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You know very well, if you have been paying attention, what you are going to get from the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc. You are going to get quality control as rigid and reliable as in any Pixar cartoon, except a very different quality. You are going to get gritty naturalism in a Lower Depths setting, modern-day cinematic equivalent of Zola; and you are going to get acting so faultless in its verisimilitude that you would almost swear, even if you recognized Jérémie Renier from separate roles in each of the brothers’ five films circulated in the States, that the fictional characters were factual; and you are going to get an eye-level ambulating camera that follows rather than anticipates the action, providing a “visual correlative” (as some film scholars used to say, maybe still do) of a narrative method that sets up nothing ahead of time and requires you instead to suss out the situation on the fly. As the camera follows, we also follow. Finally, if you can be said to receive a negative, you are going to get scrupulous avoidances: no mood lighting or coloring, no incidental music for emotional cues, and, no matter how intrinsically suspenseful the situation, no melodramatic milking of that situation, no heightening and hyping, no contributing and colluding.

In Lorna’s Silence, at the Ken Cinema for the next week, you get all of that, and yet perhaps a little less. Or perhaps we’ve simply gotten it too many times now, so that, by the law of diminishing returns, the same only seems less. The persistent Renier, last time out the insensible baby-seller of L’Enfant, is here a heroin addict, disturbingly scrawny and mangy, trying his best to kick the habit and in the process putting on a spectacle of awful animal neediness and helplessness. His official helpmate, his legal wife (Arta Dobroshi, a new face if not technically a Dardenne discovery), appears less than fully supportive of the effort, whether, we are compelled to wonder, out of tough love or sheer tiredness. Neither one, as it develops. The young woman, generally dressed in fur-hooded jacket and red jeans, often shot in harried profile, half, quarter, or three-quarters, is a pixie-haired, grim-faced Albanian immigrant — truthfully, although I knew she was an immigrant, I didn’t know she was Albanian till almost the end — who has married the junkie, by financial arrangement, solely for Belgian citizenship. She meanwhile maintains an Albanian boyfriend with whom she hopes to open a snack bar. (Her tour of an available rental space offers a rare and fleeting chance at vivacity.) But she also maintains some no-goodnik business associates who, in return for her own citizenship, have lined up an emigrating Russian mobster for her to marry, just as soon as her current husband has accidentally-on-purpose OD’d. Deviating from the plan, she begins to ask why and how she couldn’t achieve the same end with a mere divorce.

The plot, as noir as they come, is perhaps a tad more complex than the Dardennes are accustomed to or comfortable with. (That step-behind camera has perhaps too much ground to close.) And, in conjunction with the brothers’ accustomed and comfortable social stratum of constant scramble and barely-scraping-by, it could all have been intolerably bleak and arid if not for the weedy little sprouts of morality and conscience that so readily flourish under the brothers’ green thumb. These sprouts, similarly, are perhaps a tad more florid than normal, even while their depiction isn’t.

Adam, written and directed by Max Mayer, is an Asperger’s romance (and high time, too, after Tourette’s, Alzheimer’s, etc., have had a whirl at romance) about a socially handicapped astronomy buff and his pretty upstairs new neighbor, an aspiring children’s writer, in a New York apartment house. Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, the afflicted and the normal respectively, play their parts with tremendous detail and concentration, and even though Dancy’s details are the more ostentatious (the blindman’s lack of eye contact, the panic attacks, the tantrums, the nonstop spiels), Byrne more than holds her own through ordinary human warmth and engagement. It’s a standoff as well in suppression of native accents, English and Australian, his and hers. The romantic element is not too gooey, notwithstanding the do-it-yourself home planetarium or the raccoon communion in Central Park, and is helpfully counterbalanced by some prosaic family business (Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving, as Byrne’s concerned parents). Beautiful atmospheric drifty snowfall at, or just prior to, the climax.

Bandslam, carrying on in the line of High School Musical 3: Senior Year and Hannah Montana: The Movie, is a squeaky-clean teen musical culminating in a battle of the high-school rock bands. The music competition proves to be a bit less intense and thorny than the romantic competition, but nothing, either way, that can’t be smoothed out amicably by the final curtain. In the hands of director Todd Graff and in the faces and bodies chiefly of Gaelan Connell, Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Ryan Donowho, Elvy Yost (not so much, as virtually the only visible parent, Lisa Kudrow), the presentation has pep and pluck and all the candor of yearbook portraits, a pleasant and impenetrable illusion.

A Perfect Getaway is a passable time-whiler about a Hawaiian honeymoon spoiled by a pair of psycho killers (Hawaii itself spoiled by unglorious muddy color). There’s a trick to it, inasmuch as any thriller these days has to have a trick to it if it’s not to be seen as hopelessly elementary and complacent. True to form, the trick entails, in addition to a fair amount of ingenuity, an unfair amount of cheating, as well as a suspension of the suspense, at the moment of revelation after a nice long steady buildup, when the trick is tediously elucidated in flashback. Steve Zahn, Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant, and the curvaceous Kiele Sanchez gamely go through their paces, and writer and director David Twohy rigorously puts them through them.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, like Transformers, has put the merchandising first, succeeding as opposed to preceding a line of toys. (Trademark Hasbro.) The movie, opening deflatingly in 17th-century France before advancing to a science-fictional “not too distant future,” is a live-action cartoon from the maker of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, Stephen Sommers, or at any rate is live-action as far as its actors, Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Eccleston, et al., though the actual action is predominantly computer-generated cartoon, dead and deadening on arrival. It comes to a bitter end when a sequel is pledged: “You know, Duke, this has only just begun.” Gulp.

The idle thought of why it has been so long since I’ve seen a film by Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Gray, Oscar and Lucinda, going back in time) sent me to IMDb.com, where was revealed to me the existence of a 2007 period piece called Death Defying Acts, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones as a phony Scottish psychic and Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini, evidently left out in the cold in the wake of The Illusionist and The Prestige the year before. This sent me in turn to the video store, a futile quest at Kensington Video but a fruitful one at Blockbuster, promoting it as a “Blockbuster Exclusive.” Though it yields nothing to its two immediate predecessors in screen magic, I make no claims for the film beyond a firm hand on the tiller, a sumptuous production, and a charming performance by Saoirse Ronan, the young girl from Atonement. Gillian Armstrong getting the bum’s rush is in any event a little troubling, a little more so even than the conspiratorial notion of Blockbuster exclusivity.

A week from Friday the San Diego Latino Film Festival rouses itself from its slumber to resume its monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series at the UltraStar Mission Valley 7, beginning with the Mexican musical comedy, Casi Divas, and continuing for three more months, three more movies.

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coolinout1 Aug. 14, 2009 @ 2:28 p.m.

"Death Defying Acts" was released in theaters last year on July 11th, 2008 in only TWO theaters. The Weinstein Co held onto it for a few years and then dumped it (like most of their forgotten movies) probably due to a contract with either the director or Catherine Zeta-Jones to have it premiere in theaters.

I didn't realize it was directed by Gillian Armstrong, but I guess I'll check it out since you reminded me of this film.

Thanks! You should add this kinda piece to your column where you showcase a forgotten/obscure film.


Josh Board Aug. 21, 2009 @ 1:35 a.m.

I agree with most of what was written about Lorna's Silence, but then I saw it got two stars. This movie, with the tough ratings Duncan usually gives, deserves a black dot, for starting off strong with an interesting story, to going on too long and leaving us wondering about a few plot points. It's a movie that, at the end of the day, you should avoid wasting money on.


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