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Film Reviews

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING Despite their appeal to patriotic horror fans, the makers of An American Haunting end up doing more harm than good to domestic fright production. The canned creeps begin with a present-day framing story, as a terrorized young woman runs through snow-banked Tennessee woods back to the house where a family, the Bells, were harassed by an unruly poltergeist beginning in 1817. Told in flashback through the diary of mother Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), this “true account” of the Bell Witch haunting offers an encyclopedic rehash of spook films new and old, dressed out in murky period detail. The Bells’ daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), bears the brunt of the angry specter’s wrath, with so much of the film devoted to her prolonged physical thrashings that it feels like watching a scene from The Exorcist stuck on a loop. A literal “ghost cam” that swoops and weaves around the heads of family and friends, including Betsy’s father (Donald Sutherland) and schoolteacher (James D’Arcy), seems like a gimmick lifted from William Castle. Director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) even imports the creepy spectral children who’ve been all the rage in recent Japanese horror films. So much for homegrown haunts. (Citywide) (Paul Malcolm)

GO ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL Set on the campus of fictional Strathmore art college, this second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes projects an altogether darker, more misanthropic view of humanity than their earlier Ghost World, which may explain why it has met with a cooler reception from critics and audiences alike since premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. No matter: Art School Confidential is the more pungent and penetrating work, even if it may be fully appreciated only by those who willingly sacrifice all hope of a normal life in pursuit of what one character here calls “the narcotic moment of creative bliss.” Told through the eyes of introverted freshman Jerome (a wonderfully laconic Max Minghella), who dreams of becoming the greatest artist of the 21st century, the movie is at once an awkward coming-of-age story, a scabrous take-down of art-world hypocrisy, and even a murder mystery in which a serial strangler preys on Strathmore’s nascent aesthetes (which the filmmakers hardly regard as a bad thing). Somehow it all holds together, laced with Clowes and Zwigoff’s bitter discourse on the impossibility of originality and how, in art as in life, it’s all about how much ass you kiss. But Art School Confidential reaches its dementedly brilliant peak in the company of Jim Broadbent, as the embittered, vodka-guzzling Strathmore grad whose vitriolic rant about wishing for a great plague to wipe out his fellow man is underscored by the theme song to The Facts of Life blaring from an unattended television. That’s the kind of moment of which Clowes and Zwigoff are masters, when we’re not sure whether it hurts too much to laugh, or whether we laugh to stave off the hurt. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)

GO THE FALL OF FUJIMORI Alberto Fujimori probably isn’t granting too many audiences these days. The former Peruvian president and self-styled political strongman — one of the world’s most notorious figures over the past 20 years — is currently being detained in Chile. But two years ago, Fujimori was living large: Comfortably exiled in his native Japan, where he had fled four years earlier following charges of corruption and worse, he consented to an interview by American director Ellen Perry for a documentary chronicling his life and controversial administration. The Fall of Fujimori is the result, and while its long midsection, composed of news footage documenting the bloody unrest that defined Peru during the 1990s, rarely rises above competent reportage, the film is a must-see for Perry’s one-on-one chats with her subject. For a man wanted by Interpol for kidnapping and murder, Fujimori is one cool customer: He makes The Fog of War’s Robert McNamara look squirrelly by comparison. He has a lot to answer for — staging a self-coup in 1992 that effectively turned his presidency into a dictatorship, eroding his country’s civil liberties and then mounting an unconstitutional bid for a third term in office — but to hear him tell it, his policies effectively eradicated terrorism in his country, and the only thing he’s guilty of is pragmatism. Although they’re not revealing in a “Barbara Walters gets the guest to cry” sense, the interview segments are queasily fascinating. Fujimori’s clear-eyed, unfailingly diplomatic responses to difficult questions about the crimes on his conscience (and blood on his hands) imply a dizzying level of self-confidence — or bottomless depths of denial. (Grande 4-Plex) (Adam Nayman)

