Thursday, April 23, 2009

'La Dolce Vita' in LA; fisticuffs in Brooklyn

Aside from the fact that both involve images on celluloid, "The Informers" and "Fighting" have little in common. I lump them together because both happen to occupy the fringes of pop-cultural consciousness on a Friday in late April. The prognosis: "Fighting" may draw a bit of crowd; I look for "The Informers" to hit the canvas fast.

Not to waste words, "The Informers'' -- an adaptation of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis -- is pure junk, a glossy bit of cinematic refuse that tries to pass off its cynicism as wisdom. Director Gregor Jordan tells the story of a cross section of Los Angeles types who are connected through their sexual activities, which ultimately are threatened by the dawning of the age of AIDS. Set in the prosperous but morally empty '80s, the movie indulges in a twisted kind of nostalgia, insisting that a life devoted to wanton physical pleasure is ultimately meaningless. To which I say, "You think?" The heart of this drama revolves around a threesome: Graham (Jon Foster) sleeps with his girlfriend (Amber Heard), who's also sleeping with his best friend (Austin Nichols). Not to worry, the three of them sometimes climb into the same bed. Around the fringes of this core of young actors are a variety of grown-up actors, all of whom have some 'splainin to do: Billy Bob Thornton portrays a movie mogul; Kim Basinger plays his distressed wife; and Mickey Rourke appears as a thug who kidnaps boys and sells them into sex slavery. In a sidebar story, another young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) travels with his father (Chris Isaak) to Hawaii so that Pucci's character can display his anger in a relaxed setting. Did I mention the rock star played by Mel Radio, a character so stupefied by drugs, he looks as if he's been slammed in the head with a two-by-four? Brad Renfro, gone from an overdose in real life, also appears in a small role. Enough. "The Informers" has only one other point of interest: A nearly unrecognizable Winona Ryder appears as a TV newscaster who's having an affair with Billy Bob's character. "The Informers" doesn't rise to the level of good exploitation or even medium-grade soap opera. The late and often great James Agee wrote the ultimate line that should be cited in all future reference to this one: "The picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry 'Unclean. Unclean.'"


It would be unfair to describe the new movie "Fighting" as junk, but it's not exactly great entertainment, either. Director Dito Montiel divided critics with his 2006 movie "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." That movie had its problems, but it had no shortage of heart and autobiographical passion as Montiel recalled his youth in Queens, N.Y. This one's little more than a medium-grade formula job with a disarmingly off-kilter performance from Terrence Howard as a street hustler who arranges bare-knuckle fights. Howard's Harvey Boarden goes against the hustler grain, talking slowly and conducting himself with a sense of quiet courtesy. The story: Harvey thinks he's found a new route toward money when he meets Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum). He begins to arrange fights for Shawn, who quickly emerges as the new tough guy in the world of underground fighting. Gritty Brooklyn t-a-w-k can't really make the movie believable -- nor can a budding romance between Channing (who seems to be channeling Sylvester Stallone) and a waitress (Zulay Henao). The fights contain a few thudding high points, but are otherwise undistinguished. Credit Montiel with one inspired bit of casting. He hired Altagracia Guzman, the human firecracker who played a grandmother in "Raising Victor Vargas." As Henao's acerbic, no-nonsense grandmother, Guzman instantly brings the movie to life in a way that no amount of fisticuffs can. It's almost enough to make Montiel's fight club worth joining.

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