⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for bloody violence, sexual content and language
In “Byzantium,” Irish writer/director Neil Jordan (“Interview With the Vampire”) returns to the world of contemporary bloodsuckers, with middling results. Dark, seductive Gemma Arterton and fair, melancholy Saoirse Ronan play mother-daughter vamps whose 200-year relationship has developed some stress fractures. In a gray English town by the gloomy sea, the older woman turns a failing hotel into a busy house of ill repute, and the younger develops a romance with a shy waiter. Simultaneously, the women try to evade the modern authorities and an age-old brotherhood pledged to their destruction.
Despite multiple graphic beheadings and literal waterfalls of blood, the film generates a shockingly small amount of horror. Tension and plot momentum are lost as the perspective yo-yos between Napoleonic France and the present. The cast is doggedly sincere, but neither the undead nor the living characters come alive. For all the plasma onscreen, the autumnal “Byzantium” never develops a pulse.
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for language and some violent content
There are a couple of fine scenes in “Shadow Dancer" when Clive Owen's MI5 agent blackmails radical IRA sympathizer Andrea Riseborough into informing on her militant friends and relations. Then there's the rest of the movie, an inert political drama by acclaimed documentarian James Marsh (“Man on Wire,” “Project Nim”). In 1990s Belfast, the Irish resistance movement has become a long-running series of vendettas. Riseborough has mastered the mesmerizing film acting trick of concealing her innermost feelings, keeping us continually intrigued by what it is she's withholding.
Owen, the cast’s biggest star by far, plays a supporting role here. His grave, thoughtful character is easier to read than Riseborough’s, feeling a guilty obligation, and a growing attraction, to the woman whose life he is putting on the line. Where her loyalty lies is the film’s central mystery, and the answer arrives at the end of a very slow-burning fuse. There’s a good cameo from Gillian Anderson as the coolly controlling head of Owen’s spy bureau, keeping him in the dark about the larger implications of their project. You’re primed to expect a surprise and I was pleased to discover that my prediction of the climax was way off the mark. A respectable political/psychological suspenser, but not a wildly entertaining or enjoyable one.
Secret Disco Revolution
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Nudity and drug references
This mock-documentary aims for zany humor but delivers an annoying wink-wink hipster vibe. The film’s premise is that the disco revolution was a calculated scheme to liberate women, African-Americans and gays via subliminal messaging and booty-shaking beats. “Now at last,” proclaims our sonorous narrator, “the political lessons of disco’s secret revolution can be unpacked for the benefit of future generations.” Borrowing the distressed-footage visual conceit of “Grindhouse,” the film creates a suffocating aura of ’70s kitsch.
Writer/director Jamie Kastner mixes archival footage, TV shows and campy dance-floor interludes. He also includes cheesy staged footage of three Mod Squad masterminds in silver lamé pantsuits busily brainwashing the masses. Kastner draws parallels between the Boogie Fever generation and the German Swing Kids who defiantly jitterbugged against the Reich, recruiting commentators to discuss the sociological significance of “Love to Love You, Baby.” Author Alice Echols calls that one a feminist critique of male sexual technique.
Stars including Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Martha Wash and KC from KC and the Sunshine Band react with bafflement to Kastner’s interpretation of their work, but he’s prepared for their denials. “Even decades on, movement alumni can’t seem to break their training of secrecy and cover stories,” the narrator says. The Village People do protest too much, insisting that there was no subtext whatsoever to their prancing choreography and songs praising the YMCA, the Navy and macho, macho men. With the right group of friends and the right amount to drink it could be a rowdy good time. Without intoxicants, it’s a gimmicky joke that drags on too long.
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Barbara Sukowa plays the eponymous lead character in this moving examination of the limits of human understanding when confronted with evil. Arendt, a stubborn political theorist and philosopher, as well as a German Jew, travels to Israel in the early 1960s to report on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for New Yorker magazine. The film’s strength lies in unflinchingly depicting the dissolution of Arendt’s peer group as a result of the articles’ controversial nature and the ongoing ramifications of the Holocaust.