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Film Reviews

GO PICK YANG BAN XI: THE EIGHT MODEL WORKS This enthralling documentary, a Dutch production by Hong Kong–born female director Yan Ting Yuen, not only reclaims the Chinese propaganda opera but niftily positions it in the rush of Chinese cultural history, from Mao’s great leap backward to the frantically modernizing cities of today, where the Yang Ban Xi enjoy a renaissance among hip young artists as well as middle-aged audiences who were kids when the operas were first staged. A fictionalized voice-over from the grave by the appalling Madame Mao, China’s unreliable narrator-in-chief, extols the virtues of these revolutionary propaganda vehicles, with their cheesily declamatory scripts and gorgeous Technicolor production values. Extremely popular with the people, in part because they were offered nothing else, in part because of their riotous color and exuberant good cheer, these government-sponsored entertainments brought brief glory to their participants, and deep wells of sorrow as many were arbitrarily purged along with their families, or suffered disgrace when Madame Mao herself was purged along with the Gang of Four. We meet the former stars and the casualties, some of whom remember the heyday of Yang Ban Xi as the high point of their lives, while others fume at having had to make politically correct art. The jury may be out on whether this lively product of a wickedly totalitarian age has come back as nostalgia, kitsch or the simple desire to preserve a slice of history. But there’s something irresistible about seeing a troupe of punked-out young Chinese performers hitching The Red Detachment of Women to their own frisky wagon and dancing their way to a new art form. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

THE CONRAD BOYS When their mom dies unexpectedly, 19-year-old Charlie (played by writer-director Justin Lo) and his younger brother Ben (Boo Boo Stewart) are left to fend for themselves, with Charlie putting off a promising college career at Columbia to tend to his sibling. Their already-shaken lives come in for more upheaval when Charlie falls in love with the drop-dead-gorgeous but mercurial drifter Jordan (Nick Bartzen), and is forced to juggle familial obligation with his heart’s (and groin’s) desires. Churlish though it seems to throw daggers at this clearly heartfelt but insipid drama, the naiveté quickly becomes exasperating. The script’s insights are drawn straight from freshman-dorm late-night rap sessions — as illustrated by the meet-cute scene in which Jordan and Charlie banter over the merits of novels versus history books. The actors don’t so much interact as watch one another’s lips move, then mouth their dialogue when their screen partner’s mouth goes still. The cast is attractive, and the production values fall on the high end of a cable movie of the week, but Lo clearly needs more life experience before he picks up a camera again. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

GO DISTRICT B-13 Paris, 2010, and the city has erected a huge, heavily guarded wall around its ghettos, the better to contain trendily attired multiculti gangs that deal drugs, pimp women, burn cars as political statements and wield all manner of dangerously cool haircuts. Good, decent folk are trapped behind those walls too — among them Leito (David Belle), a one-man wrecking crew who takes on the most powerful drug lord all by his lonesome, with the result that his spunky sister is kidnapped and Leito has to team with an equally formidable but naive young cop, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), to retrieve her and bring down the bad guys. Directed by Pierre Morel from a dunderheaded script by Luc Besson, the film is at its best when the two heroes kick ass, leap over moving cars and buildings, and generally push the human body to its limits, their jaw-dropping stunts accomplished sans wires or special effects. That both men are eye candy only makes the adrenaline-stoked spectacles more appealing. But glib, opportunistic references to recent real-life civil unrest and its causes in France are passed off as biting commentary, while a reference to the Holocaust is embarrassingly cheap. Go for the dazzling, if repetitive, human stunt work. Endure the appallingly simplistic politics. (Selected theaters) (Ernest Hardy)

FANAA The sheer exuberant star power of this movie’s early scenes of romance and lip-synching among the national monuments is irresistible. Aamir Khan (Lagaan) returns here to exactly the sort of crowd-pleasing role that made him a star, a salt-of-the-earth tour guide in Delhi who, with roguish high spirits and deft wordplay, romances a radiantly patriotic Kashmiri ballad singer (Kajol). A standard plot twist related to the girl’s blindness seems imminent, but it soon emerges that Khan and company have bigger fish to fry. The movie’s entire first half turns out to be an elaborate fake-out, a setup for a plot reversal so extreme it could induce whiplash even in seasoned Bollywood hands. As clumsily engineered by writer-director Kunal Kohli (Hum Tum), the sudden changeover from romance to political techno-thriller is likely to be especially startling for non-Indians. The film’s title, which can be translated as “annihilation,” refers to a concept in the mystical Muslim Sufi sect that is equivalent to Nirvana in Buddhism. So using it to describe the way Khan’s character forgets himself when he meets Kajol could, along with the locale, be considered a clue to upcoming plot developments. But only if you’ve recently completed a comparative-religion course. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)

PEACEFUL WARRIOR You’d have to be either an avid New Ager or willing to see Nick Nolte in absolutely anything to get fully onboard for this visually overexcited tale of salvation-by-gas-station-guru. Yes, that’s right: Based on what is variously described as a novel and a “spiritual memoir” by former gymnast Dan Millman, Peaceful Warrior is a kind of Tuesdays With Morrie for the sporting crowd, with Scott Mechlowicz giving very good hangdog as Dan, a hard-driving Olympic-caliber gymnast and A-student whose recurring nightmares and crippling malaise bring him to the attention of a mechanic whom Dan nicknames Socrates, played by Nolte with hair tamed and combed, which in his case usually bodes ill. Socrates can fly onto roofs, but he will have no truck with the kind of high living that has kept Dan stoked and unhappy for too long, and accordingly makes him over to the tune of slow eating, heavy breathing, and living in the moment. Directed by Victor Salva (uniquely qualified for Buddhist serenity by virtue of his Jeepers Creepers 1 and 2) from a screenplay by Kevin Berhardt, the movie, festooned in slow motion and in-your-face close-ups, rarely has a moment when it’s not calling attention to its booming style. Peaceful Warrior may appeal to those weary of the dark satanic mill of 21st-century workaholism, but the relentless storm of bromides produced in me an altered state of spiritual concussion. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

TYPHOON The South Korean techno-thriller Typhoon is best understood as an act of national muscle flexing that sends a “look what we can do” message to the global movie marketplace. The movie is executed by director Kwak Kyung-Taek (Friend) with flair, technical polish and tumescent firepower that the shriveled cinemas of Hong Kong and Japan can no longer match. But every gesture feels synthetic, from the back story about North-South separation to massage the emotions of the home audience, to the 24-style globe-hopping nuclear-terrorism premise. Kwak has pulled together a budget unprecedented for Korea ($15 million) and recruited excellent actors to stand between the camera and the scenery. Pan-Asian superstar Jang Dong-Gun (similarly recruited as box-office insurance by Chen Kaige in The Promise) is the modern-day pirate on the high seas channeling his ill-gotten gains into an operatic act of CGI-enhanced vengeance against an entire nation; Lee Jung-Jae (Il Mare) is his opposite number, a convincingly lean and ferocious superagent. The special-effects and action payoff occurs during an impressively rendered Perfect Typhoon that conveniently wafts away the simplistic morality of a pivotal plot point, in which a shot not taken at a man who threatens the lives of millions is presented without ambiguity as an act of humane forbearance. (AMC Burbank; Fairfax) (David Chute)


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