New on DVD: Oceans, Agora, Please Give, Holy Rollers, Predators
(Capsule reviews by Michelle Orange, Eric Hynes, J. Hoberman, Andrew Schenker and Nick Pinkerton)
Oceans An almost miraculously photographed showcase of some of the seven seas' least seen and most incredible specimens, Disney's Oceans (a follow-up to last year's Earth) lets its subjects speak for themselves. Timed to coincide with Earth Day, the film's preservationist agenda is mostly implicit in its wonder at these strangest of nature's people: The blanket octopus, mantis shrimp, and a host of protoplasmic jellyfish and barge-like whales turn their crazy-colored eyes and corrugated bellies to the camera and the message is received.
The script is not quite as eloquent: Not even Pierce Brosnan's hushed intonation can redeem space-filling non sequiturs like, "Merely knowing these creatures exist isn't enough to tell the stories of their lives." Taking us from the reefs of Australia to South Africa's shark-infested coves and Alaska's orca feeding grounds, Oceans is a jaw-dropper as a visual travelogue--even its anthropomorphic indulgences (an ocean floor is turned into a rough neighborhood, complete with trespassers and shy weirdos) are winning. Though there is a brief foray into pollution and destructive fishing, Oceans ends with hope: Humans can't be all bad--after all, we made high-definition cameras and learned to breathe underwater not to kill but to get closer to our fellow creatures. (M.O.)
84 minutes Rated G
Agora Not lacking for conviction or cojones, Alejandro Amenábar's Agora is a big, broad, stridently atheistic sword-and-sandals entertainment that recounts a tragic turning point in world history. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a brilliant astronomer in fourth-century Alexandria whose life and work is increasingly threatened by a bloody societal shift toward reactionary, virulent Christianity. To its credit, the film calls out Christianity's ignominious imperialism and locates a valid historical analogue to the religious extremism of today. Yet good intentions shan't save Amenábar from his own ham-fisted methods. It's one thing to depict crusaders hurling a cynic onto hot coals, ritually slaughtering pagans, stoning and massacring Jews, and enforcing total faith--but need they wear uniformly dark, ragged cloaks and snarl through unkempt faces, while pagans dress brightly, bathe frequently, and no doubt smell really good? Servant-boy-cum-wispy-indie-rocker-of-antiquity Max Minghella even comes to learn that slavery is far better than belief. Amenábar's camera assumes extreme low and high angles, setting heroes against starry skies before freely zooming back to assume a celestial POV (praise be to Google Maps). What's missing is a satisfying, plausible middle ground where heady ideas and metaphors coalesce into compelling drama. Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) has the ambition but not yet the skill of a Kubrick or Spielberg to make visual flourishes function emotionally. The music swells, characters glower and suffer in slow-mo, and Amenábar champions the life of the intellect by condescending to ours.(E.H.)
126 minutes Not rated
Please Give Nicole Holofcener's fourth feature is, for the most part, witty and engrossing. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are bourgeois grave-robbers, stocking their West Village "vintage furniture" store with mid-20th-century pieces bought from the distracted children of the recently dead. Elaborating on their ghoulish realpolitik, the couple has purchased the apartment next door and is only waiting for its 91-year-old inhabitant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to expire so that they might expand their domain. Kate and Alex have a chubby, zit-plagued adolescent daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele); Andra is looked after by her two grown grandchildren, dutiful Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and selfish Mary (Amanda Peet). Briefly brought together to celebrate Andra's birthday, the two families merge with and mirror each other in unexpected ways. Please Give is neither as unsentimental as it sounds nor as sentimental as it might have been. The movie is filled with banter, typically concerned with three subjects (money, old age, life in New York). Generally, Holofcener is a stronger writer than director, with a greater gift for riffs than characterization. Her strongest comic creation is Andra, played by Guilbert as an irascible, ignorant, self-assured sourpuss. Keener has the toughest part: Kate is a canny business operator paradoxically cursed with a bleeding heart. Too sensitive for the volunteer social work she imagines she should perform, there's nothing dreamy about Kate's yearning or charming in her weakness. Her liberal guilt is about as convincing as Holofcener's--which may be an example of the movie's perverse honesty. (J.H.)
90 minutes Rated R
Holy Rollers Inspired by a drug ring that used Hasidic Jews to transport over one million pills of Ecstasy to the United States in a six-month period between 1998 and '99, Kevin Asch's Holy Rollers stars Jesse Eisenberg as a good old Brooklyn boy turned mid-level dope importer. Driven by the sense of economic inferiority and sexual uncertainty that the film suggests lies latent at the heart of the Hasidic experience, Eisenberg's Sam Gold hooks up with a neighborhood hot shot who promises him the chance to earn extra gelt by transporting "medicine" back from Amsterdam. Both intoxicated and repelled by the undercurrent of the forbidden, Sam reluctantly dedicates himself to his new pursuit; it's not long before he's cutting off his payos and striking deals with the suppliers on his own. Nicely detailed in its early scenes of Hasidic life (if somewhat less so in its depiction of the drug operation) and powered by Eisenberg's finely graded performance, Holy Rollers is too beholden to its predictable pattern of rise, fall, and partial redemption. Failing to generate either excitement as a crime story or credibility as a morality play, the film ultimately confirms the traditional values that helped push its confused lead to the brink of damnation in the first place. (A.S.)
89 minutes Rated R
Predators This Robert Rodriguez-produced sequel goes back into the bush to follow 1987's Predator--a sci-fi horror that put the multi-megaton American stud-soldiers of Reagan-era action in the infra-red, stalking POV of a higher-tech galactic Superpower. This time, U.S. black ops turned soldier-of-fortune Royce (Adrien Brody, knotty with new muscle) literally plummets into uncharted jungle terrain. Mind-wiped and stranded, he finds a likewise-disoriented gaggle of international badmen yanked from Mexican cartels, the Chechnyan front, Sierra Leonean death squadrons, and death row, rounded out by a femme sniper (Alice Braga) and an unarmed comic-relief Topher Grace. Middle-range genre man Nimród Antal (Control, Armored) carries the burden of franchise-expectation without undue solemnity, conducting his Dirty Octet through the slow-dawning revelation that they're on a game preserve, hand-picked for Predator hunters--then cranking up the grinder. The loyalties and tensions in this hell-is-other-mercenaries premise might have been more deviously rigged. There could be more open pleasure in the exploitation-movie concept (only Walton Goggins's con really basks in villainy). Louis Ozawa Changchien's silent Yakuza suddenly stopping for a samurai showdown makes no sense unless motivated by inscrutable Asian motives. But doing The Most Dangerous Game is, for action directors, what covering "Satisfaction" is to bar bands; if you hit most of the notes, it'll do. (N.P.)
107 minutes Rated R
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