Film Reviews

THE BENCHWARMERS The Bad News Bears starring man-children, The Benchwarmers finds aging dorks Richie (David Spade) and Clark (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder) and the relatively able Gus (Rob Schneider) challenging a little league full of bullies to play ball. The stakes are a new stadium bankrolled by Star Wars–lovin’ billionaire Mel Schmegmer (Jon Lovitz), who drives the actual car from Knight Rider and whose last name sounds suspiciously like a medical condition of unhygienic genitalia. It’s easy to root for these misfits against the kids and their hyper-competitive coaches, still partial to titty-twisters after all these years. But it’s hard to buy the movie as an underdog success story, since even the actors barely seem to exert themselves. Watch Spade try to swing and “miss” — is that really the best take they got? (If so, a cry of “More effort!” is in order.) And while The Benchwarmers means well, jokes reliant on a fey agoraphobe (Nick Swardson) and Heder’s spastic nerdism suggest the writers’ sense of humor isn’t so different from the bullies’. Schneider here occupies producer Adam Sandler’s de rigueur role as the Longshot Who Could — although without Sandler’s timing, he exudes only a Capra-corny sanctimoniousness. A movie is certainly one way to send a be-kind-to-others PSA. Add The Benchwarmers to Schneider’s hysterically defensive recent trade-magazine ad and more reasonable New York Times letter justifying his own casting, and it’s clear the actor doesn’t just speak up for the little guy. He sees himself as one of them. (Citywide) (Ben Kenigsberg)

Like every Nicole Holofcener movie, her latest is a funny, angry, lyrical exploration of the uneven rhythms of stalled female lives, and if it lacks the bitchy, enraged vitality of the terrific Lovely and Amazing (2001), that’s because it holds true to its more mature mood and theme. Friends With Money is about the low-grade, free-floating depression of early middle age in a group of Westside women friends whose least established member, Olivia (Jennifer Aniston, essentially reprising her persuasively understated role in The Good Girl), a pothead and former teacher who now cleans houses while pursuing attenuated relationships with hopeless men, serves as a lightning rod for both the smug self-satisfaction and the emerging discontent of her affluent pals and their spouses. The wonderful Catherine Keener again plays Holofcener’s twitchy alter ego as a screenwriter trying not to hear the death rattle of her marriage. The rest is creative counter-casting, as this wily director draws out the straight actress in Joan Cusack (as a limo-liberal matron) and the comedian in Frances McDormand (as a pricey-clothing designer so lost to herself she can’t even wash her hair). And how like Holofcener to create an effeminate husband (Simon McBurney) whom everyone thinks is gay — or is it that Americans think all British men are gay? — but who adores his wife and wants more kids. Holofcener treats her characters with a bracing malice, but there’s sympathy, too, in the movie’s tenderly wistful score. If Friends With Money is about the meaning of success in a town obsessed with wealth, it is also, more universally, about our defining incompleteness, and the sad, uproarious inconclusiveness of life. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

THE LADY IN QUESTION IS CHARLES BUSCH One might expect a film about Charles Busch — the off-Broadway drag queen who wrote and starred in works such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party — to possess the same flamboyant high-camp style as its subject. Instead, John Catania and Charles Ignacio have put together a thorough and dutiful TV-style documentary that’s nothing but reverent in its treatment of its star — for the most part, only family and friends are interviewed, which gives The Lady in Question . . . its intimate, but sanitized, feel. The downside to what is, in essence, an authorized biography is that the movie plays like an inflated Today show profile; the upside is that Busch has given Catania and Ignacio complete access to the old footage from his Limbo Lounge days, and it’s in these video clips from the 1980s (as opposed to the earnest, talking-head tributes) that Busch’s talent is communicated and the filmmakers show some cinematic creativity. But aside from a few quirky archival segments — like Busch’s pre-drag routine and some That’s Entertainment!-esque montages of Theater-in-Limbo productions — The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch rarely stops genuflecting long enough to let its hair down. (Sunset 5) (James C. Taylor)

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN Another drearily sadistic and pointless crime thriller from the excessively in-demand Scottish technician Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Wicker Park), from a gabby script by Jason Smilovic, who seems not to know the distinction between a gimmick and an idea, Lucky Number Slevin traffics in against-the-grain noir types designed to elicit gleeful snickers from the under-20s. Clad mostly in a hip-hugging towel and a broken nose, Josh Hartnett plays a good-humored schlep who, through mistaken identity, gets himself caught in a face-off between a thuggish rabbi (played with overweening pomp by Ben Kingsley, who never leaves home without his Sir these days) and an impassive crime lord (Morgan Freeman) imaginatively named Boss. Lurking in the shadows, and in fashionably color-desaturated loops back to a traumatic past, is the professional assassin Goodkat, played by Bruce Willis, who has clearly been ordered to ditch the smirk. So he stares, and stares, and stares — and kills, and kills, and kills — until halftime, when a giant wrench is thrown into the plot to address grand themes of revenge. Having worn you down with inconsequential competence, this self-satisfied potboiler invites you to see with new eyes. That’s if yours are still open. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