GO HOOT Carl Hiaasen’s award-winning young-adult novel reaches the big screen under the auspices of fellow Floridian Jimmy Buffett, who produced, contributed several original ballads and appears onscreen as a hippie-surfer marine-studies teacher. So it’s little surprise that Hoot gets the Sunshine State to a tee, in all its garishness (cheap wicker furniture and eye-straining pastels) and beauty (deep-orange sunsets over tranquil gulf waters). The slight story, probably not one of the ones that earned Hiaasen his reputation as a master satirist, offers a crude but effective metaphor for Americans’ love affair with strip malls, chain stores and other monuments to mass consumerism. Set in the fictional coastal town of Coconut Cove, it’s a familiar David-vs.-Goliath tale about the efforts of some Green-minded teens to fend off the big-city developers who want to pave over paradise — in this case, a vacant lot that’s home to some endangered owls — and put up a pancake restaurant. Some benign ecoterrorism ensues, as a trio of plucky middle schoolers tries to stop the bulldozers while shaking the locals from their collective flapjack reverie. Hoot is flatly directed by talk-show-host-turned-sitcom-director Wil Shriner, but the young actors are spirited and appealing, and the movie’s low-key anti-establishment posture is vastly preferable to the knee-jerk fulminations of a Michael Moore. It’s all stitched together by Buffett’s groovy tunes, each one like a tequila-scented daiquiri (okay, a virgin tequila-scented daiquiri) imbibed on a white sandy beach, with not a Gap or a Wal-Mart in sight. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

GO LA PETITE JÉRUSALEM Laura (Fanny Valette), the broody philosophy student at the center of Karin Albou’s absorbing tale of coming of age in a multi-ethnic Paris suburb, is a square peg in the apparently round hole of her devoutly Orthodox Tunisian-Jewish family. For all her cerebral attachment to Kantian ethics, Laura has more in common with her married older sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), who never goes out without her sheitel, than either cares to admit. Each sister has, in her own way, renounced sensuality and desire in favor of attachment to protective but muddled ideologies. Albou’s sympathies may lie primarily with Laura, but her movie is refreshingly free of the reflexive savaging of orthodoxy that trivializes so many films about religion in a secular age. Indeed, the sage who guides Mathilde and Laura through their respective crises — one falls in love with an Algerian Muslim, the other struggles with her husband’s adultery — turns out to be a ritual-bath counselor with some exhilaratingly radical advice about sex that’s fully grounded in Halakhic doctrine. If La Petite Jérusalem (named for the predominantly North African Jewish-Muslim neighborhood in which it’s set) is a story of escape and liberation, it also shows a calibrated respect for tradition and the ancient pull of family loyalty. And if, at times, the movie seems a touch too versed in postmodern French theories of the body for its own good, that’s more than offset by Albou’s opulent lyricism and her tender attachment to two women who discover that freedom can be achieved both through transgression and submission to a higher authority. (Music Hall; Fallbrook) (Ella Taylor)

ONE LAST THING... In this formulaic but refreshingly low-key weepie, 16-year-old Dylan (Michael Angarano), dying from cancer, uses the wish he’s been granted by a Pennsylvania charity foundation to request a weekend with Nikki Sinclair (Sunny Mabrey), a famous model. Trying to counter her bad-girl rep, Nikki drops by and leaves within five minutes, but Dylan and his two best pals (Gideon Glick and Matt Bush, charmers both) chase her to New York. Director Alex Steyermark (Prey for Rock & Roll) and first-time screenwriter Barry Stringfellow, who were childhood chums, drop a lot of humor into alarmingly sappy material that includes Dylan’s visions of his long-dead father (Ethan Hawke) and Nikki’s dreams of her equally dead boyfriend (Warren Ko). If the filmmakers keep the sob factor at bay, it’s because Angarano and Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dylan’s mom, keep things honest. People forget this, but Nixon has been acting since she was 14 (her first flick was 1980’s Little Darlings), and you have to wonder if she didn’t recognize herself in Angarano, who, like Nixon, has a natural gift for revealing his character’s thinking process, which is how good actors earn audience empathy and tears. He’s one to watch. (Fairfax) (Chuck Wilson)

GO THE PROMISE Master filmmaker Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon) here spins a fairy tale from those high-energy Asian ingredients so familiar of late here in the West: swords, silk robes and whirlybird fights involving airborne wirework. There is a beautiful nomad (Cecilia Cheung), who made a diabolical bargain when she was a child, trading all hope of love for riches; and a noble slave (Jang Don-Kun`), cut off from his native Kingdom of Snow, secretly in love with the cursed beauty but sworn to protect his crimson-armored master (Hiroyuki Sanada), who in turn lusts after this same woman. There’s also a bitter duke (Nicholas Tse) and a sorrowful assassin (Liu Ye) made invincible — well, almost — by his all-powerful cloak. Whenever he’s dealing with these human, emotionally grounded twists and turns, director Chen is as richly in his element as Ang Lee was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Zhang Yimou was in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Alas, whenever the action incorporates digital animation — such as in a big buffalo stampede or in battles between big armies — the results can be clumsy to the point of irritating. That’s a pity, but so is the fact that some critics are badly selling the film short, when the story it tells, measured strictly in terms of emotional power and overall fun, is as moving and pleasurable as any matinee item by Ford, Hawks or Raoul Walsh. (Citywide) (F.X. Feeney)

