Film Reviews

I’m warning you; he’s a ladykiller.

ANOTHER GAY MOVIE Much like Mel Brooks’ unfunny later films, writer-director Todd Stephens’ gay reinvention of the straight teen comedy is a parody without a worthy target. Swiping the gotta-get-laid plot of American Pie, Stephens introduces us to four perfectly dissimilar gay friends — one nerd, one jock, one flamer, one boy next door — looking to lose their virginity before college. Bulldozing through references to Carrie and Porky’s and whatever other high school films it can remember, Another Gay Movie wants to serve as a campy we’re-here-we’re-queer revolt against the often crass horndog swill that Hollywood has peddled to heterosexual audiences for the last 25 years. But substituting gratuitous shots of Richard Hatch’s schlong for gratuitous shots of Shannon Elizabeth’s ta-tas isn’t satire or commentary or liberation — it’s simply replacing one cheaply titillating image for another, albeit with even worse production values. Stephens finds room for a few touching scenes between class valedictorian Griff (Mitch Morris) and his secret love Jarod (eerie Stephen Malkmus look-alike Jonathan Chase), but AGM exists first and foremost to force-feed juvenile bathroom humor down our throats — almost literally in one repellent scene — and to remind us that butt plugs and penis pumps aren’t automatically hilarious comic props. An argument can be made that AGM exposes a double standard in American cinema: Why shouldn’t homosexuals have the same loud ’n’ stupid sex comedies that mainstream society expects almost as a birthright? Perhaps, but making a gay film only slightly less intolerable than its straight counterparts isn’t much to be proud of. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

 GO THE ANT BULLY They’re kind, cooperative and altruistic. They toil endlessly for scant reward. They live for the greater good of the group and won’t put up with the abuse of individual power. And if you catch the drift of John A. Davis’ animated fantasy, based on the 1999 book by John Nickle, the commonwealth of ants has evolved specifically to service the limo-liberal messaging that Hollywood preaches but won’t live by. Accordingly, the estimable residents of a suburban American ant colony have much to teach young Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen), a skinny, freckled human so overprotected by Mom and traumatized by neighborhood bullies that he takes out his frustrations on their anthill with a viciously applied garden hose — until he finds himself shrunk to fit and sentenced by their queen (Meryl Streep) to live among them and absorb the way of the mensch. This may be more life lessons than you bargained for on a popcorn outing, but The Ant Bully sports a glittering voice cast that includes Julia Roberts as a motherly critter who repeatedly saves Lucas from being swallowed or stamped on, Nicolas Cage as a wizard ant who’s a touch too trigger-happy with the potions, and Paul Giamatti as an evil exterminator. Wittily manipulating scale to generate the requisite fright factor, the movie is stuffed with visual delights both lyrical (a squadron of ants hang-gliding on flower petals) and visceral (a battalion of bottle-blue wasps on the wing). It goes without saying that Lucas will rise to all manner of occasions, but not before Davis, creator of the scrappy boy genius Jimmy Neutron, has rather tediously put the story on hold every 10 minutes for a screechy battle sequence that, however accomplished, lowers the tone of this otherwise niftily imagined movie. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

AZUMI Based on a popular manga serial, Azumi tells the tale of a young orphan girl who’s raised to be an assassin during the late Tokugawa era. Aya Ueto looks great in her Jedi miniskirt (complete with sexy, schoolgirl knee-highs), but her Azumi has the appearance of a teenager capable of killing lots of time at the mall, not scores of samurai villains. A star of Japanese television, Ueto doesn’t have enough charisma or physical toughness to carry a feature film. (She reportedly did many of her own stunts, which may explain why the fight scenes are so underwhelming.) The pulpy revenge narrative, adapted by Rikiya Mizushima and Isao Kiriyama, provides plenty of dramatic set pieces, but director Ryuhei Kitamura can’t make them soar. His bland, wide-angle, high-key visual style kills any sense of period detail — instead of evoking 19th-century Japan, the film looks like it was shot in Valencia. More damaging, though, are the wooden acting, hokey special effects and crude choreography. Failing in its attempts at Zhang Yimou–like poetry, Azumi calls to mind a long, blood-splattered director’s cut of a Power Rangers episode. (Nuart) (James C. Taylor)

