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Film Reviews: The Last Winter, The Jane Austen Book Club 

Also Resident Evil: Exintction, Over the GW, Sea of Dreams, Sydney White and more

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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GO ANTONIA Set on the outskirts of São Paulo, this engaging, female-centric melodrama concerns four streetwise Afro-Brazilian women, backup singers for a male hip-hop group, who dream of making it on their own. With talent to spare, their biggest obstacles prove to be poverty and violence — twin perils that threaten to offset the energy and vitality that equally distinguish Brazilian culture. The music, rhythms and vibrant colors of the city are beautifully woven into cinematographer Jacob Sarmento Solitrenick’s unobtrusive hand-held camerawork, while director/co-writer Tata Amaral reveals a deft hand with actors. The largely nonprofessional cast is headed by Brazilian rap star Negra Li and pop singer Leilah Moreno, so authentic that they seem to be acting out their own life stories — and very well may be. (Music Hall) (Jean Oppenheimer)


THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD See film feature.


DRAGON WARS This one’s for connoisseurs of the “totally preposterous crap” school of fantasy cinema. You know who you are: You have all the Warlock sequels on laserdisc, the complete Leprechaun series on DVD, and go see Uwe Boll movies on opening weekend. In Dragon Wars, you’ll totally dig the semicompetent creature effects and homage to The Phantom Menace, of all things; and you’ll love writer-director Shim Hyung-Rae’s insanely convoluted plot about how every 500 years, a girl is born who, at the age of 20, will grow a kind of giant glass energy ball inside of her, which must then be cut out — killing the girl — and offered as a sacrifice to either the “good” Imoogi or the evil Buraka, two giant serpents who will transform into dragons if they eat said magic ball. To explain all this, we have Robert Forster as the reincarnation of an ancient Korean warlord, and some truly fashion- and acting-impaired leads in Amanda Brooks and Jason Behr. The latter plays a reporter who rather hilariously leaves his black friend behind to get killed in almost every perilous situation. Funnier when it tries to be serious than when it goes for the gag, Dragon Wars is a definite wait-for-cable-and-invite-drunken-buddies-over flick. If that’s your thing. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)


GOOD LUCK CHUCK No matter how hard Hollywood tries, Dane Cook is never going to be adorable. Though he’s known for his mildly edgy standup, someone in authority has decided Cook would be well-suited for fluffy romantic comedies, but like last fall’s Employee of the Month, Good Luck Chuck is so undistinguished that it feels like an extended screen test. Cook plays Charlie, a womanizing dentist who discovers that his exes always find their perfect mate right after dating him. He hopes to break that cycle with Cam (Jessica Alba), a klutzy nerd who works with penguins and unfailingly finds everything Charlie does delightful. Despite the R rating that allows for more nudity and swearing than your typical date flick, the directorial debut of longtime editor Mark Helfrich is the sort of offensively safe rom-com where the “colorful” supporting characters talk about boobies and doobies but the angelic central couple are ultimately just two goofy mush-heads looking for real love. It’s total malarkey, of course, and isn’t helped by Cook’s bizarre inability to act heartbroken or Alba’s ill-advised confidence in her gift for slapstick. Still, compared to his complete discomfort at playing someone other than himself, at least her bland hotness seems genuine. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)


INTO THE WILD See film review. Also interview with writer/director Sean Penn and actress Catherine Keener.


THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB If you can’t get enough of the Mutually Supportive Sisterhood narrative, there’s every chance you’ll go for this perfectly pleasant, perfectly undistinguished adaptation of a market-driven novel about six Sacramento lovelies trying to mend their stalled or broken lives while massaging each other’s feet. Like most MSS stories these drearily formulaic days, this one comes accessorized with life lessons from Jane Austen, whose novels offer pregnant parallels to the dilemmas of these neurotic but nice book clubbers, plus one pretty male nerd in the inoffensive form of Hugh Dancy. You can’t outright hate a movie that stars Maria Bello (even as the capable singleton who can’t commit) or the excellent Emily Blunt (even as the nervous Nellie unable to see the good stuff right under her upturned nose) or Kathy Baker, predictably cast as the much-married port in a storm. But it’s hard to tell who’s panting more eagerly in pursuit of all possible chick demographics: Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote the giddily commercial novel; Robin Swicord, who wrote and directed capably enough; or the product placements that pop their merry little heads into practically every frame of this stolidly suburban romance. As for me, I eagerly await the mad bitches of Nicole Holofcener’s next movie. (Selected ­theaters) (Ella Taylor)

{mosimage}PICK  THE LAST WINTER This week’s other movie set in remote Alaska is an eco-minded horror yarn from genre maestro Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) about a top-secret drilling project engineered by a fictional American oil company. The project, we’re told, is designed to bring “energy independence” to the American people, but might just wreak havoc on the delicate environment of the Arctic tundra. Not that such warnings (most of them issued by a visiting scientist played by James LeGros) do much to deter the drilling team’s blustery leader (an excellent Ron Perlman) from blasting ahead with the project. Until, that is, some unseen, primordial force bubbles up from the ground along with that black gold, infecting everyone and everything with which it comes into contact. Could it be the spirit of the Wendigo — that eternal Native American bogeyman — come back to haunt? Perhaps. But as usual in a Fessenden film, the biggest threat to mankind in The Last Winter turns out to be mankind itself. Filmed in Iceland in breathtaking 35 mm widescreen, this is Fessenden’s biggest and slickest production to date, but in making that leap, Fessenden has in no way compromised his artistic integrity. True to form, The Last Winter is more about disquieting mood and serenely creepy atmosphere than about slam-bang action or shock-horror jolts. When people start to die, the survivors don’t run about in a hysterical panic, but rather rationally and intelligently weigh their options. The final, apocalyptic moments are presented less as a disorienting “twist” than as the inevitable consequences of human hubris. The Last Winter won’t win many fans among those who place the saving of union jobs above the repairing of the ozone layer. But this is a horror movie with many inconvenient truths to tell about the ways in which we are willingly destroying our planet. Call it the first green horror picture, punctuated by ample doses of red. Oh, and it’s also scary as fuck. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas) Read film feature.


