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New Film Reviews 

For February 17 - 23

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
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DATE MOVIE This anemic genre parody from “two of the six writers of Scary Movie” strives for the goofball precision of the brothers Zucker and, long before it reaches the end of its 70-odd minutes, gives you newfound respect for the comic genius of the brothers Wayans (two of the other writers of Scary Movie). The targets here are Hollywood’s bubbleheaded romantic comedies, but director Aaron Setzer (who co-wrote the script with Jason Friedling) doesn’t satirize the genre’s familiar tropes so much as merely re-stage familiar scenes from the likes of Pretty Woman, Meet the Parents and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, while adding a gross-out twist. The “jokes,” such as they are, uniformly come at the expense of gays, the homeless, the physically unattractive and — pardon me while I catch my breath from laughing so hard — Jennifer Lopez’s ass. You know what you’re in for right from the opening sequence, in which a morbidly obese young woman (American Pie’s Alyson Hannigan) performs a rump-shaking dance routine in front of a crowd of repulsed onlookers, one of whom — a construction worker — responds by putting a nail gun to his head. At least he was spared the rest of Date Movie. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


EIGHT BELOW White Fang, Iron Will, Snow Dogs and now Eight Below — somewhere in Burbank, there’s a Disney studio exec with a thing for snow-romping Alaskan huskies. (Hey, it beats Bambi II.) In this upbeat, revisionist version of events that reportedly took place on the 1957 Japanese Antarctic Expedition and were first detailed in the 1984 foreign-film Oscar nominee Nankyoku Monogatari (Antarctica), eight sled dogs are left behind when a blizzard forces the research scientists they serve, along with Jerry the dog handler (Paul Walker), to flee in a helicopter. Sticking together like penguins on parade, the dogs gradually become efficient hunters of daily grub, a quest that culminates in a harrowing scuffle with an enormous leopard seal unwilling to share the carcass of a dead whale (he was there first). Spielberg-producer-turned-director Frank Marshall (Alive, Congo) isn’t exactly a cinematic poet, but he does a fine job delineating each individual dog’s personality, as well as the shifting hierarchy of power within the pack, which is why it’s so exasperating that he and first-time screenwriter Dave Digillo are forever cutting away to dull Jerry and his stateside quest for rescue-mission funds. As Walt himself might have advised: “Stick with the mutts, boys.” (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)


FREEDOMLAND From the first nocturnal zoom into inner-city blacks shooting baskets against a pounding “ghetto” score to the full-blown race riot at story’s end, clichés cinematic and sociological fly thick and fast through Joe Roth’s translation of Richard Price’s weighty 1998 novel about a purported child-abduction case that drives a wedge through two already tense working-class New Jersey suburbs. But it’s not just the grainy lighting, the lumbering cutaways and white-knuckle reaction shots, the carefully balanced good guys of all colors squared off against smoldering black punks and cops too handy with their nightsticks, that give Freedomland the hammy air of a policier parody. Helping things along is a heap of prodigious talent in an orgy of compensatory overacting: Julianne Moore, all but frothing at the mouth as the tightly wound single mom who shows up all bloody at the hospital to complain that a black man carjacked her and stole her little boy; Samuel Jackson, puffing away as the bridge-making cop wised up by his own flaws as a parent; and Edie Falco, staring with gimlet eyes as leader of a mothers’ group that tracks down lost kids. Ordinarily it’s kind of hard to screw up a Richard Price story, but the writer is his own worst enemy here, with a screenplay so filled with bromides and object lessons from God, you can’t tell what he’s trying to say. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)


