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Film Reviews

ACCEPTED Or, Ferris Bueller gets his B.A. In this amiable but undernourished campus comedy — the directorial debut of screenwriter Steve Pink (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) — industrious high-school underachiever Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) finds himself rejected from every college under the sun. So he starts his own, the South Harmon Institute of Technology, complete with facilities (an abandoned mental hospital), faculty (a belligerent former shoe salesman) and a fully functional Web site where admission is, quite literally, a click away. Soon, S.H.I.T. becomes a mecca for all the huddled masses turned away by the legitimate university system, with Bartleby presiding over a curriculum that includes classes on skateboarding and “walking around doing nothing.” The joke, of course, is that the “fake” college is no worse — and in some ways better — than the high-ticket institute of higher learning down the road with its stuck-up faculty, inflexible course requirements and humiliating frat-hazing rituals. But like the brunt of current Hollywood comedies (with the notable exception of Talladega Nights), Accepted is an inspired premise in search of a movie: What starts out as a scabrous takedown of academic bureaucracy ends up yet another modestly rousing underdog story about the little slacker that could, his suitably beautiful object of desire (Blake Lively), her preening jock boyfriend and, yes, even a grandstanding courtroom finale. The cheat sheet in Pink’s loose-leaf binder is Long, who’s great fun to watch as he moves through the film with the shit-eating confidence of the kid voted most likely to succeed .?.?. at grand larceny. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

BOYS SHORTS 4 Did you know that most whores do not kiss? Or that many of them are working out childhood issues of abuse or abandonment? Maybe this nugget will shock you: If you take a hustler home and are dumb enough to fall asleep before he leaves, he may well clean out your wallet before bailing. Take your notepad when you check out the latest entry in the queer-themed Boys Shorts series because the collective works are a fount of nonrevelations. The tie that binds them all could be summed up as “Young Hustler, Big City,” as we’re taken on a world tour of the sadness and seediness that defines the existences of our various protagonists (and their tricks) — from the volatile, self-destructive (but very cute) young Algerian in Paris to the blond high school outcast/men’s room ho in New Zealand; from the dark-haired British twink trying to prevent his younger brother from following in his cum-stained footsteps to the Santa Monica Boulevard crackhead with the awesome ass and the skills to pay the bills. Though the eye candy is consistently nice, the shorts travel through and wrap up in tediously familiar territory. Like the jaded-before-their-time boys in the film, you’ve seen this all before. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

GO CROSSING THE BRIDGE: THE SOUND OF ISTANBUL Given the state of the world, it’s hard not to feel wistful about the title of German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin’s tour of the vibrant Istanbul music scene. But this sensational documentary, which follows German avant-garde musician Alexander Hacke around the city with his mobile recording studio, crosses all kinds of bridges — between East and West, indigenous Kurdish and Romany minorities and the Turkish majority, American and Arab rap — to show how, like sex, music is a great integrator of otherwise mutually hostile cultures. In and around the dives of a former slum that now seethes with cosmopolitan influence, Hacke and Akin find a new generation of geographically mobile musicians who grew up on American pop and now embrace both that and the Turkish heritage of their elders. Many are street musicians, some of them using highly politicized, express-train rap lyrics that reject the hate-laced lyrics of gangsta rap: One group tries to foster breakdancing as an alternative to the hard drugs that only recently invaded the city’s projects. The music is gorgeous, and Akin’s feverish camera shows an exile’s love of the beautiful, crumbling but energized city as he pokes around its crevices, looking for recombinations of old and new, here and there. Where Akin’s vitally angry 2004 feature Head-On pushed the limits of confrontation and self-destruction, Crossing the Bridge seeks out reconciliation and harmony. If only. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

