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Movie Reviews: Berkeley, The Heartbreak Kid, Lust, Caution 

Also this week's pick, Colma: The Musical

Wednesday, Oct 10 2007
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BERKELEY Because the story is set in the late ’60s, the grandeur of the title Berkeley leads us to anticipate something epic. What we have instead is a likable, well-acted slice of lyric nostalgia. Nineteen-year-old Ben Sweet (Nick Roth) is at UC Berkeley while it quakes with the ferment of Vietnam-era protest and potentially violent revolution, circa 1968 to 1970. At 87 minutes in length, shot on HD video, the film is essentially unpretentious. Writer-director Bobby Roth (The Boss’s Son, Circle of Power, Heartbreakers) has long specialized in films that are honest, realistic, and which (despite this critic’s initial resistance to Heartbreakers) abide solidly in the memory. He also has one reliable vice: He tends to smack his thematic and expositional points hard in the dialogue. “Ben,” a friend pleads with the hero, “it’s 1968. It’s Berkeley.” (Gotta say, I was partisan to much kindred adventure in my college days, but nobody ever, ever said to me, “F.X., it’s 1972. It’s CalArts.”) The clunk of such tin cans in the repartee harms Berkeley throughout, but when it comes to action and atmosphere (especially some funny and sensual scenes set in a shared house off campus), Roth’s gift for unlocking the best in each of his actors does bring those long-ago times to life. There nevertheless do remain scenes that strain our sense of suspended disbelief, such as when Sadie (Laura Jordan), Ben’s sexy and complex classmate, uncovers her breasts and asks him, “Did you know there are 543,000 troops stationed in Southeast Asia?” A friend of mine found this ridiculous — I found it just preposterous enough to have happened. (Sunset 5; One Colorado) (F.X. Feeney)

PICK COLMA: THE MUSICAL A year after premiering at Outfest, director Richard Wong and screenwriter/composer H.P. Mendoza’s exuberant, shot-on-DV micro-musical returns for a short engagement and, if anything, seems that much better in the wake of this summer’s listless Hairspray . The story is simple enough: Three recent high school graduates — aspiring actor Billy (Jake Moreno), gay-but-not-out-to-his-parents Rodel (Mendoza) and lovelorn party girl Maribel (L.A. Renigen) — contemplate their exit strategies from the titular San Francisco bedroom community while pining for somebody to love and, periodically, breaking into songs about everything from small-town anomie to crashing collegiate parties. When a movie is praised for having a vivid sense of place, that place is usually something exotic — the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia or the period Los Angeles of Chinatown . But no less notable, in its way, is Colma: The Musical ’s acute immersion into a fog-encrusted suburbia marked by more funeral plots than living residents, where In-N-Out Burger is what passes as fine dining: Is it any wonder Billy, Rodel, et al. can’t wait to escape? What the movie lacks in visual finesse it more than makes up for in joyous performances by a cast of unknowns and in Mendoza’s infectiously poppy song score, which puts most recent Broadway behemoths to shame in the simplicity of its arrangements and the cleverness of its lyrics. Among the standouts: the rousing sea shanty in which a barroom full of lonely singles bid adieu to past flames; and the musical-within-a-musical Friend Joseph , a sharp parody of the moribund musical-theater mainstays that Colma: The Musical  never risks becoming. (Sunset 5)  (Scott Foundas)

THE CIVILIZATION OF MAXWELL BRIGHT Given to misogynistic outbursts that border on the psychotic, Maxwell Bright (Patrick Warburton) is as unlikable as movie heroes come, yet director David Beaird insists there is Zen within this modern Neanderthal. In the kind of East-teaches-West plot scheme that Hollywood finds irresistible, Bright’s “civilization” comes in the form of Mai Ling (Marie Matiko), a Chinese mail-order bride who introduces Bardo to the beast. As late-stage cancer engulfs Bright’s body, Mai Ling deflects his tantrums by selflessly showering him with spiritual and sexual healing in what she considers an act of devotion to Buddha. Beaird wants to show the redemptive power Buddhism holds for even the most unredeemable people, yet one can’t help but read his film as an affirmation of the quick-fix spirituality Americans love: Remember, no matter how reprehensible your life’s work, you can always reach for dharma on your deathbed. (Obtaining a stunning geisha willing to wash your balls, on the other hand, is a stroke of luck that exists only in the film’s masochistic fantasy world.) Maxwell Bright’s truest moment comes not at its tritely tranquil finish, but when we catch our hero napping in the cheap casket he’s ordered in anticipation of his own death. “Buddha advised us to think on death and imagine our coffin,” encourages a serene Mai Ling as Bright pulls on a cigarette and stares dumbly into infinity. Despite all his efforts to refuse it, the savage stumbles on Zen in a blaze of pure boorishness. (Grande 4-Plex) (Sam Sweet)

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