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Movie Reviews: The Rocker, The House Bunny, Death Race 

Also, America the Beautiful, The Longshots and more

Wednesday, Aug 20 2008
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AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL The scattershot America the Beautiful recapitulates vintage Beauty Myth trumpery: Beauty standards make us average frumps miserable and are the conspiratorial invention of a cabal of Madison Avenue execs working in concert with Patriarchal Hegemony. Director Darryl Roberts, a well-intentioned softie, follows early-blooming 13-year-old Gerren Taylor up the ranks of supermodeldom, with visits to the plastic surgeon and wretched, pop-scored montages. The title’s indefensible; the implication is that beauty standards are a particular province of the U.S., but there’s no evidence provided as to what separates us from other modern, media-soaked nations (and even less made of the fact that, for a people allegedly obsessed with self-image, we’re fatties). The eminently obnoxious Eve Ensler shows up to bolster Roberts’ central thesis: We’re all helpless to resist the hypnotic tune of advertisers, magazine editors, and the runway bunch. Of course, in the real world, no industry is more widely mocked and disdained than fashion, and tuning out commercials is something most cognizant people learn to do by kindergarten. Nevertheless, Roberts & Co. seem to demand a paradigm shift — say, a return to the pre-industrial Eden (anorexia, we’re told, came to Fiji along with the first televisions). Good luck with that. (Culver Plaza; Regency Academy; Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
 

GO  ANITA O’DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER A good deal livelier than the usual music-doc embalming, this worshipful tribute to jazz singer Anita O’Day — completed shortly before her death in 2006 by her then manager, Robbie Cavolina, and co-director Ian McCrudden — is rescued from its own adoration (and too-busy, faux-’50s graphics) by its subject: a tough cookie, racetrack devotee, and brassy raconteur who may be the least self-pitying reformed addict in the history of pop biographies. Whether in film clips dating back to her 1940s emergence in Gene Krupa’s big band, or in interviews taken near the end of her life, the mercurial O’Day remains a voracious, vivacious presence who resists being filed away, even as the directors marshal hall-of-fame testimony from her many admirers — from Margaret Whiting and Dr. Billy Taylor to actor-director John Cameron Mitchell, who compares her spontaneity to Cassavetes. As opposed to her scandalous autobiography High Times Hard Times, the movie is downright reticent on subjects such as a backstage rape and subsequent abortion. The directors prefer to secure O’Day’s due as, in the words of critic Will Friedwald, the only white jazz singer who belongs in the company of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. To watch her landmark tea-dress slink through “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is to hear every syllable expressed as if at the spark of conception, fully formed and felt. (Music Hall) (Jim Ridley)

 
CTHULU Fans of H.P. Lovecraft monsters with octopus-shaped heads be warned: no such creatures appear in this very loose adaptation of the author’s short story, “The Shadow Over Inssmouth.” Instead, director Daniel Gildark and screenwriter Grant Cogswell use the story as a jumping-off point for an allegory about homophobia and gay “reparative therapy.” Against a backdrop of global crisis (yep, War on Terror metaphors here too), college professor Russ (Jason Cottle) returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, where he must confront the homophobia of his father and the town pastor (Dennis Kleinsmith), whose religion — the worship of ancient fish gods — is apparently just as bigoted as fundamentalist Christianity when it comes to gays. Meanwhile, an old romance is rekindled with a former school friend (Scott Patrick Green) who may or may not be bi. About an hour into the movie, more classical horror elements (dead kid, subterranean albino people, inhuman shrieks) finally kick in; prior to that, the most frightening scene involves our hero being forced to have sex with Tori Spelling. Stuart Gordon adapted the story more conventionally in 2001’s Dagon, and it remains the better bet for Lovecraft lovers. (Regent Showcase) (Luke Y. Thompson)

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DEATH RACE It’s not that 1975’s Roger Corman–produced Death Race 2000 was so precious a grindhouse treasure that a remake seems offensive, but by running over the original’s blunt social commentary on audience bloodlust in dire economic times, the newly ­homogenized Death Race has become the product once satirized. (Did we not learn anything from Rollerball?) Jason Statham’s sinewy simian charisma drives the action as a former racing champ framed for ­murder in the dystopian days of 2012, forced by wicked warden Joan Allen to replace ­fallen hero Frankenstein in a pay-per-view bloodsport on wheels. It’s probably clichéd to compare fanboy ridiculousness like this to video games, but as writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson’s résumé includes Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, it’s also apt: Statham’s nemeses are introduced to us by their missile-mounted cars and name cards, as if to say “Select a character to play.” Ian McShane’s grease monkey Coach offers tips on how to beat all three stages (as they’re titled onscreen) of the brutal race, and convoluted rules about power-ups pervade. “Activate death heads,” commands Allen, who isn't quite icy enough to pull off villainy like “Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!” With its inexplicably watchable shotgun-riding bimbos, unconscious homoeroticism and Shawshank Redemption ending, The Fast and the Frivolous here is almost so bad it’s good. Almost ... (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)

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