GO PICK DOWN IN THE VALLEY Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), short for October, is a San Fernando Valley teen who impulsively invites a lonely but cute-looking stranger named Harlan (Edward Norton) to join her on a jaunt to the beach. Harlan dresses and talks like a cowboy, and he has either madness or poetry in him maybe both because he walks straight off his job at a filling station by way of saying yes. They shortly become lovers. Writer-director David Jacobson has an excitingly clear-eyed, unsentimental feel for the intensity of adolescent passion. Wood inhabits Tobes swoony romantic nature and unrestrained sex drive without losing her balance. Norton, in turn, remains blazingly lucid as a performer even as Harlan must go off the deep end, holding Tobe, her kid brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and us in his complicated thrall. Harlan is at least 10 years older than Tobe, a fact that even her belligerent, protective father, Wade (David Morse, pitch-perfect as usual), leaves unremarked as he tries to chase Harlan out of their lives. But whats dangerous about Harlan isnt that hes older; its that hes psychologically even younger than Tobe. (Theres a hint of homage to Kit Carruthers, the lost bad boy of Terrence Malicks Badlands, in that Harlans last name is also Carruthers, but Jacobson never belabors this.) Harlan leads Tobe on impulsive, scofflaw adventures and schemes to overthrow her father, but (in his best moments) also supplies her little brother with the simple love and attention the boy (and maybe Harlan himself) has never had. At first it is Wade who plays the heavy in this drama, as fathers must. Then Harlan takes over that role as his problems become too overwhelming for Tobe, for the law, for himself. The climax, a wildly cinematic chase through the little wilderness thats left, detours (with just the right touch of dry wit) across a Western movie set, and yet, despite the heady thematic touches, loses none of its suspense, because the characters are so richly developed, and death so present, that were violently kept guessing as to who might prevail. (Selected theaters) (F.X. Feeney) GOAL! THE DREAM BEGINS Aside from a flirtation with the hot-button immigration issue, this inspirational movie about an underdog soccer player from tough East Los Angeles is pretty standard stuff. Mexican TV heartthrob Kuno Becker stars as Santiago Munez, a rec-league standout who lands a trial with the fabled Newcastle United club of northeastern England. The appealing young mans tribulations are predictable, his triumph inevitable; while he gets respect (and the girl, played by Anna Friel), we get another Rocky-style dose of emotional uplift, cloaked in the usual game-day clichés. Not a bad movie, but as familiar as Alex Rodriguezs batting average. Two sequels are already in the works, probably aimed at the soccer-crazy international market. Brit director Danny Cannon and Brit screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais know their fútbol, but will American moviegoers pay to play? (Citywide) (Bill Gallo)
JUST MY LUCK Looking tired and sallow and drained of her customary glow, Lindsay Lohan marches grimly through this mechanical tween comedy as if it were a particularly tedious homework assignment. Which it is: The kind of switcheroo premise that so deftly showcased Lohans instinctive gift for physical comedy in Freaky Friday falls flat as a pancake in this lame slice of slapstick about a go-ahead Manhattanite whose habitual good luck runs out when she kisses a luckless stranger (the anodyne Chris Pine) whos trying in vain to make it as a rock producer with such implausibly uncommercial material as the British boy band McFly. As his good fortune waxes, hers wanes, thus exposing them both to a rapid succession of excruciating sight gags involving dog poop, cat poop and endless rain without benefit of umbrella. Directed by Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality) from a colorless script by I. Marlene King and Amy Harris, Just My Luck is so unremittingly chipper, you want to shoot it on sight. Lohan is a great talent whose gravel-voiced poise promises an intriguing transition from child performer to young siren, but if she continues to cut up for the tabloids and lend herself to rubbish like this and Herbie Fully Loaded, shes going to end up remembered as no more than a sad little party animal. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
GO KEEPING UP WITH THE STEINS The Steins of Brentwood held their sons bar mitzvah celebration on an ocean liner at sea, with party sets modeled after the movie Titanic how do you top that? Such is the dilemma facing Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven), whose son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara) isnt sure that his dads plan for a Dodger Stadium extravaganza is the best way to go. Although first time director Scott Marshall and screenwriter Mark Zakarin nimbly satirize West L.A. excess, Keeping Up with the Steins is actually more of a valentine to Jewish family life one that goes down a lot sweeter than the recent, similarly-themed When Do We Eat? Marshall is the nephew of actor-director Penny Marshall (Laverne & Shirley to Awakenings) and the son of TV producer-movie director Garry Marshall (Happy Days to Pretty Woman), who here gives a funny, surprisingly restrained performance as Adams long lost father, a man with a knack for cutting to the heart of the Talmudic teachings that have Benjamin so tongue-tied. As director, Scott Marshall displays an unsurprising flair for selling a joke, but also a fine sense of dramatic pacing and, even better, a gift for brevity, neither of which, it could be argued, are innate skills of his famous filmmaking family. (Selected theatres) (Chuck Wilson)
LADY VENGEANCE This putative final chapter in Korean director (and Quentin Tarantino fetish object) Park Chan-Wooks Vengeance Trilogy finds the director working in familiar storytelling mode: Upon her release, a paroled prisoner (Lee Yeoung-Ae) begins plotting an elaborate revenge against the man who, 20 years earlier, framed her for a brutal child kidnapping and murder, then absconded with her young daughter. This is OldBoy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance redux, with the minor twist of a female protagonist, which only makes the movie seem that much more of a cut-rate Kill Bill clone. Arent trilogies supposed to take us somewhere new, as opposed to doubling back on the same well-trodden ground over and over again? Admittedly, the movies style changes midstream: After an hour of Parks de rigueur camera pyrotechnics, cartoonish blood splatter and simplistic dream imagery, things settle into a more mature rhythm, complete with expansive wide-screen compositions held for more than a few seconds at a time and a downright sedate pace that suggests someone on the crew injected a powerful tranquilizer into Parks bloodstream. But Parks ideas never evolve, and by the end he resorts to that old warhorse of making the villain of the piece (OldBoy star Choi Min-Sik) so execrable that all the hand-wringing over the morality of revenge is rendered moot. If this is what qualifies, as some critics have suggested, as an artistic advance for Mr. Park, let us pray for a hasty retreat. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)
