COASTLINES No one can seem to think ill of regional humanist Victor Nuñez (Ruby in Paradise, Ulee’s Gold), but this low-budget Florida old-schooler is generally half the storytelling powerhouse he is claimed to be and twice the amateurish cliché monger. This, his latest film, sat undistributed for four years, despite a cast (Josh Brolin, Timothy Olyphant, Josh Lucas, Scott Wilson, William Forsythe) that should have paid its way to a shelf at Blockbuster. Virtually everything about Coastlines, from its title to the scenario that tracks a laconic good old boy (Olyphant) as he returns from prison to his Gulf Coast swamp town and its still-tempting criminal backside, telegraphs the hand of an idea-free newbie, not three decades’ experience crafting “personal” cinema. Brolin and Sarah Wynter, as the married woman swayed by the new boy in town, find a few genuine moments over a kitchen table, but Nuñez’s script is a limping, obvious bore. For some fans, the taste of on-location color matters most, but Nuñez’s idea of the characters’ ordinariness translates to flavorlessness, and he lights and shoots his scenes with a high schooler’s care, often not even bothering to match up sightlines. Merely going to Sopchoppy, Florida, with actors is not quite enough. (Fairfax) (Michael Atkinson)
DOG LOVER’S SYMPHONY A toxic combination of obvious bromides and talentless filmmaking, writer-director Ted Fukuda’s schmaltzy, tone-deaf romantic drama sets your teeth on edge from the outset and doesn’t let up for 103 minutes. Jesse Berns plays Jerry, the world’s least-believable white gang member, who, after getting arrested, becomes the pet project of do-gooding defense attorney Tom (Maxwell Caulfield). Jerry doesn’t want to be anyone’s charity case, but when he lays eyes on Tom’s pretty daughter Susan (Alaina Kalanj), who works as a dog trainer, he decides that maybe turning over a new leaf might not be such a bad idea. While Jerry trains adorable pooch Toby and simultaneously courts Susan, we’re cruelly water-tortured by the film’s anemic production value, Fukuda’s incompetent direction and the dim-bulb cast’s awkward, snicker-worthy line readings. Is this whole meager endeavor in fact some sort of put-on? A deadpan parody of a Hollywood boy-meets-girl fantasy? Nope. Symphony’s life lessons about the importance of listening to your heart — and its pathetic use of hankie-grabbing plot devices, including car accidents and the return of long-lost deadbeat dads — are unrelenting and stone-faced serious. Early on, you start to feel enormous sympathy for the film’s dog performers, who don’t have any idea what an extraordinarily awful movie they’re in. Their human counterparts have no such excuse. (Fairfax) (Tim Grierson)
GARFIELD: A TAIL OF TWO KITTIES Not since Dean Martin has an actor worked harder to sustain the illusion of couldn’t-give-a-crap insolence than Bill Murray — and for the voice of cinema’s reigning computer-generated feline glutton, it may not be an illusion. Whatever the case, Murray’s gift for imperious indifference is the only reason to sit through a second for-kids-only movie about Garfield the lasagna-loving cat, here transported to England for a lame species-transplant version of The Prince and the Pauper. The voices are uncommonly well-cast, from Tim Curry as Garfield’s upper-crust doppelgänger to Bob Hoskins as a bulldog (it took this long?) and X-Men Juggernaut Vinnie Jones as a trouser-mangling rottweiler. But they only underscore how misconceived the movie is on every other level. Why is Garfield an ugly, garish CGI blob in a world of real animals? Why can every dog talk except Garfield’s detested sidekick Odie? Why do human leads Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt act as if they’re the ones who’ve been neutered? At least Murray gets a well-deserved holiday from the midlife-crisis monotony of Broken Flowers — a movie that could have used an animated cat. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
LOVERBOY Creepy mom Emily Stoll (Kyra Sedgwick) calls her 6-year-old son Paul (Dominic Scott Kay) “Loverboy” and is so intent on having him completely to herself that she’s not opposed to moving away if the neighbors get too friendly. Having finally gotten pregnant after years of sleeping with men in parking lots and libraries as part of her relentless quest for a child, Emily’s the kind of movie mom who has a trust fund, which gives her time to dance with her child in the rain and tell him that his life dream will come true if he whispers it into the ear of a lamb. Paul’s dream, one assumes, involves getting away from Mom, and moviegoers may want to escape her too, particularly since actor-turned-director Kevin Bacon (Sedgwick’s husband) can’t seem to decide if he’s making a film about a loving eccentric or a sociopath. Sedgwick, who has the most expressively tense neckline in movies, has never shied away from playing unbalanced, unlikable women, but here, Bacon undermines her rigor with a series of off-key mood lighteners, including a soundtrack jarringly heavy on classic-rock standards. More maddening is Emily’s never-ending voice-over narration, which may have been screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare’s way of staying true to Victoria Rede’s award-winning novel, but which grows as tiresome as the director’s penchant for slow-mo montages of mother and son doing backyard cartwheels. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)
THE MOSTLY UNFABULOUS SOCIAL LIFE OF ETHAN GREEN While comic book aficionados furiously argue whether or not the X-Men, Superman and Batman have been well-served by their leaps onto the big screen, the movie version of the long-running queer comic strip “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green” leaves little room for debate. It’s a dud. To be fair, the source material (to which the film is unfortunately faithful) is itself a wan assemblage of creaky one-liners, overly familiar gay ghetto types and sitcom-inspired shenanigans. Ethan is a generically attractive, narcissistic man-child with a string of failed relationships under his designer belt. Surrounded by a coterie of queer-culture stereotypes and fantasy figures — the flamboyant, cross-dressing Hat Sisters; a black female best friend (who happens to be a lesbian); and a bawdy, unconditionally loving mom — Ethan stumbles through the wreckage of his latest failed affair (with a former pro baseball player) while he tries to woo back yet another ex. From that setup, the film spins off into tangents (lesbian rebound love; rote Dubya bashing) that might play well enough in comic strip panels, but seem disjointed and hollow onscreen. As the mom, Meredith Baxter is given doggerel dialogue, but she looks fantastic — which, in Ethan’s world, is all that really matters. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)
