Film Reviews

Anarchy in the U.K. (IFC Films)

 GO BARNYARD Even an advanced case of critter fatigue shouldn’t stop you from rushing out to see this delightfully cheeky animated tale of a farm full of good but misguided beasts under siege from wily coyotes and their own social disarray. Protected by the wise, brave old cow Ben (voiced by Sam Elliott), the animals, egged on by Ben’s irresponsible party cow of a son Otis (Kevin James), spend their time boogying — until Ben goes the way of all benign parents in studio movies, leaving the barnyard a rudderless ship and forcing Otis to consider mending his prodigal-son ways with only a clapped-out horse (Danny Glover) to mentor him. As earnestly stuffed with worthy message as this sounds, Barnyard, written and directed by Steve Oedekerk of Ace Ventura fame, is jazzed by breezy irreverence and a mischievous use of rock & roll that revels in the sheer fun of juvenile irresponsibility. Packed with noisy action, this isn’t exactly a toddler date movie (even when targeting this age, the studios are going after boys, with a few chickadee sops to little girls); but the giddily indeterminate approach to bovine gender — Otis is as generously endowed with udder as is the pregnant lady cow (Courteney Cox) for whom he falls with a thud — and charmingly sappy adoption subtext lend ample appeal to this decidedly non-Orwellian story of four legs good, two legs irrelevant. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

BOYNTON BEACH CLUB With due respect for older moviegoers hungry to see the pains and pleasures of aging represented on the big screen, it hurts to think that some of them are willing to be fobbed off with this execrable excuse for a senior comedy, which only got a distributor after it screened through the roof among the Early Bird crowd in Florida. Sloppily cooked up by Desperately Seeking Susan’s Susan Seidelman and her mum, Florence, Boynton Beach Club is set in an active-adult retirement community, with a fairly distinguished cast trying to bend itself around Seidelman and Shelly Gitlow’s gag-ridden screenplay, as a group of bereaved seniors looking for love and friendship. A threadbare plot peeks through the shameless run of shopworn jokes about Viagra, stashed-away dildos, eager old dames delivering unsolicited casseroles to freshly widowed men. Sally Kellerman and Len Cariou bring some sorely needed self-respect to a couple going through dating pains, and Dyan Cannon, once you get over the shock of what the surgeons have done to her face, makes a warm and lively friend to newly widowed Brenda Vaccaro. The rest is best seen as a pilot for a Golden Girls spinoff, ready for cancellation in week two. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

THE DESCENT In British writer-director Neil Marshall’s girl-power fright flick, six female friends set out on a weekend cave-exploring expedition somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, just a few miles up the road from where nobody can hear you scream. Then there’s a cave-in, and as our adventurous heroines scramble toward daylight, they discover they’re . . . not . . . alone. Arriving prehyped as one of the scariest movies of all time (it isn’t), The Descent starts out as a creepily absorbing, Cronenbergian experiment in psychological horror, as the terror of claustrophobia brings the women’s subconscious fears and desires to the fore. But once it’s made clear that these friends are merely dinner for a family of batlike humanoids (imagine the alien from Alien crossbred with Deliverance’s albino banjo-picker), the movie devolves into a conventional man-versus-nature pursuit, further marred by performances just this side of a high-toned porno and the frequently irrational behavior of its characters (though maybe that’s Marshall’s way of showing us what he really thinks of the fairer sex). The Descent is compulsively watchable, with its fair share of effective sledgehammer shocks; it just isn’t very good, even by the most forgiving trash-art standards. Incidentally, well before the carnage begins, the movie does nothing to make the “sport” of spelunking seem even remotely appealing. I mean, you drop down into this dark, dank shaft and then start looking for a way out. Some people get paid to do that: They’re called miners. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

 GO FAVELA RISINGFavela Rising opens with this onscreen quote: “Between the years 1987 and 2001, 467 minors were killed in Israel and Palestine combined. During that same time, 3,937 minors were murdered in one city in Brazil.” Centered on the life of Anderson Sa, drug dealer turned musician and community activist, directors Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimablist’s film echoes works like Bus 174 and City of God, illuminating the Brazilian slum (a.k.a. favela) culture of poverty and dysfunction that has sprung up from decades of government neglect and police corruption. Filled with gory footage and talking heads from all sides of the law, Rising is familiar material that is often funneled — unnecessarily — through emotionally manipulative editing and pacing that draw out real-life tension or dramatic moments, when the material is inherently fascinating, horrifying and uplifting. But such missteps can’t blunt the power of Favela, which is elevated by fantastic performance footage of Sa and his young protégés singing, dancing and rhythmically banging on cans, plastic bottles or anything else that can be fashioned into a drum — and a cultural revolution. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)


 GO  GABRIELLE Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” is sure to divide audiences into admirers of Chéreau’s lyrically bleak vision (he made the beautiful 1998 movie Those Who Love Me Will Take the Train and the very silly Intimacy in 2001) and cranks irritated by a surfeit of style and talk. For those of us uneasily positioned somewhere in between, Gabrielle, a quietly insidious tale of domestic warfare that makes the protagonists of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage look like pussycats, will exasperate and satisfy in roughly equal measure. Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert are magnificent as the battling Belle Époque couple whose arid but convenient union falls apart when he comes home to find a note saying she’s left him for another man — and not just any other man, but an employee he despises. Don’t expect Madame Bovary, still less Anna Karenina: She’s back within hours, and then the gloves really come off with the quiet hostility perfected, at least in les French films, by the haute bourgeoisie. Chéreau doesn’t want us rooting for anyone in this deadly face-off; he wants us to take in the ebb and flow of disappointed love and hatred in a marriage fatally warped by the need to possess and the absence of sexual connection. I couldn’t stop watching, but came away spiritually drained. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