BEOWULF & GRENDEL Written around the ninth century (give or take 300 years), “Beowulf” is that epic poem you skimmed over in school, the one with three bloody battles featuring an evil troll, his pissed-off mum and one fire-breathing dragon. In this unsatisfying screen version, screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins and Icelandic-born director Sturla Gunnarsson skip the dragon altogether and concentrate on the all-too-human demons that have driven Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson) to mayhem. As a boy, he witnessed his father’s murder at the hands of a Dane king (Stellan Skarsgard), and now, after years of cave living, he’s assassinating the king’s subjects, mostly by bashing their heads against the wall. Enter Beowulf (Gerard Butler), fabled warrior, who grows increasingly conflicted after learning from a sultry red-haired soothsayer (Sarah Polley, channeling Tori Amos) that Grendel is the maligned one, not the Danes. Filmed in Iceland, Beowulf & Grendel is beautiful, grungy and a little too tasteful for its own good. You can practically feel the filmmakers yearning to have Beowulf and Grendel go all Rambo on each other. Instead, they keep pulling back for more Old English angst, as if they’re torn between commerce and winning the approval of their high school English teacher. (Westside Pavilion) (Chuck Wilson)


 GO THE BLOOD OF MY BROTHER: A STORY OF DEATH IN IRAQ Andrew Berends’ unsettling and uncensored documentary about the American occupation in Iraq examines the 2004 death (at U.S. hands) of a young Baghdad photographer named Ra’ad al-Azawi, its effects on his family and friends, and the larger context of the bloody Shia uprising. Tearing around in a beat-up Oldsmobile, Berends (who also made the impressive fishing documentary Urk) and his intrepid crew filmed Muslims at prayer, lethal firefights in the streets of Sadr City and the saber-rattling rallies of Sayid Moqtada al-Sadr’s masked insurgents. Their access is far broader than any TV network’s, and in the end, they transcended the body counts and bland abstractions that characterize most Western reporting on the war. In the outraged voice of the dead man’s 19-year-old brother, Ibrahim, we hear not just a depth of sorrow, but the irresistible tug of jihad. And that does not bode well for our future in the Middle East. (Fairfax) (Bill Gallo)

HOW TO GO OUT ON A DATE IN QUEENS Artie (Rob Estes) has been a widower for two years, and his buddy Stan (Brian Drillinger) thinks it’s time for him to start dating again. Stan finds a pair of women to take to brunch, then subjects Artie to extensive pre-date counseling, including a warning against any mention of ex-lovers or the word “titty.” During the date, despite Stan’s careful counsel, Artie breaks down and launches into an interminable, tearful monologue about his dead ex-wife and, you guessed it, her fabulous “titties.” The saccharine speech moves the women at the table to tears, and we’re left with the old moral that truth is better than fiction. Meanwhile, across town, a bookie named Johnny (Jason Alexander) finds himself in trouble with the Russian Mafia. First-time director Michelle Danner and screenwriter Richard Vetere draw the characters in the Mafia subplot with such broad strokes they come off as caricatures, while Alexander seems so set against playing George Costanza that he renders the character humorless and dull. At the end, Queens scrapes together the various unrelated plot lines and shoves every character, major or minor, into a random romantic coupling with one of the others. There are a lot of stories here, and, perhaps because none of them could sustain an entire film, they all ended up in this one. (Music Hall) (Stephanie Lysaght)

JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE A preening golden boy (Jesse Metcalfe) who looks like a cross “between an Abercrombie model and a Greek god” and has major skills on the basketball court is the eponymous object of desire in director Betty Thomas’ high school comedy. He’s also a first-class a-hole, as a trio of popular girls — a cheerleading captain (Ashanti), an honor-society overachiever (Arielle Kebbel) and a neo-hippie vegan (Sophia Bush) — learn when they realize they’ve all been dating Tucker simultaneously and swallowing his sweet-talking lies. With some help from a fourth — shy new-girl-in-town Kate (Brittany Snow), who’s seen her single mom (Jenny McCarthy) get burned by a few grown-up Tucker types — they hatch a plan to give John T. a taste of his own heartbreak. Predictably, he proves a formidable adversary, yet Thomas and first-time screenwriter Jeff Lowell manage to twist and turn this rickety enterprise in some surprising ways: The movie isn’t just a raging girl-power polemic, it’s also a double-sided, don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover fable about how Kate gets seduced by the attention that comes with being on Tucker’s arm, and how her genuineness (no matter the false pretenses) brings out his inner romantic. That last notion may make John Tucker Must Die a more overt summertime fantasy than Pirates of the Caribbean, but it also gives the movie some of the naive sweetness of the old John Hughes high school pictures. Whenever John Tucker skirts too close to an emotional truth, it backs away, and some of the slapstick antics are downright inane. But the performers are a bright bunch, especially Snow (even if she’s no sane person’s idea of a wallflower), Metcalfe, who has the cocksure swagger of a young Travolta, and McCarthy, who infuses her few scenes with a haggard dignity masquerading as optimism. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


 GO THE MOTEL Most coming-of-age dramas fall into two broad thematic categories: 1) adolescence as a poetic, magical time in a young person’s life; or 2) adolescence as a cruel, soul-crushing time in a young person’s life. The Motel straddles these worlds, and even if writer-director Michael Kang doesn’t exactly break new ground, he imbues his debut with a quiet, compelling inertia that mimics puberty’s rudderless drift, its burgeoning desire for something, anything, to change. Overweight and shy, Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) is a 13-year-old Chinese-American boy stuck working at his mother’s dilapidated hourly-rate motel in the middle of an economically depressed rural area. The pitiful clientele consists largely of bored couples looking for a quick screw, which leaves the fatherless, hormone-addled Ernest without suitable male role models. Enter Sam (Sung Kang), a cocky Lothario who frequents the motel and soon befriends the awkward young man. Adapting Ed Lin’s novel, Michael Kang emphasizes the emptiness of this particular netherworld — Ernest perceives his existence as a bewildering purgatory, and the feeling also encircles the other characters, who seem equally mired in lives they cannot comprehend or escape. Ernest confronts a bully, falls in love, challenges his domineering mother’s authority and explores his talent for writing, but these potentially conventional teen-drama signposts instead feel fresh because of Chyau’s terrifically understated performance. By not romanticizing its despairing yet humanistic outlook, The Motel presents a moment-by-moment emotional recap of almost anyone’s formative years while simultaneously issuing a stinging reminder on the impossibility of fully outgrowing adolescence’s uncertain searching. (Fairfax; Playhouse 7) (Tim Grierson)

 GO MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE Adan Aliaga’s documentary, set in a dusty working-class town in southeastern Spain, proves there’s still enough music left in the backstreet poetics of neorealism to afford us new and spikily beautiful songs of ordinary life. In the words of 6-year-old protagonist Marina, her little town has “a statue, a fountain, a factory, a beggar and a railroad,” and not much else. Except, that is, for the house where her 75-year-old, cancer-stricken, but still lively grandmother Marita has lived for half a century, hand-built by Marita’s long-dead husband and soon due for demolition. Aliaga deftly balances the perspective of a bouncy, irrepressible child eager to drink in the still-new world — watching trains pass, chasing rats, slurping her soda loudly in church — with that of a formidable, stern but loving old lady who has seen civil war, weathered the 30-year national siesta of the Generalissimo’s rule and arrived safely in the modern age, ready to hand down a rough-hewn wisdom to her grandchild. Filled with sublime moments, like five old ladies getting tipsy and reminiscing (“Back then, you danced with a boy, you’d go to hell!”), or Marina teaching Grandma to dance anew, this is an accomplished miniaturist’s documentary — 80 finely wrought minutes in alternating increments of wonder and loss. (Music Hall) (John Patterson)

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