OVER THE GW Can $30,000 buy a filmmaker catharsis from two and a half years of psychological and physical trauma? That’s the question posed by writer/director/cinematographer/editor/co-star Nick Gaglia’s first feature, an undeniably personal if amateurish psychodrama based on his stint in an abusive, brainwashing rehab center in North Jersey that has since been sued into oblivion. Playing out as an unfocused procedural with George Gallagher as the surrogate Gaglia, the film follows the teen addict’s 847-plus days in a nameless, unlicensed clinic. Under the whacked-out tutelage of Dr. Hiller (Albert Insinnia), “treatment” means counselors pinning kids to the floor, group humiliation, Scientology-like level advancing, and rules that prohibit reading, talking to fellow patients, going outside — and could I offer you a glass of Kool-Aid? Gaglia knows the material cold, poor guy, and his unknown cast is surprisingly solid (minus Insinnia’s unintentionally goofy demon-doc). But like the illogical psychobabblings pounded into the patients’ brains, Gaglia’s re-creation of torture becomes rote very quickly, and his cross-processed, color-tinted, randomly inserted, over-zoomed, Film School 101 indulgences need their meds adjusted. (Grande 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)


RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION Why should you see a third installment of what has been, up until now, a tedious portfolio of international film-financing strategies disguised as a video-game adaptation? Let me count the ways: One, Milla Jovovich plays some sort of spaghetti-western wraith who emerges from an underground bunker in a miniskirt/gunslinger ensemble to whoop ass on the living dead. Two, Milla Jovovich plays some sort of spaghetti-western wraith who emerges from an underground bunker in a miniskirt/gunslinger ensemble to whoop ass on the living dead. Three—well, you get the picture. And so does director Russell Mulcahy, who uses all the flashy moves he honed on Duran Duran and Billy Joel videos to munch guts, pop eyes, and scatter brain matter to the far corners of the wide screen. This is wall-to-wall mayhem that dashes from one stylish, splattery, nonsensical set-piece to the next, while the star attacks her silly role with the carnivorous brio of an ocelot clawing a side of ham. As such, it’s the first of the agonizing Resident Evil movies that could remotely be considered fun. I eagerly await a sequel in which Milla Jovovich’s clone army encounters a battalion of genetically modified Asia Argentos, and life as we know it ends in a maelstrom of bee-stung lips, crazy eyes, and runway hair-pulling. Until then, this’ll do. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)


SEA OF DREAMS In Sea of Dreams, ­writer-director Jose Bojorquez dresses classic fairy-tale tropes in perfume-ad drag, employing a visual style that’s all bright colors, a near absence of shadow, and sets so meticulously art-designed that all life has been squeezed out of them. After being presumed drowned by the locals who inhabit the idyllic isle she calls home, young Grecia (Grecia Estrada Ochoa) washes ashore with shells braided in her hair and the ability to commune with the sea. Flash forward several years, and her gift has gone from providing bounty for the townspeople to being a source of grief; Grecia is now a pariah. When a carefree young artist (Johnathan Schaech) breezes into town, he falls for her despite the warnings. Will his love break the curse? It’s almost curmudgeonly to bash a film as slight as this. It’s a romantic tearjerker for folks who don’t like a lot of tension or surprises in their drama, and who want even the bigotry of small-town prejudices to be artfully rendered and breezily forgiven. The cast, from Sonia Braga as a Yoruba-tinged earth mother to Schaech as the handsome prince, comprises some of the most beautiful people on Earth. In fact, the chance to see the still impossibly sexy Braga in action almost makes the whole exercise worthwhile. (Beverly Center; AMC Rolling Hills; AMC South Bay Galleria; Mann Plant 16) (Ernest Hardy)


SYDNEY WHITE Just a guess here, but the majority of Amanda Bynes fans probably didn’t get most of the Shakespeare references in her As You Like It–inspired She’s the Man, so, behold: This time she’s gone for something a bit more familiar. Originally titled Sydney White and the Seven Dorks, Bynes’ latest takes the classic “Snow White” tale and resets it at a modern university. You might expect a college comedy version of a fairy tale to skew a bit older and be a bit risqué, but this version of the Grimm’s tale is even kid-friendlier than Walt Disney’s animated take. Bynes is arguably the most macho Snow White ever as Sydney, a plumber’s daughter who intends to join her late mother’s sorority. But the sorority is run by Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton), and just in case you miss the significance of her surname, we get two separate close-ups of the name plate on her parking space. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the cojones to take the fairy tale all the way and have Rachel marry Sydney’s dad (or cast actual dwarfs). But director Joe Nussbaum knows his dorkdom, and nails it, filling the nerds’ frat-row house with full-size Darth Vader and Greedo replicas, not to mention a rare “Return of the Jedi Power of the Force Luke Skywalker in Combat Poncho” action figure. Trust me, the nomenclature is correct. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

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