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Film Reviews

Macy: Gods lonely man (First Independent Pictures)

GO CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN Not quite drama, not quite comedy, not quite romance, this gossamer first feature by Hans Canosa is one of those seemingly wafer-thin chamber pieces that seep pleasurably into you the morning after. Not entirely by chance, two nameless old flames, played by Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter, meet at a New York wedding a decade after they parted less than amicably. Inevitably they spend the night together. But sex, ordinarily the climax of such a setup, comes fairly early on and plays second fiddle to endless gabbing about then and now and what went right and wrong. This would get really old, really fast, were it not for Gabrielle Zevin’s funny, fluid screenplay and Canosa’s deft use of split screen — often the laziest of thematic shorthands — to show us not only this couple’s skittish history and their equally checkered present lives, but also the ebb and flow of their ambivalent attraction. Bonham Carter gives a wise and wonderfully rueful performance, Eckhart can do smug bastard in his sleep, and though the movie is occasionally too clever-talky for its own good, it has the authentic ring of an elegy for love lost when one partner grows up while the other runs in place. (Westside Pavilion; Sunset 5; One Colorado) (Ella Taylor)

{mosimage}GO PICK EDMOND In David Mamet’s third (and best) movie as writer-director, Homicide (1991), police detective Bobby Gold, tricked — by circumstance, or fate, or the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — into a futile quest for personal and tribal authenticity, winds up naked on the proverbial ash heap, undefended against whatever circumstance, fate, or whoever may still have in store for him. The 20 or so tableaux that constitute Mamet’s 1983 one-act play Edmond, here brought to the screen by Stuart Gordon (who, unbeknownst to many fans of Reanimator, Dolls and Robot Jox, produced and directed the 1974 world premiere of Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago), serve up a variation on much the same cosmic con game. Following a portentous encounter with a storefront fortuneteller (“You are not where you belong!”), white-collar white guy Edmond (William H. Macy, in his most ferociously committed performance since Magnolia) abruptly walks out on his wife and smack into a second portentous encounter, this time in a bar, with a Man (Joe Mantegna) who voices some strong opinions about “niggers” and sets Edmond on the first leg of a grim rite of passage through the grimier precincts of Nighttown (or rather, Sunset and Hollywood boulevards doing their best to impersonate Eighth Avenue back in the day). There, in the wake of a mugging, a knifing, a hand of three-card monte and a series of abortive encounters with the hottest hookers (Starship Troopers’ Denise Richards, Revenge of the Sith’s Ling Bai and American Beauty’s Mena Suvari) to be found on this or any other planet, Edmond, having given full vent to his inner racist, manages to bed down the game young neurotic (Julia Stiles) who will point him toward the way out of his misery. Which brings us about halfway to the punch line and to the peace only abject humiliation can provide. Edmond may play out like the marathon version of every uptight middle-aged cracker’s favorite dirty, self-deprecating joke, but it manages, in the course of a single tersely delineated story, to say more about the dark pathology of American racism than any five character arcs in Crash. So go, by all means, but be prepared to take a beating. (One Colorado; Sunset 5)
(Ron Stringer)

GO THE HOUSE OF SAND Set in the Maranhño Desert of northern Brazil and spanning six decades (starting in 1910), Andrucha Waddington’s admirably pretentious epic of woman in nature makes the rare attempt to impart a purely visual experience: Sensual shots of gargantuan sand dunes appear at least as important in storytelling terms as the faces of three women — mother, daughter and granddaughter (Fernanda Montenegro plays all three in old age) — who are forced to traverse this barren landscape in search of somewhere to settle. Waddington, a veteran of 200 TV commercials (and the ho-hum Me You Them), delivers no shortage of trailer-ready images (major elements include sun, sky, wind, rain and hair), which in succession become hypnotic. The movie naturally works best without dialogue, although the presence of one or two men in Waddington’s forbidding landscape compels some verbal foreplay en route to the universal language of softcore. The current scarcity of art-house cinema that favors poeticism over plausibility works to the great advantage of a film that’s old-fashioned even in its thematic concerns, including what it means to come and go when one’s house is not a home, but the earth itself. (One Colorado; Royal) (Rob Nelson)

THE L.A. RIOT SPECTACULAR According to writer-director Marc Klasfeld’s spoofy re-enactment of the L.A. riots, the 1992 disturbances were the result of too much TV exploitation of the Rodney King–beating tape. We gather this from a scene in which George Holliday’s infamous home video is auctioned off at a Sotheby’s-type gathering of media companies, and from the pair of vapid entertainment reporters who surface throughout the malarial narrative to interview victims and perpetrators of the carnage that follows the acquittal of King’s police assailants. Elliptically narrated by rapper Snoop Dogg, Riot is full of willfully tasteless set pieces and frat-boyishly profane characters (a Korean-owned store in South-Central called Mr. Kim’s Riquor, King’s yarmulke-wearing lawyer, a neo-Nazi suburban living room). Klasfeld shows some technical skill by adroitly working archival footage into the proceedings, and his cast includes Emilio Estevez, Charles Durning, Ronny Cox, Ron Jeremy and George Hamilton. But this vision of the riots as a kind of Kentucky Fried Movie doesn’t lend itself to film the way, say, L.A.’s urban violence does to Sandow Birk’s apocalyptic paintings. Nor does it help that the gags are mortally unfunny. (Sunset 5) (Steven Mikulan)