GO SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS A big bruiser of a hardened convict stands on the scrubby playing field of a prison complex and recites Prosperos famous lines from The Tempest: We are such stuff as dreams are made on! he bellows, with enough primal lung power to rally an army regiment or an NFL squad. His oration is the upshot of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at a Kentucky medium-security prison thats unusual for its progressive-leaning leadership. (From the horses mouth: Im a warden who hates prison.) Each year, the prisoners cast, rehearse, direct and perform the Bard themselves, and Hank Rogersons documentary chronicles their production of The Tempest from its first workshops through to opening night, making clear (in candid interviews) that the plays themes of imprisonment, isolation and forgiveness resonate with urgency among the cast and crew. The movie derives energy from its odd juxtapositions: men serving long or lifetime sentences some have murdered their partners or molested children hone their iambic pentameter and, teary-eyed, speak in the tidy jargon of therapy. Albeit a tad repetitive, Shakespeare Behind Bars succeeds in humanizing men we might too easily label as monsters, and provides a solid argument in favor of prisons that place rehabilitation above retribution. (Fairfax) (Jessica Winter)
SAVING SHILOH The latest film to be drawn from Phyllis Reynolds Naylors best-selling young-adult trilogy about a frisky West Virginia beagle with a knack for bringing people together, Saving Shiloh takes place in 2005, but in its setting and sensibility, it feels like 1930s Waltons Mountain. In a little town called Friendly, Marty (Jason Dolley) lives with his parents, two little sisters and Shiloh, the lovable mutt he rescued from a dog-kicking meanie named Judd (Scott Wilson). In this final adventure, Marty attempts to cement the tentative friendship he and Judd formed in the second film, despite the fact that everyone in town thinks Judd responsible for a recent murder. Martys a nice boy, but dull, and though Shiloh is certainly a smart, sweet dog, the movies that bear his name, which arent exactly pulse-pounding, gain their true resonance not from Naylors old-fashioned lessons in faith and friendship (faithfully rendered by screenwriter Dale Rosenbloom and director Sandy Tung) but from the deeply pained eyes of Wilson, a character actor whos been making villainy complex since he portrayed Richard Hickock in the 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Its kind of a lovely thing in these decidedly unhip childrens films, hes found the role of a lifetime. (Selected theaters) (Chuck Wilson)
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SIDE EFFECTS Side Effects writer-director Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau used to be a sales rep for pharmaceutical manufacturers, then quit that job due to her increasing disgust over industry practices. Rather than make a Michael Moorestyle gotcha documentary to spread her beliefs and insights about how new drugs are created and sold, shes instead turned out this romantic comedy about what else? a young pharmaceutical sales rep. As Karly (Greys Anatomy star Katherine Heigl) finds herself moving up the corporate ladder, she grows uneasy about industry practices that place sales volume above patient safety, while at the same time struggling to nurture her budding relationship with a rugged guy whos building his own house in the woods. Its a tantalizing idea a little rom-com sugar to help the Big Pharma exposé pill go down but Slattery-Moschkau is simply not a writer of the caliber necessary to pull off that delicate balancing act. Lovers spats too quickly turn into debates over business ethics, and all the drug-industry info feels tacked on. When Side Effects does work, its because of the very winning presence of Heigl, who makes even the most stilted speechifying seem less unnatural and it doesnt hurt that shes game for some gratuitous dancing in her underwear and conspicuous side-boob action. While Slattery-Moschkau is obviously coming from a very earnest place a card before the final credits compares the annual budget for the pharmaceutical industry to that of her own film it doesnt make the overall effort any less clumsy. (Sunset 5) (Mark Olsen)
GO WAH-WAH Richard E. Grants semiautobiographical drama lifts the lid on both what inspired the sourpuss sneer and gimlet eyes this gifted character actor has perfected since making his film debut in the hilarious Withnail and I (1987) and how different Grant the man is from his icily pent-up screen persona. Wah-Wah chronicles the writer-directors upbringing if thats what you can call a childhood that hung him out to dry with feuding parents (wonderfully played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, whos right up there with Grant in the department of bitter rage) in a British expatriate community during the last wheeze of British Empire in 1960s Swaziland. Though far from expert filmmaking visual clichés fly thick and fast the movie has a swooning feel for the stark beauty of the African kingdom in which it was shot. As youd expect, Grant works expertly with a terrific ensemble that features Emily Watson as Byrnes vitally blowsy American second wife; Julie Walters as a dumpy jettisoned wife who falls in love with Byrne and ends up mothering the confused adolescent Grant surrogate (a strikingly beautiful Nicholas Hoult); and the excellent Celia Imrie as snob-in-chief of the loony band of colonials, with their idiotic baby talk, casual racism, pathetic insistence on badges of bygone status and myopic inability to see why theyre being chucked out by a newly independent nation. Grant doesnt gloss over the wounds he endured at the hands of his hair-raisingly ill-equipped parents, who were clearly enough to make an artist out of anyone, but in his maturity he bestows on them and their obsolescent pals a compassion that lines this sorry tale with silver. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)