Film Reviews

New in Film for Friday, June 12, 2009


A small mob of camels stampedes by a nomad's tent. Inside, a young guy in a sailor suit sits on the rug, cheerfully recounting his death struggle with an octopus to the impassive middle-aged couple he's hoping will be his in-laws. Miscellaneous brays punctuate Asa's story, which is interrupted by a cutaway to a local funkster piloting his jalopy across the steppe, rocking out to "Rivers of Babylon." Tulpan, the first feature by Russian ethno-documentarian Sergei Dvortsevoy, winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is a fiction founded on a powerful sense of place — and that place, namely the vast nowhere void of southern Kazakhstan, could easily be another planet. Dvortsevoy has populated the inhospitable terrain of the so-called Hunger Steppe with actors who lived as nomadic sheepherders during the course of the shoot. Thus, the performers settled into a yurt with a bunch of rambunctious kids and a gaggle of domestic animals. As fluid as Tulpan seems, it's painstakingly constructed out of a series of observed moments, staged interactions, and precisely dubbed sounds. Everything makes noise — camels snort, sheep bleat, people declaim, machines sputter — without any particular hierarchy. Life's defining attribute, as portrayed in Tulpan, is what American Westerners might call cussedness. And if there's anyone more stubborn than Dvortsevoy's characters, it's the filmmaker himself — camping out on the steppe, waiting months for the precise weather conditions to shoot a particular scene. In every respect, this unclassifiable movie is an amazing accomplishment. J. Hoberman

Imagine That

Eddie Murphy is a Denver investment consultant, Evan, with a workaholic schedule that leaves little space for 7-year-old daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Adding to his pressures is the meteoric rise of a coworker, shtick Native American "Whitefeather," whose financial consultations come couched in pseudo-mysticism and PowerPoint razzle-dazzle (played by Thomas Haden Church, fitfully amusing, with characterization and makeup owing much to Phil Hartman's SNL Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer). Evan's interest in parent-child bonding spikes when Olivia becomes a medium for clairvoyant insights into international business trends via her imaginary friends. On the surface, the idea of combining the Bloomberg Terminal, market jargon, and childish fancy seems counterintuitive. That's because it is. But Imagine That manages to get a crowd tearing up on cue for its emotional climax; as much as it works, it's through the personal charm of Murphy and Shahidi. Strikes against include God-awful Beatles covers, overreliance on the hilarity of grownups in suits saying poop, and obtrusive Red Bull product placement — the beverage company may as well start producing films itself after this and Yes Man. If memory serves, kiddies like whatever movie you drop them at, but for the record, Drop Dead Fred remains the vastly superior film. Nick Pinkerton

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Want to know how a city works? Start by watching 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, in which subway hijackers test how long it'll take a million bucks to pass through Gotham's plumbing. Turns out an hour is just enough time to roust the mayor out of bed, convince him that $1 million is cheap for the hostages' sure votes, get the Treasury on the horn, and gridlock traffic by wrecking the drop-off car. And yet, in the end, a web of dysfunction from Gracie Mansion to the transit authority defeats the crooks' well-oiled machine. At the time, the movie didn't connect with audiences. But in the years after 9/11, Pelham took on new life — a parable of New Yorkers' surly resilience in the face of aggression. With this remake (starring John Travolta as crime ringleader and Denzel Washington as subway dispatcher), director Tony Scott turns a presciently post-9/11 movie into an explicitly post-9/11 movie. Make that post-post-9/11: The chief bad guy only looks like a terrorist when in fact he's an even scarier foe — a commodities trader! But if self-conscious stabs at significance don't sound like as much fun as the original's unpretentious caper thrills, that's because they're not. Scott's redo comes up short in almost every regard against the '74 model — against David Shire's knuckled-brass score, against its gallery of '70s New York character actors, against Peter Stone's serrated script. And if it's somehow unfair to compare the two, why was Pelham even remade? Jim Ridley

The Girlfriend Experience

The hard-core teen queen who took the name Sasha Grey and refers to her porn films as performance art plays a paid escort called Chelsea in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience. For something like $25,000, a "date" with this slim, pretty, perfectly-turned-out 20-year-old can really be like a date. The movie's opening scene has the escort and her less-than-middle-aged john dining at some painfully hip boîte and discussing the movie they just saw (Man on Wire) before they retire to his pad to make out on the couch — with breakfast the next morning on the penthouse terrace. It's October 2008, the stock market is plunging, and like most of Chelsea's clients, he feels obligated to give her investment advice. The Girlfriend Experience is a mosaic of short, largely achronological scenes. Flashbacks are indistinguishable from flash-forwards; the emphasis is on Chelsea's behavior in the here and now. With some clients, Chelsea plays the shrink; with others, she's simply a source of physical comfort. With most, however, she's the ideal girlfriend — a poised and personable ingénue — which is more or less the role that Sasha Grey, reader of Thomas Pynchon, composer of "noise music," and winner of the 2008 AVN Award for Best Oral Sex Scene, has in "life." Grey isn't the first porn actress to go straight, but she may be the first to allegorize her own situation — projecting an on-screen self-confidence that's indistinguishable from pathos. J. Hoberman

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