GO MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA If someone told you that the cost of the ­cheapo plastic necklaces you wore to carouse at Mardi Gras was equivalent to several months’ pay for the young Chinese women who made them, how would you react? Probably in much the same way as most of the New Orleans party animals who got the info from director David Redmon — awful, terrible, next. This smart, witty look at the human cost of free-market reforms and globalization tracks the necklaces from hard labor at one end to hedonism at the other. In China, largely to support their families, the mostly teenage female work force slaves 14 hours a day (plus overtime), with toxic materials, for $3 to $4 a day, sleeping in dormitories and, among other arbitrary infringements on their privacy, forbidden to fraternize with male coworkers. In New Orleans, young women drop their bras for drunken louts in return for the baubles, which they covet for a night, then toss into the trash. Redmon shows Mardi Gras photos to the Chinese girls, who giggle in disbelief, and quizzes their complacent bosses, one of whom — an American — breezily trots out the catchall defense that if he didn’t do it, someone else would. Someone else did: A coda tells us that a resourceful employee stole buckets of his money and plunged him into bankruptcy. The heart bleeds. (Fairfax) (Ella Taylor)

MURDER ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD Veteran Western actor turned schlock-horror auteur Ross Hagen (Click: The Calendar Girl Killer) directed and stars in this low-budget mystery about a grizzled private dick (named Dick — Elwood Dick) investigating the murder of a breathy-voiced barroom chanteuse who happened to be his lover. The movie oozes affection for classic film noir, from its allusive title to the suitably hard-boiled dialogue (“You look like 10 miles of bad road”) to a lurid plot (murder, blackmail, sex-for-sale and all that jazz) that might have been lifted from a thousand dime-store fictions. The setting is contemporary, though, and at its best, the movie creates an insidiously appealing mash-up of past and present — Hagen wants us to believe that just beyond Hollywood Boulevard’s glittering, gentrified façade lies the underworld of Hammett and Chandler, replete with fedora-wearing gumshoes and wide-eyed starlets just off the bus from Topeka or Des Moines. One wishes the whole thing were better: Hagen may have boozy atmosphere to burn, but he isn’t much good at creating suspense, and he has a weakness for strapping young ingénues whose looks and talent run in inverse proportion. (The rest of the roles are fleshed out by MIA character actors like 1970s teen queen P.J. Soles and Flower Drum Song star Nancy Kwan, vamping it up as the proprietress of a high-end brothel that looks more like a genteel retirement home). Only Hagen’s own performance keeps things lively, exuding the kind of weariness — all leathery skin and a voice like secondhand smoke — that comes to some actors after a career full of missed opportunities. You see how, in the right, tailor-made role, he could be grand. Calling Quentin Tarantino. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)

POSTER BOY Henry Kray (Matt Newton) is a typical partying, drinking, fucking college boy except for one thing — he’s the gay son of a virulent right-wing senator. With Henry not out to his family and not letting anyone at school know who his father is, it goes without saying that his two worlds will collide. When Dad — bullying and abusive toward his son, his boozy Southern wife (Karen Allen) and his staff — demands that left-leaning Junior join him in the campaign, all hell breaks loose. And that hell is stoked by a duplicitous former member of ACT UP. Working from a preachy, clumsy script that’s full of gaping holes in logic, plot and character development, director Zak Tucker is also handicapped by a cast filled with actors who seem to be in their first year of acting school — a lot of surface, mannered performances. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are odious and annoying regardless of their political stripe. Newton and Allen are actually quite good but sabotaged by everything around them. Told in flashback style to a shady reporter, the tale is unnecessarily fractured and becomes increasingly didactic as it collapses into a mess of shrill big-screen activism and smugly relayed leftist ideals. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)