 GO FACTOTUM The Norwegian director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) has made a beautiful film from Charles Bukowski’s second novel — the one in which Bukowski surrogate Henry Chinanski (Matt Dillon) watches life pass by through the bottom of an empty bottle while partaking of a series of odd jobs, odder misadventures and a desperate relationship with a rudderless fellow traveler (Lili Taylor). Adapted by Hamer and producer Jim Stark and shot in Minnesota in bleak industrial hues, it’s the closest any film has come, outside of the Bukowski-scripted Barfly, to distilling the author’s world of lonely barrooms at noon, $500 cars, and desperate men and women who cling to each other less out of love than out of terror of loneliness. But this is also an acidly funny work, even if the humor is that of a man who drinks to stave off the pain and madness of sobriety. In his finest performance since Drugstore Cowboy, Dillon plays Chinanski with funereal grandiosity, breathing in every particle of his self-destructiveness like a long, slow drag from a cigarette, moving across the screen like a dinosaur trapped in tar. If it is true, as Bukowski reasoned, that “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire,” Dillon does so with the supreme confidence of the incombustible. (Sunset 5; NuWilshire; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

THE ILLUSIONIST When I first encountered it earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Neil Burger’s The Illusionist struck me as a torpid romantic mystery — not half as clever as it thought it was — about a brilliant stage magician (Edward Norton) in fin-de-siècle Vienna whose love for a lissome countess (Jessica Biel) runs him afoul of the politically ambitious crown prince (Rufus Sewell). After screening the movie again more recently, I still wouldn’t deem it a success — not least because the beautiful but vapid Biel remains as unconvincing as a Viennese countess now as she did then. But The Illusionist goes down easier the second time around, in large part because Burger’s tiresome fixation on whether or not the magician, Eisenheim, is endowed with supernatural powers falls away on a repeat viewing, making it easier to appreciate the movie’s elegant cinematic sleight of hand. As with any good magic show, the fun of a picture like this lies in knowing that we’re being tricked and trying to figure out how the trick works, rather than having the rug pulled out from under us all of a sudden at the end. Had Burger himself realized this sooner, The Illusionist (which was adapted from a short story by Martin Dressler author Steven Millhauser) might have made for a jaunty historical thriller à la Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time. As things stand, the movie is leaden and self-serious, with an unusually hollow performance from Norton, who’s not for a moment convincing as a man of raging passion. Far better is Paul Giamatti as the chief inspector assigned to investigate Eisenheim even as he sees in him something of himself — a man of small standing, physically and socially, who through sheer determination has reached a place of privilege and influence in an empire teetering on the verge of collapse. This is a character worthy of Robert Musil. (Century City 15; NuWilshire) (Scott Foundas)

 GO KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA (NEVER SAY GOODBYE) Karan Johar’s Bollywood melodrama Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) contains set pieces so spine-chillingly effective that people may still be talking about them 20 years from now: The most astonishing of these is a lavish up-tempo musical number in which veteran leading man Amitabh Bachchan and his dashing son Abhishek, clad in matching outfits of black and white and saturated red and clearly enjoying each other’s company, strut their stuff amid spangled chorus girls. The sequence is executed with blissful smoothness, as are many others, although this surprisingly dark drama about the collapse of two marriages isn’t as exhilarating overall as Johar’s last major production, Nikhil Advani’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). The normally winning and ebullient Shah Rukh Khan bravely turns his superstar energy inward as an embittered, injured former soccer star who finds a soul mate of sorts in the sullen Maya (Rani Mukherjee), who never allows her doting husband (Abhishek Bachchan) to forget that marrying him was “the biggest compromise of her life.” These soreheads seem so grimly determined to chip away at their well-meaning mates that we never develop a rooting interest in their relationship. That leaves the movie to be dominated pretty effortlessly by the Bachchans, with Abhishek turning in a powerfully anguished performance and Amitabh kicking up his heels as an aging playboy who relishes his own naughtiness. And as a director of melodramatic peak moments, Karan Johar has no peer: He stages a chance encounter on a New York street between an adulterous husband and the two women in his life with the slow-motion virtuosity of a soap-opera De Palma. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7; One Colorado) (David Chute)

