GO AKEELAH AND THE BEE This review, it must be said, is being written with the assistance of spell check, a computer tool South-Central middle school student Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer, wonderful) will never need to activate. Taught by her late father to love words, 11-year-old Akeelah doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd, but her principal (Curtis Armstrong) forces her to enter the school spelling bee. She wins, of course, and soon, against the wishes of her tense, distracted mother (Angela Bassett), she’s being groomed for the Scripps National Spelling Bee by a college professor (co-producer Lawrence Fishburne) who is brilliant and uncompromising and secretly sad. Writer-director Doug Atchison (whose last feature was an overwrought but weirdly compelling 1999 film called The Pornographer) has a terrible tendency to have his three main characters stare pensively at photographs of dead relatives, but since he’s made a film that makes studying Latin-root flash cards seem like a cool afterschool activity, we’ll cut him some slack. While it can’t have been easy to find action points for a drama about vocabulary drills, Atchison comes up with a steady stream of plot-propelling business, including Akeelah’s flair for jump rope, a skill that serves her beautifully in a clinch moment. Bet she’s great at hopscotch too. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)
GO THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL Early on in Liz Mermin’s bracing documentary about the opening of a U.S.-British co-sponsored beauty school in Kabul, Afghanistan, we learn that under the fiercely oppressive rule of the Taliban, Afghani women operated clandestine beauty salons in their homes, some of which were attended by Taliban wives. Cultural resistance may be a big phrase to describe such undoubtedly courageous activity — financial necessity played a part then, as it does now, when restrictions have been somewhat eased on a female community 60 percent of whom are war widows, and all of whom are still afraid of leaving their homes at night for fear of being attacked by religious fanatics. As Mermin shows in her vérité study of the school’s freshman class, these salons also express a fundamental need for a level of normality and aesthetic pleasure beyond the survival mode in which these women have been trapped for years. There’s great charm, and also discomfort, in watching these highly motivated, excited women learn the tricks of a trade practiced very differently from their own, and casually swap horror stories of life under the Taliban. The movie’s political edge, though, comes from the mixed motives of some of the Western hairdresser-teachers, a couple of whom bring to the project (which is backed by the American beauty industry) the evangelizing bossiness of globalization missionaries. Without discernible irony, a beaming teacher hands out the Anna Wintour Award in Excellence to a glowing star student. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)
GO THE DEVIL’S MINER The Cerro Rico Mountain in Bolivia has been plundered for over 450 years, first by Spaniards who enslaved natives to mine its silver, and now by poor Bolivians who work 24-hour shifts to retrieve what little is left of the ore. Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani follow 14-year-old Basilio Vargas and his 12-year-old brother, Bernardino, as they eke out a living in the mountain (Basilio’s meager earnings supplement the $25 a month his mother earns), fashioning handmade explosives while dreaming of school. Miner — its underage hero underscores the homonymic minor — is a visually beautiful, unforced essay on legacies of colonialism. Davidson and Ladkani have extraordinary access to the subjects and render their findings in powerful terms: the brothers racing through a tunnel to escape the mine before detonated explosives trap them inside; Basilio in his hard-earned new school clothes, proudly walking to school against a bleached mountain backdrop. But it’s the captured conversations about everyday lives and struggles that pin you to your seat. As Basilio explains to his younger brother exactly how Bolivian miners came to pay homage to Satan in the mines while worshipping God on the outside, we receive a living lesson in the man-made entanglement of religion, superstition and abject poverty. (Fairfax) (Ernest Hardy)
GO GUYS AND BALLS As German flicks about footy go, it ain’t The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. This pre-chewed trifle about an amateur soccer team made up of homosexual players goes down so alarmingly easy that it’s like a capsule designed to dissolve immediately upon consumption (side effects may include mild irritability and drowsiness). Eckie (Maximilian Brueckner) is the goaltender for his local soccer team, and while he’s not exactly Oliver Kahn between the pipes, he’s adorable in a tousled, modest sort of way. His teammates are thus willing to let him off the hook for the bad goal he allows in a championship game, but they go ballistic when they catch him making out with another player. After a bit of moping, Eckie responds in a manner befitting the hero of any underdog sports comedy: He assembles a squad of his own, comprising misfits, oddballs and at least one potential romantic interest. Guys and Balls is an inventory of such clichés, but at least they’re trotted out with a modicum of proficiency. With its clean narrative lines, easily grasped message and literal kick-line of affable, non-threatening gay characters, the film is carefully calibrated for mass appeal. It leaves no shortcut or pratfall untaken, and it will be all the more popular for it. (Regent Showcase) (Adam Nayman)