GO PICK THE PROPOSITION The setting is rural Australia in the 19th century. The story, a sort of Heart of Darkness on horseback, is a high-voltage revenge Western in which an outlaw, Charlie (Guy Pearce), must hunt down and betray his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of a bloody massacre that has taken place before the story begins, in order to save their youngest sibling from an undeserved death on the gallows. The cunning lawman who proposes this devil’s bargain is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, of Sexy Beast), who knows full well that the high-strung third brother is innocent of any crime, and that the levelheaded Charlie has broken away from the charismatic Arthur in an effort to go straight. But this canny ploy to pit brother against brother inevitably backfires, and Arthur and his demonic entourage come swarming off the outback at full gallop toward Stanley and his sensitive wife (Emily Watson) — with Charlie racing to stay ahead of the impending disaster. As written and scored by rock legend Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, The Proposition is a very hard and harsh movie, but it also has a hypnotic, lyrical velocity. As Arthur, Huston exudes dead charisma. Clearly this man once was mesmerizing — he may well have had greatness in him — but after perpetrating so much death, he now sits inert, Kurtz-like, in heavy judgment on himself, a magnetic Lucifer. Pearce’s performance is no less layered: From the moment the brothers are reunited, we can feel, as Charlie feels, that Arthur knows he has come to kill him, and Pearce lucidly communicates each silent move in the psychological chess match that follows. Cave’s screenplay is wise about the roots of brutality, and ruthlessly honest about how even the best of us may betray our own best intentions, yet it’s never preachy. As in his music, Cave pursues his themes unpredictably, but sure-footedly. Hillcoat’s lucid direction amplifies these virtues — especially in the casting of John Hurt as a grandiloquent bounty hunter, a fallen poet given to justifying his own bloody viciousness by referencing Charles Darwin. Beauty abounds in this raw universe, even as its inhabitants explode all ordinary, earthly justice. (Nuart) (F.X. Feeney)

 

GO SIR! NO SIR! Director David Zeiger’s superb documentary about the Vietnam War era’s GI protest movement is jammed with incident and anecdote and moves with nearly as much breathless momentum as the movement itself, which was spurred along by mimeographed fliers and newspapers written by soldiers and secretly distributed on bases and battlefields. Such rebellion within the ranks stunned military brass and got more than one GI court-martialed and sentenced to years in prison. Several of those men appear here, in interviews juxtaposed against remarkable archival footage of their respective protests and arrests. Elsewhere, Zeiger’s film — which probably doesn’t have a Fox News Channel airing in its future — offers glimpses of the anti-war stage shows organized (by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, among others) as counterpoint to Bob Hope’s boost-the-troops extravaganzas, plus wrenching testimony from the 1971 “Winter Soldier” hearings in Detroit, at which more than 100 combat vets spoke publicly about what they’d seen and done in Vietnam. Although it reverberates with resonance to our current misadventure, Sir! No Sir! should stand the test of time, not just for its captivating history lesson, but for its dispelling of many a myth, from the one about returning vets being spat on at the San Francisco airport, to the one that says an individual acting from conscience can’t manage to change the world. (One Colorado; Monica 4-Plex) (Chuck Wilson)

STICK IT In this uneven teen sports drama, 17-year-old Haley Graham (a dynamic Missy Peregrym) gets caught doing dirt-bike backflips in the pool of someone else’s Texas estate, ends up in front of a judge and is sent not to juvie, but to a gymnastics training academy. Haley, it turns out, is a star gymnast who walked out of a championship meet for unknown reasons and now harbors a rebel’s contempt for the sport, her teammates and her new coach (Jeff Bridges, who must’ve had a reason). Screenwriter-turned-director Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On) employs all manner of jazzy camera pyrotechnics to pump up the film’s first third, including a witty aerial montage of gymnasts spinning and entwining themselves around each other like Busby Berkeley dancers. But once Haley and company head for the nationals, Bendinger can no longer disguise the fact that she’s working with a sport that isn’t terribly cinematic, and a lead character whose “secret” is so dramatically mundane that it’s hardly worth the fuss. The final meet felt eternal to me, but little girls may love it all, and even if they don’t, they’re almost sure to practice their handstands when they get home. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)