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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 hypercompetitive 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)

GO HERBIE HANCOCK: POSSIBILITIES Stripped to its bare purpose, Possibilities simply documents the making of Hancock’s critically acclaimed 2005 album of the same title. Featuring guest appearances by Sting, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera, Angelique Kidjo and many others, the CD is a globe-spanning, multiculti work, and directors Doug Biro and Jon Fine take their cameras into studios all over the world to capture the recording process. But where the album is uneven and a tad forced in its eclecticism, the film, though slightly too long, is buoyant and fluid. A meditation on the nature of and reasons for art, Possibilities both demystifies the creative process (as in the labored creation of a song with Trey Anastasio) and drapes it in the transcendent (a jam session with John Mayer that leads to a very funky track). Among the high points: Annie Lennox, who covers a Paula Cole song, has Hancock call Cole to decipher the more poetically coded lyrics, and the awestruck Cole weeps to converse with her idol; Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan duet on a version of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” that is so shimmering in its bruised loveliness that even Holiday would have to approve. Filled with great archival footage from throughout Hancock’s five-decade career, and with elder-statesman words of wisdom from the man himself, Possibilities celebrates an impulse that’s too rare in modern music: the love behind the labor of creation. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)

IOWA The way in which crystal meth takes over small towns throughout the Midwest is matched only by Wal-Mart. After a trip back home, Iowa native Matt Farnsworth decided to make a film about it, and so comes Iowa, written and directed by Farnsworth and starring himself and his wife, Donna Huffman, as a young couple caught up in the drug trade, turning from using to dealing with alarming speed as they leave behind any vestiges of their former lives. But just because the filmmakers have their roots in the Midwest doesn’t give them a pass when it comes to their stereotypical rendition of small-town people and ways, chock-a-block with sadistic cops, shotgun-toting locals, and strippers from up in Des Moines. As director, Farnsworth lets tricky visuals run roughshod over dramatic unity, while as a performer, his lack of screen presence makes him seem sullen and uninterested instead of darkly charismatic. The cast is rounded out by veterans Jon Savage, Michael T. Weiss and Rosanna Arquette, who has recently made frequent mention of the lack of roles for women of a certain age. If this is the best part she can find, as Farnsworth’s treacherous mother, clad in a series of skimpy leopard prints and forced to sell such lines as “Take me, Don Juan,” things are even worse than she has let on. (Sunset 5) (Mark Olsen)

GO KINKY BOOTS “Look to the heel, young man. Sex is in the heel.” So says a London drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose insights into stiletto construction and their psychosexual subtext may just save a Northampton shoe factory from bankruptcy. After inheriting a company with a loyal staff and a signature loafer the world no longer wants, Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) sees Lola break a boot heel one night, and while she’s cursing the shoe gods, he gets the nutty idea of asking her to help him design high-fashion footwear for muscular divas in need of a sturdier heel. If what follows feels formulaic, an endearing cast makes the journey to Milan fashion week pleasing, even if it takes first-time director Julian Jarrold and screenwriter Tim Firth (Calendar Girls) more than half the movie to get Lola to the factory and Charlie free of his shrill career-woman fiancée. Kinky Boots is diverting, but it’s only worth shouting about thanks to Ejiofor’s quietly subversive take on what has become a stock movie character. Lola looks hot in a formfitting gown, but somehow, perhaps because Ejiofor refuses to vamp for vamp’s sake, she retains a fascinating virility, as if wearing a dress allows the man beneath Lola’s made-up exterior to feel more masculine, not less so — a concept that should resonate with secret cross-dressers the multiplex world over. (ArcLight; AMC Century City; Monica 4-Plex) (Chuck Wilson)