LUNACY At once the most visceral and cerebral of Czech absurdists, Jan Svankmajer weighs in again with a horror-movie treatise on how not to run a lunatic asylum and, by implication, a society. Drawn from two stories by Edgar Allan Poe and philosophically under the influence of the Marquis de Sade — a mad ecstatic if ever there was — Lunacy tracks the adventures of Jean Berlot (played by Pavel Liska, who, so far as I could see from this year’s Karlovy Vary film festival, props up Czech national cinema), a Candide-like naif with nightmares who is “rescued” by a Marquis (the excellent Jan Tríska) with a hyena laugh and dragged through therapies that range from illusory freedom to extreme coercion. Much zealous depravity ensues, Catholicism takes a drubbing and the sets, upsetting the always fragile balance between real and surreal in a Svankmajer film, crawl with the director’s signature animated raw meat. As always, Svankmajer prefers inventive blasphemy (in his book, as in Sade’s, an honorable form of truth telling) to orthodoxy. Point taken, but compared to the focus and vital spontaneity of Svankmajer’s 2004 masterpiece, Little Otik, Lunacy feels programmatic, the repetitive working through of an idea that had me checking my watch. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

MATERIAL GIRLS was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week and can be found online at www.laweekly.com/film. (Citywide)

PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS The faint whiff of bad-adult-film humor wafts off the credits for Psychopathia Sexualis. That this sometimes graphic look into the world of deviant sexuality is written and directed by Bret Wood stokes groaning suspicion before the film even starts. Based on Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s controversial 19th-century medical text of the same name, Psychopathia re-enacts several case studies in which the good doctor tackled a host of “abnormal” manifestations of human sexuality and tried to get at their root causes. (He’s credited with coining the term “sadism,” from the exploits of the Marquis de Sade.) Where the original text was crafted so as not to titillate thrill seekers, the film comes off like an artsy, tarted-up segment from the History Channel, filled with candle-thrown shadows, period costumes and vintage photographs. While a cool, soothing voice-over recites philosophical and analytical passages from the book, actors and actresses (many hamming it up) are put through paces of water sports, blood play and S/M rituals, just for starters. Wood welds prurient interest to intellectual pursuit, tipping the scales heavily in favor of the former while claiming to be about the latter. The light hypocrisy doesn’t matter. It’s a mildly enjoyable romp. (Naz 8) (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 Web site 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 cowritten 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 close-ups, 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 e-mail, and the desaturated color scheme of Sonzero and cinematographer Mark Plummer makes every frame look as though it were 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)

PUSH After coming across a gallon-size zip-lock bag of ecstasy while partying at a Miami nightclub, childhood friends Joe (Chad Lindberg), Mickey (William DePaolo) and Kevin (Pierce Forsythe) are faced with the ultimate moral question: return said drugs to the local Puerto Rican cartel or make some cash? These cats aren’t pariahs like Al Pacino in Scarface; they’ve got metro hair and air-conditioned cubicles. This is about cash-money, son, and beyond that the motivation is sparse. The characters’ naiveté blinds them to all they have to lose while illuminating all they hope to gain. The best performances come from the sidelines: Michael Rapaport as Kevin’s boss, Tommy G, a coke-snorting, stockbroking shyster whose NYC twang enhances his rapid-fire retorts; and Chazz Palminteri as Joe’s father figure, an Italian, balls-no-bullshit bar owner who champions respect above all else. First-time director Dave Rodriguez navigates the pitfalls and possibilities of those big-city Miami nights, his hand-held camera conveying the rush of neon-yellow-green-sprinkled dance floors and the instability of chemical highs. The dialogue — “I got involved in selling ecstasy, Vince!” — fluctuates from believable to laughable, resulting in a narrative that never fully hooks you, though at times it comes close. (Fairfax) (Gavin Williamson)

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 subsuperheroic 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)