GO NIGHT WATCH Given the prevailing wisdom that American moviegoers would rather do time than submit to a movie with subtitles, it’s hard to decide whether Fox Searchlight is brave, foolish or a pioneer of globalized aesthetics for snapping up this Russian horror fantasy, a coming sequel, and a third chapter to be developed by Fox together with a Russian television network. Directed with frantic élan by Timur Bekmamvetov (who cut his teeth on music videos and commercials) from a best-selling sci-fi novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, Night Watch — a Sin City for hipster Slavs pitting the age-old forces of Light and Darkness against one another on the streets of a vibrantly menacing early-1990s Moscow — was a runaway local hit that out-grossed The Lord of the Rings and yanked post-Soviet cinema out of its slump. How it will fare here probably depends on how many pimply juniors are willing to fork out for this Dostoyevskian tale, influenced in incongruously equal measure by Eisenstein and Tarantino, of a Muscovite — a vampire, but in a good way — tortured by his long-ago betrayal of a girlfriend and her unborn baby. Night Watch fritters away its first hour in agonizingly self-reflexive visual pyrotechnics so arch and incoherent, it feels like one of those urban TV ads that leave you in the dark about what they’re selling till the last five seconds: I fully expected one of the vampires or virgins who keep popping out of nowhere to flash a MasterCard and scream, “Kreditkardski Citibankski — leev reechly.” In the final act, the movie dons a more human face and commits to an absorbing tale of crime and punishment, albeit pushing the fatigued message that you can’t always tell light from dark these days. Not to draw spurious parallels nor nuffink, but was Comrade Putin spotted at the premiere, and who did he root for? (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

TAMARA It’s one of the many frustrating paradoxes of genre filmmaking that the undoing of so many films is bound together with the very things that make them pleasurable. So it is with Tamara, an entry into the cycle of avenging teen-girl pictures, in which the filmmakers try gamely to put a unique spin on familiar material, but eventually fall back on by-the-numbers tropes. Written by Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination 1 and 2) and directed by Jeremy Haft, the film is about a homely outcast with an interest in witchcraft who, after becoming the victim of a prank gone fatally awry, returns from the dead as a jailbait hottie with some sort of mind-control power. (If I had a nickel . . .) Never achieving the idiosyncratic whimsy of a film like Lucky McKee’s May, exhibiting a surprisingly prudish attitude toward the obligatory T&A and sporting only one super-rad gross-out set piece — an AV nerd broadcasts his self-mutilation via a high school’s closed-circuit TV system — Tamara simply doesn’t cover all the bases in its drive to be both a grubby teen splatter flick and a more high-minded thriller. Despite trying to say something meaningful about female empowerment and sexuality, the looming homosocial anxiety among young men and the duality of human nature, Tamara devolves into a finale consisting of yet another lame chase through the corridors of a hospital, capped off by a blatant attempt to keep the possibility of a sequel open. It’s hard to imagine anyone clamoring for another — but probably nobody expected a sequel to Angel either. (Mann Plant 16) (Mark Olsen)

WINTER PASSING Years of work in the theater has clearly given playwright Adam Rapp a trust in actors; on the surface, his first feature film, Winter Passing, looks like just another generic indie melodrama (gritty cinematography, Matador Records bands on the soundtrack, oddball characters), but it distinguishes itself thanks to assured performances that burn with quiet conviction. Most impressive is Zooey Deschanel as Reese Holden, a downtown actress whose life consists of acting in small, arty theater pieces, tending bar and doing blow — and sleepwalking through all three. Her aimlessness, nicely characterized in early scenes, is due to her relationship with her fractured family — particularly her father, a famously reclusive author (Ed Harris in a Rip Van Winkle wig). Homages to Salinger, Carver and other iconic American authors dot Rapp’s story about Reese returning home, after her mother’s death, with the intent of selling her parents’ love letters to a hungry publisher (Amy Madigan). But these literary touches do little to help the central family drama, which is predictable and plagued by the combination of cuteness and contrivance that often pops up in Rapp’s stage work. Still, Winter Passing showcases Rapp’s clever, conversational dialogue (save for a couple of long monologues that clash with the otherwise naturalistic tone), while Harris, Deschanel, and Will Ferrell — on hand for comic relief as a Christian rocker turned literary bouncer — breathe life into this whimsical, but ultimately conventional, family drama. (Sunset 5; AMC Century City; AMC Broadway; Playhouse 7) (James C. Taylor)

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