PULSE The J-horror remake wheel spins again, spitting out this pathetic Americanization of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s apocalyptic fable about a literal ghost in the machine. In Kurosawa’s version (released briefly in the U.S. last fall and recently issued on DVD), a mysterious website functioned as a portal by which the dead could re-enter the world of the living, with unsavory consequences for all who logged on. In director Jim Sonzero’s update (from a script co-written by Wes Craven), more or less the same thing happens — only, instead of a band of smart, resourceful computer geeks, the victims are an assortment of vacant boy- and girl-toys (including Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell and actor-model Ian Somerhalder) who spend most of the film lounging about in skimpy attire and looking ready for their closeups, Mr. Weber. Kurosawa’s Pulse was as terrifying for its sense of loneliness and communication breakdown in the technology age as for any ectoplasmic apparitions. Here, the CG effects are plentiful, but the scare factor rarely rises above the level of a viral email, and the desaturated color scheme of Sonzero and cinematographer Mark Plummer makes every frame look as though it was developed in a solution of vomit and ash. The spirits in Pulse don’t kill you outright; they drain you of your life-giving energy first. So does the movie. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

STEP UP Thin storytelling married to thin bodies of extreme physical grace, this clunky but moderately charming descendant of Saturday Night Fever and Fame covers the usual territory of boy meets girl from across the tracks and finds love and rapid upward mobility through the arts. Directed with more verve than skill by Anne Fletcher, who can’t resist choreographing every scene whether there’s dancing in it or not, Step Up has one really good actor, Channing Tatum, who’s also a great street dancer soon to distinguish himself in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Tatum plays Tyler, a white homeboy who discovers dance and romance (with Jenna Dewan, no actress but a lithe and lovely mover) while doing community service at a high school for the arts headed by Rachel Griffiths (working at half steam). By way of plot, obstacles pop up and are hurdled with clockwork regularity, but notwithstanding a tacked-on foray into gang violence — a quick bone thrown to the lad audience — the movie serves up a pleasant, if unsurprising, confluence of classic ballet with street dance, not to mention a seamless collusion of polite racial integration with savvy niche marketing. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

GO 13 TZAMETI The artiest entry in the ever-growing torture-movie genre, this playfully wicked French thriller from 20-something provocateur Gela Babluani (winner of the lion cub’s prize at Venice) blasts its way into your brainpan with the help of black-and-white wide-screen cinematography whose striking but smooth textures better suit the upwardly mobile auteur than his poor protagonist. Patching roofs in rural France to support his impoverished Georgian-immigrant clan, Sébastian (played by the filmmaker’s boyishly handsome little brother Georges) gets screwed out of a paycheck, then impulsively assumes another man’s identity in pursuit of untold opportunity from a train ticket and a set of mysterious instructions that the wind literally blows his way. Narrative contrivance abounds, well past the point when the kid learns that Fate has tapped him to play a most dangerous game, though Babluani’s own sport-shooting advances one’s heart rate enough to push logic aside. (No wonder an English-language remake is in the works — courtesy of Babluani himself.) As a brutal metaphor for the global economy, 13 Tzameti takes care of business; its assertion that desperate means require desperate measures naturally extends to the hair-trigger world of genre filmmaking, wherein young Babluani did what he had to do. (Nuart) (Rob Nelson)

GO WHO NEEDS SLEEP? Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, In the Heat of the Night) returns to his prolific side career as an activist documentary filmmaker (Introduction to the Enemy, Bus Riders Union) for this angry and impassioned investigation into a subject close to his heart: the deaths of Hollywood film-crew members who have been killed by falling asleep at the wheel after working long hours on sets. Wexler, tenacious as ever at age 80, interviews actors (Annette Bening, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman), directors (Richard Donner, John Sayles), cameramen and union officers as he paints his agitprop portrait of an industry in which safety is all too often compromised in the name of “getting the shot.” But Wexler — a champion of workers’ rights ever since he helped organize a strike at his own father’s factory — broadens his focus until Who Needs Sleep? becomes a miniature history of the American labor movement. The result is (no pun intended) a powerful wake-up call, not just for Hollywood but for a nation that once fought passionately for the eight-hour workday and now, ever more willingly, works itself to death. (Monica 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)

WORLD TRADE CENTER Read Ella Taylor's review here. Read Paul Cullum's interview with Oliver Stone here. (Citywide)

ZOOM  A sick feeling starts to set in the moment the opening credits announce “Songs by Smash Mouth,” and it doesn’t ease up much during the sub-superheroic antics that follow. Sky High already used the principal idea from Jason Lethcoe’s Zoom’s Academy books — a Harry Potter–like school for superheroes located above the clouds — so the movie proceeds to ignore the source material almost completely, relocating the action to a secret military installation known as Area 52 (that’s about as funny as it gets, folks). Tim Allen gamely brings some humanity to the role of the retired, powerless hero Captain Zoom, but is thwarted at every turn by bad special effects, slapdash editing, interminable pop-song montages, and a goofy performance by Courteney Cox. Zoom’s goal is to train four kids (Spencer Breslin, Kate Mara, Michael Cassidy, and Ryan Newman) to develop their powers in time to fight an oncoming supervillain, but the bad guy doesn’t even show up until the very end. Meanwhile, there’s product placement so egregious that one of the characters is actually named Mr. Pibb. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)


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