In this edition of The Film Round-Up: Um, let's just say this wasn't the best month to be a movie-watcher. I'll let my reviews do the talking.
Harlem Aria (Dir: William Jennings). Starring: Gabriel Casseus, Damon Wayans, Christian Camargo, Malik Yoba, Paul Sorvino. Anton (Casseus) is a simple-minded 28-year-old who dreams of singing arias instead of living in Harlem with his smothering aunt. Desperate to fulfill his dream, Anton leaves home and hits the streets, where he meets a black homeless hustler (Wayans) and a white, self-loathing street pianist (Camargo, The Hurt Locker). The three form an uneasy alliance as Anton's beautiful voice inspires camaraderie and duplicity. Preposterous plot never gets a chance for redemption because of Jennings' rudderless script. One minute it's a sunny inspirational tale. The next it's a gritty street drama with (absurd) racial complications. Go to the bathroom, and suddenly it's a con-man comedy. Whether the shifts are an attempt to rouse emotions or to distract us from the thin, pandering storyline, nothing works. You still have to endure an excruciating comedic performance from Wayans (who executive produced), a soundtrack that's an unholy mixture of bland hip-hop and opera, and an ending that will leave you begging for social services to intercede on Anton's behalf. Harlem Aria desperately tries to be heartfelt and hip and street tough, but the harder Jennings tries, the deeper he sinks. The movie is an anchor searching endlessly for a bottom. (Note: According to IMDB.com, the movie was originally released in 1999.) [R] *
Barefoot to Timbuktu: Ernst Aebi—Come Hell or High Water. (Dir: Martina Egi). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Swiss-American Aebi spent years initiating dramatic improvements in Araouane, a destitute and barren settlement in the middle of the Sahara. Egi's documentary focuses on Aebi's extraordinary work there—which included founding a school, planting a garden, and establishing a water system—and his return to Araouane after a 20-year hiatus. The movie also touches on other aspects of Aebi's never-boring life, such as his work as an acclaimed artist and his success in New York real estate. Therein lies the problem. By making Araouane a significant part of the film, and not an accent to Aebi's vivid, slowly concluding life, Egi's misplaced focus is almost comical. Why does a biographical detail get this much attention when there's so much more about Aebi remains unexamined? Barefoot to Timbuktu should have been a long look at the busy and quiet moments in the life of a fertile creative mind. Instead, we just get a glance. [NR] **
The Wolfman (Dir: Joe Johnston). Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin. After years in America, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns home to 1890s England under unfortunate circumstances—his brother has gone missing, and is later found mauled to death. In searching for clues, Talbot is bitten by a mysterious beast. Some swift stitching from the gypsies can't help Lawrence, who soon morphs into a vicious lycanthrope at every full moon. But he does learn some hard truths about his family, so that's good. Remake of the 1941classic is very slick and very gory, but Johnston's straight-ahead directorial style and lack of visual flair makes for an overall blah experience. The only things that keep the movie popping are Hopkins, who as Talbot's dad is delightfully unhinged, and Weaving (The Matrix) as the no-nonsense Scotland Yard detective investigating the grisly murders. Blunt is wasted as the (emotionally) tortured love interest. Del Toro, when he's not covered in Rick Baker's awesome make-up, acts with a surprising lack of urgency. [R] **
The Shock Doctrine (Dirs: Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom). According to journalist Naomi Klein, the shock doctrine refers to laws and economic principles put into place when there's a significant tear in the social fabric (i.e., wars, natural disasters). At the forefront of her theory is late, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who favored privatization over government regulation. Friedman and his protégés employed their theories in Chile, Argentina, Britain, and Russia during times of turmoil with disastrous results. The doctrine ran rampant, says Klein, most recently when the U.S. set up shop in Iraq and Afghanistan and proceeded to have outside contractors handle everything from security to currency. Klein's theory and her proof are intriguing, but the facts and theories from her 720 page-long book are delivered at a breakneck pace, making it a challenge to absorb the information and make connections. Whitecross and Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) include interviews in an attempt to generate a human touch. Only it doesn't work because there are only a handful of subjects and their scant contributions don’t complement what we're told. The Shock Doctrine is an ambitious, fearless undertaking that the directors never quite nail. Call it an interesting failure. [NR] **