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Review: Or My Treasure

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An Israeli drama that won the Camera d’Or (Best First Film) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Keren Yedaya’s harrowing Or (My Treasure) includes a number of scenes depicting characters in the shower or the bathtub — which is highly appropriate, since at movie’s end you’ll feel an urgent need to scrub its sordidly deterministic worldview from your skin. The embodiment of Yedaya’s righteous feminist anger is Or (Dana Ivgi), an industrious, headstrong Tel Aviv teenager grappling with the usual social and hormonal dilemmas. Or spends her days much like any other young girl: studying, working as a part-time dishwasher at a local eatery, hanging with her boyfriend, and desperately trying to prevent her slatternly mom, Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), from sneaking out to turn tricks. Anti-hooker strategies range from securing Ruthie a job as a housekeeper (which is depicted as arguably more degrading than prostitution) to simply locking her inside their dingy apartment all day, as if Or were the mother and Ruthie were grounded. But in Yedaya’s Israel, there is no such thing as a lower-class woman who is not, in one sense or another, for sale.
    For a first-time director, Yedaya shows tremendous promise, especially when she tones down the rhetoric and is content simply to observe mother and daughter’s alternately tender and turbulent pas de deux. Elkabetz, who nearly set the screen on fire in Dover Kovashvili’s terrific Late Marriage a few years ago, inhabits Ruthie’s borderline dementia without an ounce of flamboyance or self-consciousness, and she’s matched nuance for nuance by Igvy; the film’s finest moments unfold in near-silence, as the two recline together in front of the TV set or assist each other in the bath. (Bonus for voyeurs: Israeli movies tend to be gratifyingly frank about everyday nudity.) But the suggestion that Ruthie is somehow addicted to whoring rings false, despite Elkabetz’s best efforts, and the film concludes on a queasily ironic yet predictably bleak note that screams Thesis Statement. However talented, some filmmakers really ought to be stripped of their good intentions. — Mike D’Angelo 

