that Hitchcock made a silent version in 1928), a light variant on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan with the same libertarian message that the morally compromised inherit the earth while the self-righteous wither on the vine. A uniformly great cast (Kris Marshall is a scream as the eye-rolling butler) is upstaged by a hilariously WASP-ish Thomas, who strides away with the movie wearing sensible cardies, QE II hair, and all the best lines as Mummy Dearest, with Colin Firth modestly bringing up the rear as her war-ruined lush of a husband. Easy Virtue may seem like little more than a big fat mother-in-law joke, but Elliott pointedly recasts it as a nail in the coffin of an increasingly irrelevant gentry. Ella Taylor


Katyn

With his new film, Poland's greatest filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, caps his career with the story he waited most of his life to tell. Katyn, which sold millions of tickets and provoked a national debate in Poland, addresses a once-taboo, still-traumatic subject: the 1940 liquidation of some 15,000 Polish military officers, carried out on Stalin's orders and consequently blamed on the Nazis. The Katyn massacre was grisly; the cover-up, enforced throughout the Cold War and the life of the Soviet Union, was additionally atrocious in that it founded the new Polish state on an obvious lie. For the 82-year-old director, the bloodbath has an added significance — his father was among the victims. This intense personal investment may account for the movie's uneven quality: While never less than fascinating, Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful. It's as if the artist is never certain whether he is making this movie for himself, his father, or the entire nation. Wajda's most provocative notion is that Katyn was a process that bore its poison fruit in war's aftermath — families divided and individuals broken by the new regime's institutionalized doublethink. But making Katyn allowed him to imagine his father's murder without telling us what it was like for him to live with it. J. Hoberman


Little Ashes

Hoping to expand his fan base beyond Twilight-loving tween girls to Chelsea twinks, alabaster beauty Robert Pattinson plays bi-curious Salvador Dalí in this silly portrayal of the 1920s Madrid university days of the painter and his pals, gay poet/playwright Federico García Lorca and gay-bashing Luis Buñuel. Written by first-time scripter Philippa Goslett, Little Ashes (named after one of Dalí's paintings) is a typically bombastic lives-of-the-artists production made even more stilted by having all the actors (including the Spanish ones) speak accented English; the first several minutes contain so much Castilian overlisping that someone surely must have sprained a tongue. Pattinson — first presented as a twitchy weirdo in ruffled pirate shirts and hairdos reminiscent of Antony Hegarty's, before a fantastic sartorial makeover featuring costume designer Antonio Belart's pick of excellent sweater vests — has difficulty conveying cracked genius, at one point seeming to mimic Jame Gumb's prance in front of the mirror in The Silence of the Lambs until settling on just bugging his eyes out. Though Dalí's first smooch with García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) in the phosphorescent waters of Cadaqués is steamy, the pleasures of man-man love — and the movie — evaporate quickly when the wildly ambitious painter announces, "I'll bring Paris to its knees!" after he's conflicted about being on his. Melissa Anderson


My Life in Ruins

Substitute "career" for "life" in the title of this stillborn travelogue comedy, and you'll have a succinct verdict on My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer/star Nia Vardalos, whose efforts to prove herself more than a one-megahit wonder have been greeted by audiences with an apathy previously reserved for the post-Crocodile Dundee oeuvre of Paul Hogan (see the short-lived 2003 sitcom My Big Fat Greek Life and the even shorter-lived 2004 drag-queen farce Connie and Carla). Here, in the opening salvo of her double-barreled 2009 comeback bid — the Vardalos-scripted and -directed I Hate Valentine's Day is set to follow in July — the Greek-Canadian comedienne once more tries to parlay her Hellenic pride into box-office gold, starring as an unemployed history professor reduced to working as an Athenian tour guide. The result, written by The Simpsons alum Mike Reiss and directed (in a manner of speaking) by Grumpy Old Men's Donald Petrie, is a strangely self-loathing affair that paints Vardalos' tour group as a uniformly ill-mannered, culturally illiterate bunch, while rendering Greece itself as a badly plumbed third-world hellhole run by lazy, Zorba-dancing louts. The requisite ugly Americans are here, as well as the beer-guzzling Aussies and one wizened, Viagra-popping widower (Richard Dreyfuss, really slumming it). But then, what did you expect from a movie with characters named Poupi and Doudi Kakas? Scott Foundas

 
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