MARRIAGE, IRANIAN STYLE The title of Hassan Fathi’s Marriage, Iranian Style promises nothing more than the sort of broad, semifarcical romantic and family comedy that has increasingly been the only type of Iranian cinema available on Los Angeles screens. Part the veil, though, and Fathi’s film emerges as a frequently charming tale of the obstacle-ridden courtship — and marriage — of David (Daniel Holmes), an American computer techie, and Shirin (Shila Khodadad), the daughter of a wealthy, tradition-bound rug merchant. It isn’t every day that the process of an American assimilating into an Islamic family (complete with circumcision and religious conversion) is depicted in an Iranian movie, thus reversing the standard image of modern, hip youth in Iran’s cities indulging in all things Western. To be sure, Fathi’s and screenwriter Minoo Farshchi’s own Western interests are plentiful, from Shakespeare to Lubitsch and Wilder, but it’s the way in which the themes of love and family reconciliation, the absurd paranoia of conservative oldsters toward foreigners, and the petty dealings between warring rug merchants are melded that lends the movie a distinctly Persian sensibility. Holmes is a truly execrable actor, and the movie’s tone waffles from broad shtick one minute to gentle human comedy the next. The film’s kindly manner is inviting, though, and it’s worth noting that even a sweet-natured entertainment like this can now run afoul of Iran’s increasingly conservative cultural guardians: Marriage was held from commercial screens for over a year and only released domestically two months ago, with much of David’s role trimmed. (The version for the U.S. restores these cuts.) (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Robert Koehler)

THE NIGHT LISTENER As a performer, Robin Williams has a wonderfully volatile range; as an actor, he commutes uneasily between over-sincere and over-sinister. Both modes are on full monochromatic display in this stolid noir thriller directed by Patrick Stettner (who made the overheated The Business of Strangers), based on Armistead Maupin’s roman à clef about a late-night radio talk-show host who may or may not be the subject of an elaborate hoax. By turns unctuous and sulky, Williams’ Gabriel spends most of the movie stumbling around nighttime rural Wisconsin, chasing or being chased by a pathetically misused Toni Collette as the putatively blind putative guardian of a putative young victim (Rory Culkin) of child abuse. No doubt much pundit ink will be spent hitching The Night Listener to the hullabaloo around recent hoaxters like James Frey and J.T. Leroy, but Gabriel emerges more as a credulous sap than as the bighearted walking wound Maupin and Stettner would have us believe him to be. To me, the movie is of interest only for its embrace — barely explored in a languid subplot about Gabriel’s breakup with his boyfriend — of the eternal ambivalence with which writers tap the lives of people they know and/or love for their work. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

NIGHTMARE MANNightmare Man comes billed as “A Rolfe Kanefsky Flick” — a designation that has less cachet than, say, “A Spike Lee Joint,” unless you’re a connoisseur of straight-to-video softcore. The latest from the auteur of Sex Files: Alien Erotica and The Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man is a strenuously lurid little number about Ellen (Blythe Metz), a fetching pill-popper suffering from vivid dreams in which she’s stalked and raped by a Jeepers Creepers–looking assailant in an African tribal mask. En route to a mental hospital, her car breaks down and her dreamland antagonist — Nightmare Man — shows up again, brandishing a knife. So Ellen flees to a cabin in the woods, where four attractive folks (including Z-horror queen Tiffany Shepis) are enjoying a weekend of — wait for it — erotic discovery. (Among their findings: Guys like lesbians, and girls know how to fake orgasms.) Scantily clad and dubious of their new guest, they’re easy prey for our slow-moving ghoul. Nightmare Man wears its intentions proudly on its shabby, cut-rate sleeve: It’s a supercheap gore fest that finds every excuse for disrobing and penetrating (literally and extra­corporeally) its female characters. Kanefsky pays homage all over the place — to The Evil Dead, obviously, and to Dan Curtis’ 1977 horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror. But while his DVD collection may be impressive, Kanefsky’s a dreadful filmmaker — even for a pornmeister. Nightmare Man is all impenetrably dark nighttime shots, politely telegraphed shocks and limp, transparent misogyny masquerading as genre-savvy hijinks. (Sunset 5) (Adam Nayman)


SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM After this cutesy whodunit adapted from Richard Stevenson’s long-running mystery series, the late Mickey Spillane must be spinning in his crypt. Not because it features a gay private eye — let alone one who makes his first big appearance bobbing up from his husband’s lap — but because it packs all the pulpy authenticity of rotgut served from a tea cozy. In his second outing (after last year’s Third Man Out) as Stevenson’s Albany-based shamus Donald Strachey, Chad Allen again flexes the hard-boiled chops he honed on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Here, the suave gumshoe with the Bloomsbury namesake and the absurdly vanilla spouse (Sebastian Spence) goes undercover to check out a shady conversion-therapy clinic, dodging bullets, hit-and-run attempts and the hungry looks of a recovering boy toy (Shawn Roberts) whose conversion ain’t exactly taking. Director Ron Oliver applies a thin veneer of straight-to-cable pseudo-gloss without finding a workable tone, and the cast lacks the charisma and chemistry to make the genre and gender-bending register as more than novelty: In this crew, as a sinister dowager, ’80s soap queen Morgan Fairchild stands out like Isabelle Huppert. (Regent Showcase) (Jim Ridley)

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