I AM A SEX ADDICT “Sorry I’m late. I had a little masturbatory episode.” Caveh Zahedi’s announcement to his girlfriend does not amuse her, but really, she shouldn’t be surprised, given that confessing his every burp and thought has been the abiding motif of Zahedi’s career as a diary-based experimental filmmaker (A Little Stiff, In the Bathtub of the World). A man with the bony body of a plucked chicken, Zahedi, this frequently amusing, often off-putting film reveals, has Woody Allen’s braniac-nerd knack for landing interesting women — as well as an addiction to hiring prostitutes. Pausing outside the chapel before his third marriage, the filmmaker, who is reportedly living hooker-free these days, looks into the camera and promises to honestly re-create his tangled romantic history, degradation and all. He’s honest to a fault, perhaps, having persuaded his actresses to strip naked and simulate oral sex while Zahedi, who admits onscreen to being a terrible actor, shouts in hopelessly immature ecstasy. This scene occurs again and again — addiction is repetition, after all — and while some may bail early, those who stay to the end are likely to dwell on Zahedi’s unwavering (some would say unrelenting) belief in his own artistry, as well as the film’s many funny, quotable lines, including the filmmaker’s pitch to his girlfriend that she should watch him have sex with a prostitute because “It would be healing for me.” (Fairfax) (Chuck Wilson)
LOOK BOTH WAYS It’s a cruel twist of film-releasing fate that Look Both Ways hits theaters so soon after its fellow Australian film Somersault. Both are the work of female filmmakers and are driven by the wayward emotions of their central female characters, and though the similarities mostly stop there, it’s still difficult not to compare the two — and Look Both Ways comes in second on all counts. The film’s writer-director, Sarah Watt, previously made a number of animated shorts, and her debut feature is peppered with brief animated interludes as a means of showing the internal life of Meryl (Justine Clarke), a painter stuck doing artwork for greeting cards. Meryl sees potential disaster around every corner, expecting a train to crash or a mugger to attack, and when she witnesses a man’s death on her way home from attending her father’s funeral, it seems her worst fears have been realized. Then she unexpectedly meets the newspaper photographer (William McInnes) assigned to shoot the scene of the man’s death, and romance blooms. The wonky pace for the entire film is determined by the flat tones of Clarke’s performance, in that she doesn’t much command the screen when she’s on and isn’t much missed when she’s off. Watt seems to want to say something about the role of fate and happenstance in creating connections between people, but she never quite brings the strands of her ideas together. Sometimes things do just happen, just as sometimes films don’t turn out to be quite as satisfying as we’d hoped. (Playhouse 7, Royal, Town Center 5) (Mark Olsen)
THE LOST CITY Compelling in fits and starts, actor-director Andy Garcia’s The Lost City possesses grand aspirations but troublesome execution. In 1958, Fico (Garcia) contentedly runs Havana’s chicest nightclub, while his father and brothers fiercely debate the removal of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. Fico has no interest in revolution, but in classic epic-period-drama fashion, he gets sucked in anyway, thanks to a brother’s death and his attraction for a stunning woman (Inés Sastre) seduced by the rebels’ cause. The prototypical “passion project,” The Lost City is the result of Garcia’s 18-year struggle to raise financing for a deeply felt chronicling of Havana’s descent from “the Paris of the Caribbean” into a city smeared by communism and Castro. Using Fico’s transformation from carefree playboy to wised-up expatriate as the emotional focal point, Garcia (working from a screenplay by the late critic and novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante) crams every genre into this tale of paradise lost: suspense thriller, action film, love story, family saga. (He even makes room for Bill Murray as some sort of ironic Shakespearean court jester.) Garcia deserves credit for his lack of self-indulgent flourishes, and for his sharp criticism of so-called freedom-fighting icons like Che Guevara. But the film’s crucial flaw is its failure to make Fico’s journey resonant — as the ineffectual center of this rambling story, the character is pushed to and fro by the swirling political intrigue around him, but never takes action or noticeably grows as a person. Apparently, Garcia spent so much time and energy bringing this film to the screen that he had none left for his own performance. (ArcLight; Westside Pavilion; Rialto; Town Center 5) (Tim Grierson)
