Hilary Duff might not strike most people as the first choice to play a bitter, sassy teenager with a self-destructive streak, but this ex-tween queen's attempt to transform her bright-eyed wholesomeness into rebellious snark in the modest teen saga "According to Greta" is a valiant one.
Dumped by her fed-up mother (Melissa Leo) at the Jersey Shore home of Greta's grandparents (Ellen Burstyn and Michael Murphy), this movie's petulant heroine shocks those around her with acerbic musings about committing suicide at 18, until summer romance, family secrets and near-tragedy guide Greta toward an emergent maturity about the consequences of her actions.
Director Nancy Bardawil and writer Michael Gilvary have a few too many after-school special schematics on display, and the recurrent use of animated scrapbook segues and pop songs that telegraph every emotion feels lazy. But their hearts are in the right place with their taming-of-the-brat tale.
They give Duff plenty of room to fail (quippy insults aren't her forte) and succeed (Greta's inevitable softening). Plus, the more-than-capable cast around her -- especially the magnetic Evan Ross as the sweet and soulful ex-juvie line cook she falls for -- keeps the generally predictable proceedings at a manageably spirited level of charm.
-- Robert Abele "According to Greta." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some sexual content and drug references. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
Brothers Glutton in 'Misfortunates'
Based on Dimitri Verhulst's somewhat autobiographical novel, Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen's "The Misfortunates" centers on a quartet of lazy, alcoholic brothers who return to their small-town home to live off their mother, whom we are told, "has a heart bigger than her pension."
In his third film, Groeningen shows himself to be an assured director whose lyricism does not flag even when confronting an avalanche of scatological humor.
Groeningen extends an affection for these siblings beyond what many of us could feel for them. Their antics would surely turn stale were it not for the presence of one of the brothers' 13-year-old son, Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden).
The film unfolds in the present, with the now-33-year-old Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens), a struggling poet, looking back on his adolescence in flashbacks, as he strives to make sense of his life. Clearly, Gunther is brighter than his relatives -- a fragment of one of the adult Gunther's poems suggests he really is talented.
The film, which from the start has an underlying pathos, accrues meaning as it grows increasingly serious in its depictions of Gunther attempting to do what his father and uncles scrupulously avoided: growing up.
-- Kevin Thomas "The Misfortunates." MPAA rating: Unrated. In Flemish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. At the Nuart, West L.A.
'Uncertainty' wanders around
"Uncertainty" begins with a coin flip and ends with a shrug, mixing in muddled existentialism, a murder, wan family drama, action-thriller chase scenes and a heap of indecision into its 105-minute running time. The dithering of its parallel plot lines grows progressively exasperating and were it not for the appealing work of leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins, the movie's artificiality would be crippling.
Gordon-Levitt and Collins play Bobby and Kate, young lovers meeting on the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fourth of July. Dialogue: "Is this the day?" "I don't know. Maybe." "I'm afraid of deciding." Then there's the coin flip and the kids run off in opposite directions, stepping into two distinct realities. Writers-directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee ("The Deep End") bring a visual flair to both worlds, but offer little insight into the notions of choice and chance.
The film toggles between the two parallel realities. In one, the couple go to Brooklyn for a dull Fourth of July party with Kate's Argentine family. In the other, they run through the streets of Chinatown, embroiled in a blackmailing scheme gone wrong. The two worlds never connect in any meaningful way and, as it becomes clear the movie isn't going anywhere, the phoniness of its construct becomes all too apparent.
-- Glenn Whipp "Uncertainty" MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Regency Fairfax Cinemas, Los Angeles; Regency South Coast Village 3, Santa Ana.
Norwegian black metal is explored
There's a richer film to be wrested from the self-consciously arty and cautious "Until the Light Takes Us," a documentary by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell about the music and culture of Norwegian black metal.
But that's not to say the movie isn't occasionally a fascinating portrait of dark-souled outsiders with often criminal tendencies.
The movement has spawned members and adherents who have murdered, committed suicide and/or burned churches, including one 900-year-old landmark.
But listening to imprisoned authorial voice Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes bemoan the mischaracterization of his beliefs as Satanist (they're anti-Christian pagans) while the filmmakers tiptoe around the fact that he's a racist sociopath is mildly disconcerting.
Elsewhere, stringy-haired, lanky Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, of the band Darkthrone, cuts an interesting figure as a committed rebel mope obviously torn between his faithfulness to an eerie sonic/visual ethos, and his fear that black metal will become a fashionable art trend.
But with little musical context to explain Nagell's brittlely funny comment that he'd never want to tread in the "garish footsteps" of "commercial death metal" -- death metal and black metal are different how? -- we're left mostly with the filmmakers' ultimately tiring penchant for visual and aural atmospherics, and a grim timeline of a genre given in occasionally bloody, fiery drips.
-- Robert Abele "Until the Light Takes Us." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
'Yesterday' looks noir, lacks depth
"Yesterday Was a Lie" is too intriguing a title to waste on such an arty, murky neo noir. Shot in high-contrast black and white, it features a pair of look-alike actresses with long blond hair and unlikely masculine first names.
The film seems like an atmospheric shampoo commercial in which glamorous models pose in gritty back alleys with fog machines going full force.
Kipleigh Brown stars as Hoyle, a private eye who looks ridiculous with a man's hat perched on her long tresses. She's pursuing a "reclusive genius" who has in his possession a notebook that apparently holds the secrets of the universe or some such thing. Chase Masterson, the film's other blond, plays a cocktail lounge singer-psychic who tries to help Hoyle in her pursuit. There's lots of talk about the "interconnected of consciousness" and "the totality of consciousness" and how those who can plug into it can control reality.
Writer-director James Kerwin might know what he's doing and what he means, but his film is hard to connect with and is way too vague to inspire the urge to try to do so. Brown and Masterson leave us longing for the personality and allure of such classic noir heroines as Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth Scott.
-- Kevin Thomas "Yesterday Was a Lie." MPAA rating: PG for language, some violent content and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.