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95 MILES TO GO If, during a quiet moment of reflection, you have ever thought, “Hey, why hasn’t there been a film about Ray Romano driving and eating Subway sandwiches?,” you’re in luck: Tom Caltabiano’s stupendously uneventful documentary of his and Romano’s eight-day comedy tour of the South has arrived. While you don’t learn much about celebrity, comedy or, frankly, anything else, oh do you get to see Romano drive. So. Much. Driving. Caltabiano, who wrote for Everybody Loves Raymond, quickly establishes the film’s pattern: episodes of tedium while traveling to the next gig, followed by snippets of Romano’s routine, and then on to the next city. But before you start imagining a zanier Don’t Look Back without the Donovan cameo, bear in mind that Caltabiano opts for a home-movie vibe that, while unpretentious and amiable, underlines the film’s insignificance. As for Romano’s standup, where he once cleverly described the controlled chaos that is marriage, here he recycles punch lines mechanically, like the Stones mowing through “Satisfaction” for the umpteenth time. By comparison, the terrific 2002 documentary Comedian charted Jerry Seinfeld’s struggles to create a new set, taking a hard look at the elusive mathematics of joke telling that befuddle even the most talented performers. Romano, who briefly appeared in Comedian, tells you all you need to know about the light-years’ difference between the two films in the press notes: “His movie is about something and ours is about nothing.” No kidding. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

GO ON A CLEAR DAY If, like me, you have infinite tolerance for schmaltz-encrusted tales of troubled British proles who seek salvation through recreational self-discovery, go ahead and enjoy strong, silent Peter Mullan as a laid-off Glasgow shipyard worker who finds therapeutic redemption by swimming the English Channel, cheered on by his trainer, a Chinese chip-shop gentle giant (Benedict Wong), and assorted colorful best mates grappling with thorny life issues of their own. Smoothly, if hyperbolically, directed by first-timer Gaby Dellal, On a Clear Day is in most respects The Full Monty, only with swimming, not stripping, and no bursts into song or dance — only the usual canny sequencing of tears and laughter, interspersed here with fetching underwater photography and father-son issues up the wazoo. Mullan is his usual tightlipped embodiment of Promethean masculinity, with sensitive male lurking deep within; Brenda Blethyn is rosy and spunky as the missus who keeps failing her bus-driving test; twin little boys hike up the cute factor; and the day is saved by offhanded, yet heartfelt, displays of communal solidarity. I can’t defend this film, except as an opportunity for the deliciously mawkish weep some of us require for optimal mental health. (The Grove, Westside Pavilion) (Ella Taylor)

ONE LAST RIDE As Tweat, a low-rent mobster leaning on a guy who owes him $41,000 in backdoor loans, Chazz Palminteri adorns the low-budget drama One Last Ride like some gaudy Christmas-tree bauble. It’s a showy performance, all slow burns and shark-toothed smiles. Meanwhile, Michael (Pat Cupo), the poor sap at Tweat’s mercy, sweats earnestness. Actually, he just sweats a lot, period. His wife, Gina (Anita Barone), is about nine months and ten centimeters pregnant. Their unborn child is like an albatross around Michael’s pencil-neck: He wants to start a family, but he also wants to keep betting every spare dollar he has on horseraces, clinging to the idea that, eventually, the hole he’s in will get so deep that he’ll fall out the other side unscathed. It’s typical poor-schnook-in-over-his-head stuff, spiked with some nervy, Pi-esque montages of eyes, horses and racing forms that illustrate Michael’s fraying nerves (and distract us from the flatness of the other scenes). The mob stuff, meanwhile, feels like a sop to investors. And yet there’s something about Cupo that keeps us interested despite the thinness of the material. He’s slouchy and punchy, and he always seems to be thinking, even when the plot is on autopilot. There’s a certain fascination in watching a character who’s hyperaware of his own flaws exhaustedly resign himself over to them. (Beverly Center) (Adam Nayman)

PHAT GIRLZ Hollywood these days is all about tapping into niches, and so it only makes sense that someone would decide to make a film aimed at all the plus-sized folks in the audience. Here, Mo’Nique stars as Jazmin Biltmore, an aspiring fashion designer who blames her lack of luck in finding the right man on the unflattering clothes that fit her size. But debut writer and director Nnegest Likké, (a former producer on the TV show Blind Date) never moves beyond the simple idea that “big girls deserve a chance too.” The film wants to have a warmhearted laugh at the travails of being large, without resorting to fat chick jokes, but Likké too often get bogged down in maudlin sentimentality, such as when Jazmin has something of a breakdown and begins wailing for her dead grandmother. Mo’Nique has previously made the most of supporting roles — her “blacktino” riff in Domino pretty much stole the film — but her character here is so underwritten that the actress doesn’t get a chance to really capitalize on her extra screen-time. Her sassy forte may be talking so straight-up she sounds crazy, but she seems a little advanced to be doing “yo mamma” jokes. (Citywide) (Mark Olsen)

