How She Move, Santouri (The Music Man) 

Also: Undoing, Alice's House, The Air I Breathe

Thursday, Jan 24 2008

THE AIR I BREATHE Ah, January, hallowed dustbin for projects half-baked, too cooked, or both, as in the case of this overstuffed actioner from Korean-American newcomer Jieho Lee. Nothing if not ambitious, this muddled omnibus of zealously interlocked parables of love and death, inspired by an ancient Chinese proverb, suffers from a surfeit of noir influences; glum, existential apercus; and bodies going thwack on windshields. Lee and co-writer Bob DeRosa show more taste than respect for their top-drawer actors: Forest Whitaker, grimacing haplessly as a nerdy banker risking all for naught; Brendan Fraser, trying to look world-weary while not collapsing into giggles as a woolly-capped hit man burdened with humanitarian impulses, a sad past, and an unhelpful ability to see the future; Sarah Michelle Gellar, a troubled pop star trapped under the thumb of gangster Andy Garcia; and Kevin Bacon in saint mode, risking all for the love of an unaccountably droopy Julie Delpy. The destiny-versus-responsibility hand-wringing is Philosophy 101, the camera angles are straight out of film school, and the pacing is strictly music video. Plus, the ta-da!-twist ending is foreshadowed roughly 20 minutes into the action, for those still interested. Lee has talent, intelligence and something to say — if only someone had thought to stop him from packing in every film he ever wanted to make under one roof. (Sunset 5; One Colorado; Burbank Town Center 6) (Ella Taylor)

ALICE'S HOUSEAlice's House is an utterly average foreign art-house film, with all the strengths and flaws that label implies. Writer-director Chico Teixeira cut his teeth as a documentarian, and a nonfiction impulse dominates the slow, deliberate camerawork, which lingers over both moments of interest and moments of tedium. At its most striking, the movie provides a rare glimpse into the Brazilian middle class. Alice's family aren't stinking rich or squalidly poor; they're just getting by. There's her taxi-driver husband (Zecarlos Machado), a recognizable archetype of male sloth and entitlement; her angelic mother (Berta Zemel), who spends hours scrubbing and cooking even as she slowly goes blind; and her three preternaturally attractive sons, sneaker-obsessed and sex-mad. Then there's Alice, played by the astonishing newcomer Carla Ribas. A manicurist who fusses over her clients' ragged cuticles as her own life unravels, Alice is deeply unhappy, seemingly to her own surprise. These characters dance around each other for 90 minutes, never quite finding the strength to say what's on their minds; the dialogue is entrancingly elliptical, but ultimately shallow. (Nuart) (Julia Wallace)

GO HOW SHE MOVEHigh School Musical excepted, dance now figures in teen movies mostly as competitive sport: Either it's an NBA-like ticket out, as in Save the Last Dance, or it's an NFL-like face-off, as in Stomp the Yard. In this diverting Canadian drama, it's both: The big-money payoff to a step-dancing contest lures a studious inner-city girl (Rutina Wesley) into joining an all-male neighborhood dance crew, in hopes of getting the private-school tuition her working-poor Jamaican parents can't afford. For once, the movie — written by Annmarie Morais and directed by Ian Iqbal Rashid (Touch of Pink) with a gritty overlay of 16 mm grain — deems book learning as important as physical prowess. Wesley's tenacious heroine embodies this, as does her crew captain's day-saving little brother (Brennan Gademans), a bespectacled sharpie who proves as well-versed in move-bustin' as he is in Tolstoy. Apart from the exuberant athleticism of the step battles — choreographed by Hi-Hat with equal room for grace, physical wit and aggression, if not always sympathetically shot or edited — the movie's chief appeal is a largely unknown cast. Especially good are Wesley, whose expressions are a study in shifting thought, and Tre Armstrong as her street-hardened but goodhearted rival, a stock role that Armstrong fills with unmediated feeling. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

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MEET THE SPARTANS No doubt you heard the gay jokes about 300. No doubt you made some of them. But never did you think an entire movie could be made from those mild titters. The writing-directing team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer thought otherwise. To this deadly duo, there is no joke so lame it can’t be repeated. (Did you hear the one about how Donald Trump wears a wig?) They once again prove themselves to be the cinematic equivalent of that annoying friend who thinks repeating the jokes he saw last night on TV is the funniest damn thing ever. Meet the Spartans is a mild improvement over their Epic Movie, which is like saying that a debilitating fever is more fun than appendicitis, but what’s shocking is how lazy it is, which is a shame for former UK child star/pop singer Sean Maguire, whose Gerard Butler impersonation is spot-on. Aside from the obvious gay jokes (“I Will Survive” performed twice, heh heh), what remains is an endless array of product placements masquerading as self-referential humor, and movie references that Seltzer and Friedberg don’t even trust the audience to get. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

RAMBO was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)

GO SANTOURI (THE MUSIC MAN) On his way to becoming the Grand Old Man of Iranian cinema, something interesting has happened to Dariush Mehrjui. From his stunning 1969 sophomore feature, The Cow (the first modern Iranian film to reach Western audiences), to The Postman (1972) and The Cycle (1974), Mehrjui was filmmaker enemy No. 1 of the shah's censors, and deeply influential on the generation of filmmakers that came of age after the Islamist revolution. How times — and Mehrjui — have changed: Following a fine series of mostly conventionally made films about women, Mehrjui's latest, Santouri (The Music Man), shows that he's absorbed the influences of the youngsters in its story about Ali (Bahram Radan), a popular singer-songwriter and player of the santoor (an ancient stringed instrument played with two small mallets) and the emotional and physical price he pays for his heroin addiction. There's a loose, fluid rhythm that courses through the film like an elixir, especially in the freeform way Mehrjui shifts between Ali's devastating downward course — set off when he is banned by authorities from playing in public — and his happier past and marriage to fellow musician Hanieh (the incandescent Golshifteh Farahani). Far from serving as some sort of screed against the excesses of a younger generation of artists, Santouri suggests that Iran's current cultural repression and rampant drug addiction are no mere coincidence. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Robert Koehler)

UNDOING Los Angeles neo-noir meets multiformat video grit with varying degrees of success in director Chris Chan Lee's Undoing. The film stars Sung Kang (Better Luck Tomorrow, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) as Sam, who returns from a yearlong sojourn in Asia after witnessing a botched drug deal and abandoning his friend's bleeding body in a car. Like other cinematic American wanderers with a history of violence, Sam comes home to bury the body and make things right again with friends, lovers and father figures, while dodging the interference of crooked cops, Koreatown gangsters and a hired assassin who keeps him hanging on every Christopher Walken–esque word. Kang is quietly effective with his tall, hunky modesty and the filial geniality he showed in Finishing the Game. The coarse video format helps evoke the bleached-out sunniness and neon-drenched darkness of a 1970s L.A., with most of the action taking place inside big cars, diners and underground parking garages. A bit too much yellow tinting imparts an atmosphere of sickly tension, as well as a reminder of the title of Lee's first film (Yellow), about eight Korean-American teens on the eve of high school graduation. Happily, Undoing displays a more adult, romantic sensibility. (ImaginAsian Center) (Frako Loden)

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