PICK GO MOUNTAIN PATROL: KEKEXILI  By 1993, poachers had mercilessly reduced to 10,000 the antelope population of the Himalayan region called Kekexili, an area commonly referred to as “the roof of the world.” Seeking to curb the slaughter, locals formed a mountain patrol to track down and run off the illegal hunters. In this harsh yet elegiac film, Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan (The Missing Gun) re-creates the harrowing 1996 hunt for a band of poachers that shot and killed a patrol officer. Told through the eyes of Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a young Beijing journalist whose story would eventually bring positive change to the region, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili is sometimes slow going, yet it builds in power as nature begins to take its toll on the patrol, and its cumulative effects are haunting. In one scene, the patrol catches sight of a suspicious group of travelers on the other side of a small river that has nearly turned to ice, and without hesitation the men strip off their pants and race across through the freezing water. More devastating is the quicksand death of a lone patrolman, whose demise is recorded in a brutally uncompromising close-up. Between these big events, Lu takes pains to show that many of the poachers are just everyday folk, driven by hunger and desperation to act against their own traditions and beliefs. Such is the way of the world. (Nuart). (Chuck Wilson)

GO METAL: A HEADBANGER’S JOURNEY Unlike Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey co-director Sam Dunn, I can’t claim to have spent my formative years listening to Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” upward of 25 times per day while practicing air-guitar leaps off the front porch. No, back in those days, it was Def Leppard, Whitesnake and Judas Priest who rocked my world, with a due appreciation for the Maiden coming somewhat later. Regardless of whether you’ve ever rocked out to Ronnie James Dio’s screeching falsetto, banged your head to Black Sabbath’s sinister riffs, or made devil horns out of your pinky and forefinger, A Headbanger’s Journey may catch you up in its bighearted tour of Metal, heavy and otherwise, through the ages. With co-directors Scot McFayden and Jessica Joy Wise, Dunn traveled the world, from Birmingham, U.K. (birthplace of Black Sabbath), to the wilds of Oslo (epicenter of the extreme subgenre known as Black Metal, aptly summarized by Gunn as “punk rock meets Wagner dressed as Alice Cooper”), interviewing fans, legendary performers, and even a raft of critics, musicologists and sociologists who — doubtless to the horror of all who were parents of teenagers during the 1980s — attest to Metal’s legitimacy and importance as both a cultural and musical phenomenon. At once playful and thorough, the documentary is also stacked teased-hair high with wicked performance footage, culminating in Slipknot lead vocalist Corey Taylor’s impassioned shout-out to a packed concert audience, “Do you want some more? Do you want some fucking more?” At which point it took all the self-restraint this critic could muster to avoid leaping up in his seat and shouting back, “Fuck yeah!” (Fairfax) (Scott Foundas)

LA MUJER DE MI HERMANO (MY BROTHER’S WIFE) If Lions Gate is planning a splashy foray into the potentially huge Latino market, the company is going to have to do better than this narcotizing Latin American import about a sex triangle between a narcissistic businessman (Christian Meier), his sultry wife (Bárbara Mori) and his irresponsible younger brother (Manolo Cardona). One has to assume the roaring success of La Mujer de Mi Hermano on its home turf is due to the movie’s abundance of panting flesh, much of it belonging to shapely Uruguayan soap mega-star Mori, whose errant wife preens and pouts and feigns Catholic guilt over her steamy sessions in the sack with her brother-in-law, who smolders furiously and pisses in the swimming pool for more reasons than initially meet the eye. Otherwise, this is a clumsy coming-out movie heavily swathed in a lethargic telenovela with much nicer furnishings. Adapted from his own novel (I shudder to think) by Jaime Bayly and directed practically in slow motion by MTV Latin America executive Ricardo Montreuil, La Mujer lumbers along, trapped in a long-faced score that appears to have been borrowed from a thriller, and without a smidgen of the saving irony that might have made of it a decent screwball comedy. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

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-size 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 gets 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 mama” jokes. (Citywide) (Mark Olsen)

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR Two neighborhood busybodies (Denise Burse and Adriane Lenox), who gossip and prattle about in a manner reminiscent of the waddling duck sisters in Disney’s The Aristocats (how’s that for a random movie reference?), steal the show in this family-friendly tale of a hip-hop star rediscovering his gospel roots. Teshawn (a charismatic Billoah Greene), a popular rapper with a pissed-off record producer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) gunning for him, escapes L.A. and returns to Harlem, where his disapproving twin brother (Darien Sills-Evans) is pastor of a Baptist church badly in need of both new parishioners and fresh voices for its once-renowned choir. There is, of course, a big gospel contest coming up, where it’s a good bet a famous local son will add an urban riff to a classic hymn or two. Screenwriters Kevin Heffernan and Peter E. Lengyel and director Charles Randolph-Wright don’t appear to have listened to much rap in their time, but they sure love church singing, as evidenced by this formulaic but innocuous little movie’s one clever moment, a sing-off between choirs standing on their respective church steps, trying to lure in Sunday-morning worshippers. Now that’s good marketing. (Selected theaters) (Chuck Wilson)