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NACHO LIBRE Like the abominable Napoleon Dynamite, director Jared Hess’ second feature will doubtless capture the hearts and minds of 12-year-old boys everywhere, even if Nacho Libre sacrifices the earlier film’s aggressive mean-spiritedness in favor of gentle slapstick lunacy. Hess (who also co-wrote the script with his wife, Jerusha, and School of Rock’s Mike White) still can’t fully suppress his contempt for the obese, the poorly coifed and the orthodontically challenged, but the exuberant sweetness of Jack Black’s performance, as a Oaxaca monastery cook who moonlights as a masked Lucha Libre wrestler, provides a powerful corrective. Black’s quixotic Nacho isn’t as deep or fully drawn as was his inspired schoolteacher character in Rock, consisting more of a series of surface affectations — a mustache, a come-and-go Mexican accent, a flatulence problem — but even Black in a minor key is something to get excited about in today’s movie-comedy wasteland. The sharpest scenes, rendered by Hess with a fair amount of local color, have Nacho, attired in turquoise tights and red tablecloth cape, taking to the ring and taking on an array of eccentric opponents (including a pair of shrieking midget gnomes) with the aid of his rail-thin, atheistic partner (a scene-stealing Hector Jimenez). But too often, Nacho Libre expects us to be tickled by the mere sight of Black shirtless, or going to the toilet, and well before the end, the movie’s one-joke premise — that sometimes a loser can be more endearing to audiences than a winner — has been stretched as thin as a tortilla chip. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
STATES OF GRACE Writer-director Richard Dutcher’s follow-up to his surprise 2000 hit, God’s Army, finds a new group of Mormon missionaries pounding the Los Angeles pavement in search of willing converts. But the gentle, up-with-people tone of the first film has been replaced by an agonized, soul-searching sensibility more reminiscent of Dutcher’s violent 2001 thriller, Brigham City. The film focuses on the weary and cynical Elder Lozano (Argentine actor Ignacio Sericchio), whose heroic rescue of an African-American gang member (Lamont Stephens) from a near-fatal drive-by shooting dredges up unwanted memories of Lozano’s own wayward past and touches off crises of faith in the lives of both men. Their dilemmas play out in compelling and unpredictable ways, strongly aided by Sericchio’s commanding performance (in his feature-film debut) and Dutcher’s continued skill at making a non-Mormon audience understand the moral weights his characters feel hanging over their heads. Too often, though, States of Grace gets bogged down by heavy speechifying and by an ambitious multicharacter narrative structure (including subplots about a homeless street preacher and a young missionary’s infatuation with the comely girl next door) that ultimately detracts from the strong central conflict. (Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas)
GO THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT Manna from gearhead heaven, the third and most guiltily pleasurable Furious emits the crude thrills of a 1950s drag-racing cheapie, only with souped-up Toyotas and Nissans in place of gas-guzzling hot rods, and slinky Asian temptresses substituted for poodle-skirted teenyboppers. But the real star is the titular “drift,” a specialized form of street racing in which drivers steer and brake their way around hairpin turns, at nearly full speed, in an elegant gliding motion. Round and round they go, down perilous mountain roads or up the narrow ramps of crowded parking garages, while crowds of camera-phone-accessorized onlookers scramble to keep up. The Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) is clearly infatuated, and his racing scenes have a zigzaggy splendor. Filmed from high above, their revving engines and screeching tires reduced to a hush, his speeding cars are like ace ice skaters moving balletically across the rink. The plot, so to speak, is that old saw about a Western “gaijin” — here, a cocky but reckless California high schooler (Lucas Black) sent to live with his estranged father in Tokyo — who runs afoul of the locals, in particular the grinningly sadistic nephew (Brian Tee) of a powerful yakuza boss (Sonny Chiba). Naturally, they settle the score not with fists but with cars. And for what do they race? Why, a girl — what else? Somewhere, in that great drive-in movie theater in the sky, Samuel Z. Arkoff is smiling. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
GO GIULIANI TIME In case you were wondering, Rudy Giuliani has always had a bad comb-over. But according to a new agitprop documentary by Kevin Keating, that’s the least of “Fool-iani” ’s many cover-ups. Relying heavily on testimony from Wayne Barrett, The Village Voice’s resident expert on one of New York’s most antagonistic mayors, Giuliani Time energetically deflates one trumpeted myth after another about Giuliani’s success at turning the city around from its doldrums in the 1970s. Sworn enemies like former Mayors David Dinkins and Ed Koch (who places Giuliani somewhere between Caligula and Pinochet) gleefully recount that crime was down in the city before Giuliani’s fabled crackdown, while advocates for the homeless argue that the economic boom accomplished on Giuliani’s watch came at the expense of civil liberties and off the backs of the poor, who were dumped from welfare rolls with no preparation for decent work, while street artists were forced out of the city. I’ll buy the contention that Giuliani would make an even worse president than George Bush. But Keating’s film is such a thoroughgoing hatchet job — Barrett can’t even give the mayor credit for his early successes busting the Mafia without sneering at his family’s (not his) mob connections — that it loses credibility as a rounded portrait of a complex man. At the end, Barrett appears incredulous that Giuliani was widely admired for conducting himself like a hero after 9/11. On that occasion, he did. (Westside Pavilion) (Ella Taylor)