TAKE THE LEAD  Antonio Banderas, who’ll always be cooler than you and me (even if we can’t always understand every word he says) stars as Pierre Dulaine, a Manhattan dance studio owner who volunteers to teach a South Bronx high school detention class how to tango (and waltz and rumba). The real life Dulaine reportedly taught elementary age kids but since this is revisionist Hollywood, Pierre’s onscreen class includes the likes of Rock (Rob Brown), who must reject thug life in time to get to the climactic $5000 dance competition — and his waiting waltz partner, LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta), whose brother died in the same gun fight as Rock’s drug-addicted older brother. Heavy, man, but to their credit, screenwriter Dianne Houston and director Liz Friedlander (both making their feature debuts), go relatively easy on the urban life clichés and instead stick tight to dance class. There, the music shifts from Lena Horne to hip hop Gershwin remixes, and on to a dance-off finale and closing credit sequence that’s the only rousing part of this movie, unless you count the look on the face of Alfre Woodard, who, in her zillionth high school principal role, turns to jelly when Banderas takes her in his arms for a little PTA meeting foxtrot. Who wouldn’t? (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

GO TIBET: A BUDDHIST TRILOGY Originally shown as three separate films totaling more than four hours, director Graham Coleman’s Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy has been largely out of circulation for more than 20 years. Recut and reassembled at just a little over two hours, the new version of the film is a staggering and bracing object, stylistically bold and hypnotically captivating. For all the lip service paid to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monks — anybody remember them as an opening act on late-’90s alterna-rock tours? — little notice has been given to their actual philosophies and practices, but Trilogy delves into their beliefs and ways with curiosity and care. In one early scene, a group of monks debate matters of ethics and metaphysics with a vigor and enthusiasm that borders on ecstatic, adding an edge of excitement and physicality to something that just as easily could come across as eggheaded chin stroking. Following footage of a speech by the Dalai Lama on the anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the filmmakers switch tactics, dropping their voice-over commentary in favor of a subtitled one, leaving the soundtrack free for nature sounds and the chanting and conversations of the monks themselves. Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy itself becomes an object for contemplation and meditative concentration. One warning, though: In a film filled with silence and the pondering of impermanence, the final section includes footage of a funeral ritual in which a body is burned up. It’s horrific and disturbing, but also serves as a reminder of the monks’ abilities to turn pain into transcendence. (Westside Pavilion) (Mark Olsen)

24 HOURS ON CRAIGSLIST At one point in this intermittently amusing, rarely illuminating and ultimately tedious documentary on the Internet phenomenon known as, a young woman chirps that all you need to make a movie is a camera — advice that director Michael Ferris Gibson apparently took to heart. Set in San Francisco, birthplace and home base of Craigslist, the film purports to track a bunch of the site’s ad posters and respondents (like Indian Virgin Seeks Willing Woman and Hang Gliding Lesbians) over a 24-hour period in order to capture something of the freewheeling madness and liberating beauty of the site. Instead, the viewer is presented with amateurish point-and-shoot portraits of all manner of patented Bay Area wackiness and self-conscious philosophizing. Everything from death and romance to bareback sex and losing baby fat is mused about, and mostly in gratingly superficial terms. Gibson completely sidesteps any discussion of the site’s media-landscape-altering effects (the crippling ad-revenue losses for old media, now that everyone from escorts to corporations advertises on Craigslist for free, or for a fraction of what newspapers charge) and settles for creaky soundbites as everyday Joes and Janes mug for the camera. (Fairfax) (Ernest Hardy)

WHEN DO WE EAT? Dinner will be a bit late at the Stuckman family Seder, especially now that Christmas-ornament tycoon and overbearing father Ira (Michael Lerner) has found out that his oldest son, Zeke (a wry Ben Feldman), slipped Ecstasy into his antacid. Meanwhile, Ira’s neglected wife (Lesley Ann Warren) has pitched a giant tent in the back yard with the hope of inspiring conviviality among her bickering family, which includes Ira’s Holocaust-obsessed father (Jack Klugman, looking great), a lesbian daughter, a womanizing son who’s gone Orthodox, and, because it’s Brentwood, a harried Hollywood publicist. In a debut film that’s more well-intentioned than funny, director Salvador Litvak and his co-writer (and wife) Nina Davidovich have Ira tripping out on color-rippling auras and visions of the Haggadah coming to life — effects that are crisply executed — while fielding the barbed commentary of the family he so often bullies. Steeped in conversation about Jewish lore and custom, When Do We Eat? may strike a chord with those struggling to reconcile traditional faith and modernity, though few are likely to buy Ira’s post-high transformation into a loving husband and father. Such a miracle would take a barrelful of hallucinogens. (Selected theaters) (Chuck Wilson)

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