Review: Cinderella Man
Ron Howard’s latest might as well be called A Beautiful Mind II. It’s got the same A-B-A plot arc for the main character — brilliance/struggles with adversity/renewed brilliance — the same wet-eyed-but-loyal wife, and the same actor, Russell Crowe, putting forth another of his eerily visceral performances. Cinderella Man is pure formula, but it’s Howard’s tasty, patented brand: slickly uplifting, slickly harrowing, and somehow, slickly moving in the end.
    Crowe has trimmed his bruiser looks into lean and wolfish shape to play James J. Braddock, a real-life boxer whose once-promising career was nearly derailed by injury and the horrors of the Depression. Howard goes into full-bore Dickensian mode to depict the financial hardship of the time, earning unholy guffaws from the audience when Braddock — weaving, about to hit the mat — remembers what he is fighting for: his trio of moppets, hovering giant-eyed and sad, over luncheon meats and watered-down milk.
    Braddock becomes a homo-sapiens Seabiscuit — bringing hope to downtrodden Americans and giving their shadowy fight against poverty physical form in his bout against heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Bierko puts on a weirdly fascinating turn as capitalism made manifest — he sports a pimp-daddy fur coat and an entourage of fawning ladies, lending him the air of a dandified Sasquatch against Braddock’s straight-edge sensuality.
    But Howard seems ultimately uninterested in one of the central puzzlements of boxing — why are its devotees drawn to the sport’s brutal beauty? But on his way to giving us his trademark Something to Believe In, Howard does give us one half-unsatisfactory, half-inspiring answer: love. — Noy Thrupkaew
Review: Lords of Dogtown
Leading men worried about career meltdown are hereby advised to take supporting parts as zonked-out druggies. Way back in 1993, Brad Pitt, after disastrous turns in Kalifornia and Cool World, appeared (hilariously) as a pothead in True Romance, instantly buying himself much-needed critical goodwill. And who can forget Mickey Rourke in 2003’s Spun, or Dennis Hopper in [Insert Title of Film Here]? Now, onetime flavor-of-the-month Heath Ledger joins their ranks with his brilliant turn in The Lords of Dogtown, as the dim but craven surf-shop proprietor who realizes the potential of the teens hovering around his Venice store, thereby launching the skateboard craze of the 1970s.
    Of course, the film’s actual leads are the kids themselves — the real-life slackers depicted in the 2001 doc Dogtown and Z-Boys (directed by this film’s screenwriter, real-life skate hero Stacy Peralta). The became star athletes and fashion icons, paving the way for everything from the X Games to absurdly overpriced bandanas in the process. A cross between A Star is Born and American Graffiti, Lords attempts portrait-of-an-era comprehensiveness and perils-of-fame high-mindedness, and only sort of succeeds. Director Catherine Hardwicke’s ease with the fleeting imagery of youthful abandon, as evidenced in her debut Thirteen, serves her well. That is, as long as no one speaks. There’s not much anyone can do with gems like, “He said, ‘You look hungry, bro?’ Skip Engblom doesn’t call anybody ‘bro’!” In the end, it all comes down to Heath: Equal parts Fagin and Jeff Spicoli, his magnificently charming rake is the glue holding this ramshackle enterprise together. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Sequins
This film about a pregnant seamstress dedicates a remarkable amount of script to the preparing and ingesting of bizarre cuisine — in one scene, a woman skins a writhing eel as if she were stripping wallpaper; in another, someone stirs chunks of bread into a bowl of milk. But while everyone is packing their bellies, Claire (Lola Neymark) is trying to hide her own from a gossipy, unforgiving town. Several months pregnant, she eventually goes to work for a clothing designer named Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride) who recently lost her son in a motorcycle accident. Through sewing and long, intense stares, they allegedly bond along lines of mutual non-judgment.
    For a film that seems to be concerned with how we replace our lost acquaintances with viable substitutes, there’s a notable lack of gravitational pull between Claire and Mme. Melikian — or between anything in the film at all, for that matter. Everyone seems to float around in their own introversion and inner torment. The two colleagues spend much time hesitantly approaching one another, not sure where the work relationship ends and the emotional one begins, but this constant mode of conflicted attraction just ends up feeling like an employee and employer on the verge of an awkward affair. This is a film made for film students who need the pauses to leave the theater for unfiltered cigarette breaks, or perhaps just for those who find dialogue-free dressmaking in rural France electrifying in and of itself. — Will Doig
Review: High Tension
In some alternate universe, the idea of a gory, over-the-top homage to ’70s slasher flicks might have seemed like a good idea. For the sake of argument, let’s call that alternate universe “France,” from which High Tension (Haute Tension) hails, because God knows the last thing anyone here needs is another of these things. Of course, one can’t blame director Alexandre Aja for his film’s poor timing: Two years ago, when it actually hit screens in Europe, the world wasn’t suffering such a glut.
    One can blame Aja, however, for other things. In his desire to strip away all narrative contrivances to deliver a pure genre exercise, he and co-writer Gregory Levasseur have done away with what made the genre fun in the first place: scariness. Their film is a terse, blood-drenched cat-and-mouse game between a college student and the burly psychopath who has hacked up her friend Alex’s family. At stake: Alex herself, stashed away in the killer’s grubby death truck. (Why can’t axe-wielding maniacs ever drive sensible sedans?) Is it tense? Sort of — if you can find a reason to care.
    The French imprimatur may lend High Tension a certain highbrow cachet that, say, Boogeyman lacked. But with a story picked clean of any character development or humor, there’s little to keep us watching, except the promise of more guts slathered across the screen, and the obligatory last minute twist. If that’s your bag, by all means check it out. That is, if you’re already done with House of Wax, The Amityville Horror, and the other “homages” of this season. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD #35: Steve McQueen
There are only a few male sex symbols that fit the classic bill “men want to be him, women want to do him.” And few fill this role better than the sun-tanned man’s-man Steve McQueen. Cuddled up with your date, you can either imagine yourself sauntering along with his understated swagger or tousling that ’70s shag haircut with your fingernails.
   The trouble is, McQueen looks so good in old photos and stills, it’s easy to forget how many of his movies actually stank — and that even some of his best (say, Bullitt) are horribly dated in all the wrong ways (from woman-slapping to once-incredible car chases that now seem overlong and slow). Most critics disagree — so you and someone special can argue over it all, while secretly lusting after or admiring him. The new Essential Steve McQueen Collection adds Bullitt, The Getaway, Tom Horn, The Cincinnati Kid and Never So Few. Another box set collects his breakthrough TV show Dead or Alive. And MGM’s Steve McQueen Collection tosses in The Great Escape, Junior Bonner, Thomas Crowne Affair and The Magnificent Seven.
    McQueen makes the most of his material in almost every case. That’s a good thing, because most of the material is second-rate. Still, he looks crazy-debonair in The Thomas Crowne Affair. And I could watch that quintessential western The Magnificent Seven over and over, largely because of young McQueen’s on-screen feud with Yul Brynner. As Vin (is this where Mr. Diesel got that absurd name?), McQueen picked up nervous tics just to upstage the older actor, and it works. In fact, maybe it was that deadly combination of ambition and sly disdain — for co-stars, directors, scripts, film, the whole dirty-rotten world — that made McQueen so damn irresistible, no matter how bad the material. — Logan Hill

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