REVOLOUTION: THE TRANS-FORMATION OF LOU BENEDETTIThe “Lou” in the middle of the title is a Nu Yawk boxer and stutterer who gets over his impediment by asking a kid to punch him in the head. You may draw inspiration from this; certain audiences, we’re told, have undergone “instantaneous transformation” after seeing the film. Once you “cathart the trauma” and “debug your brain,” as info at www.revoloutionthemovie.com encourages you to do, you can join the team and help both yourself and the fine folks at the Foundation for Conscious Humanity who brought you this potentially outlook-altering artwork. Be aware that RevoLOUtion is a remarkably well-made 75-minute inspiromercial. Director, star and co-writer Bret Carr (Passion of the Heist, Fahrenheit 6911) can act, and so can the rest of the cast, including Burt Young, who was somehow shanghaied into a walk-on to provide tangible linkage to the movie’s ever-present Rocky obsession. The characters are believable; the visuals glow. When the story ends, it seems kind of abrupt, until you realize that, of course, the tale will continue in your own life. Jane Fonda is quoted as saying, “You have to watch it!” And you can take that any way you want. (Sunset 5) (Greg Burk)
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RV In RV, the downwardly spiraling career trajectories of Robin Williams and director Barry Sonnenfeld intertwine like the ropes of a tangled parachute, and all the helpless viewer can do is look on aghast as the whole abortive fiasco plummets toward Earth. RV sits on an invisible line that joins no-less-excremental family movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and it outstrips them all in terms of its laughless gags, its listless cast and a color-by-numbers plot so insultingly predictable that unborn babies could run it down for you from inside the womb. Williams — who, like Steve Martin, his doppelganger in selling out and cashing in, has a face that, no matter how desperately he grins and grimaces, remains as mobile and expressive as a cauliflower — plays corporate adman Bob Munro. Forced to abandon his Hawaiian vacation to make a big sales pitch in Boulder, Colorado, Bob hopes that a road trip in the gigantically tacky, eponymous highway behemoth will force his dysfunctional family to love each other once again. Cue a series of mishaps involving raccoons, slack-jawed hillbillies, and backed-up sewage outlets emitting great fountains of human shit, all of which fail to rouse even the flicker of a smile. Sonnenfeld’s wanton wasting of Cheryl Hines as Bob’s wife, and of Jeff Daniels and Kristen Chenoweth as over-friendly, God-fearing, homeschooling red-state caricatures, are just two more reasons never to trust him with your entertainment dollars again. (Citywide) (John Patterson)
THE SENTINEL The director Clark Johnson got his start in TV, and it shows. Two years ago, he turned that cop-drama warhorse S.W.A.T. into a surprise (read: inexplicable) summer hit; now he’s back with an enervated presidential-assassination thriller that feels calculated to cash in on the popularity of 24. In reality, it’s closer to a tawdry White House soap opera, with Michael Douglas as the veteran Secret Service agent whose affair with the first lady (Kim Basinger) gets him blackmailed by the ex-KGB operatives who, for reasons unspecified, want to off the current Prez (Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche). Framed for complicity in the assassination plot, Douglas flees while his dogged protégé (Keifer Sutherland, as a slightly neutered Jack Bauer) gives chase and Johnson — as he did for the cops of S.W.A.T. — takes every opportunity to show us how much cooler and sexier Secret Service agents are than we mere mortals. (Cue Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, in a cleavage-intensive getup as Sutherland’s partner.) With its roving camera, rapid-fire cuts and amped-up sound design (okay, we get it: a camera shutter can sound an awful lot like a gun cocking), The Sentinel works overtime to suggest what a thrill-a-minute world its characters inhabit; but only during the last 20 minutes does the movie’s pulse, or ours, rise above a flatline. The actors look uniformly unhappy to be there — except for Basinger, who seems lost in a lithium haze. That said, there’s almost nothing wrong with the movie that a few commercial breaks and the ability to do your dishes at the same time wouldn’t improve. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
SILENT HILL This big-screen version of the popular video game opens with Rose (Radha Mitchell) running scantily clad through a forest (nipples poking through her wife-beater) in pursuit of her sleepwalking young daughter, Sharon, who yells “Silent Hill” when Mommy finally catches her. To solve this recurring phenomenon, Rose bundles Sharon up in the dead of night and sets off for Silent Hill, a place that mysteriously no longer appears on maps, but which happens to be located near the adopted Sharon’s birthplace. An accident occurs, Sharon vanishes, and Rose sets about finding her daughter in the not-quite-deserted town, where ash falls from the sky and every setting looks like a back lot or a sound stage. Before you can say “Holy attack of bad CGI,” Rose is running (and running) through abandoned streets and haunted buildings, fleeing assorted mutants, bugs and blade-wielding demons while screaming for her child. Buried beneath Silent Hill’s hyperstylized stupidity (the film looks like a collaboration between David Fincher, Trent Reznor and music-video director Mark Romanek) is the hollow effort to bottle something of the Zeitgeist unease surrounding religious fundamentalism. Late in the film, after we’ve been bombarded with religious symbolism, Bible quotes that appear everywhere from billboards to restroom archways, and extras seemingly culled from The Scarlet Letter, one character shouts at another, “Your faith brings death!” By which point, that sliver of a premise has already been wasted. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)
STICK IT was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found at www.laweekly.com/film. (Citywide)