GO SCARY MOVIE 4
The sort of movie you like in spite of yourself, Scary Movie 4 is obvious and dumb, but it possesses such a giddy, good-hearted spirit that even its terrible jokes (and there are tons) get by on something resembling charm, as Anna Faris’ bubble-headed Cindy and Craig Bierko’s pseudo-Tom Cruise hero travel through an episodic litany of film parodies: Saw, The Village, Brokeback Mountain. Though the Wayans brothers originated the series, director David Zucker (part of the legendary ZAZ partnership that brought us Airplane! and Top Secret!) brings his endearing goofiness to the formula, revealing a genuine fondness for his cinematic targets. While most recent spoof films (not to mention almost the entire output from DreamWorks Animation) confuse humor with simply regurgitating a memorable pop-culture reference, Zucker gets his best chuckles and groans from throwaway shtick that has nothing to do with the zeitgeist, while the lampooning of obvious
media moments like Cruise’s Oprah meltdown or Michael Jackson’s pedophilia trial rank among the film’s weakest moments. As usual for a ZAZ comedy, the laughs involve lame puns, repetitive slapstick and childish sexual humor, but the rat-a-tat delivery of gags (matched with a gee-this-is-fun gusto) becomes shamelessly addictive. No one’s gonna confuse this with his early classics, but even pushing 60, Zucker maintains his boyish enthusiasm for the brilliance of a well-timed crotch kick. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

THE SISTERS In this overcooked reinterpretation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, set in present-day New York, director Arthur Allan Seidelman and screenwriter Richard Alfieri open on a posh university faculty lounge, where Marcia (Maria Bello) and Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson) are preparing a birthday party for their younger sister Irene (Erika Christensen). A caustic woman stuck in a miserable marriage, Marcia begins taking brutally articulate potshots at family and friends alike, in turn stirring up revelations and familial power shifts that will reverberate over the coming year. Alfieri’s barbed dialogue — more Albee than Chekhov — is a boon for an ensemble that includes Chris O’Donnell, Alessandro Nivola and Rip Torn. Yet Seidelman, a frequent director of Alfieri’s plays, doesn’t appear to fully trust the text. How else to explain an extraneous series of gauzy childhood flashbacks that explain the source of Marcia’s pain so explicitly that they end up reducing it, as if she’s just a woman in need of a good Dr. Phil session? The Sisters may be worth a look, however, for the work of the magnificent Bello and Tony Goldwyn, who’s never been better than as the married man with whom Marcia has an affair. Their final clench is pure, guilty-pleasure melodrama, which means it’s not the least bit Chekhovian. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Chuck Wilson)

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 $5,000 dance competition — and his waiting waltz partner, LaRhette (Yaya DaCosta), whose brother died in the same gunfight 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)

THE WILD It’s bad enough to lift premise, plot and character types wholesale from another so-so movie, worse when the aptly named director, Steve “Spaz” Williams, so hopelessly bungles the job that even your ordinarily accepting child can barely stay awake long enough to point out the comparisons with Madagascar. Does this sound familiar? A coalition of fractious but cute animals — lion with hero issues (voice of Kiefer Sutherland), pretty giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) batting away advances from squirrel with attention deficit disorder (Jim Belushi), logorrheic koala (Eddie Izzard) — breaks out of the New York Zoo in order to save one of their number, then finds itself in some unspecified wild battling a wildebeest dictator (William Shatner) climbing his way up the food chain. The animation is cheesy; the banter isn’t funny; the score is noisy and grating; and the critters look like stuffed animals. The best that can be said for The Wild is that it’s a most insincere form of flattery. The worst is that it’s a sincere form of theft. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)


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