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Film Reviews

PICK MUTUAL APPRECIATION The latest from Funny Ha Ha director Andrew Bujalski — the cinema’s reigning poet laureate of postcollegiate anomie — is another baggy, charmingly disheveled romp through awkward courtship rituals and uncomfortable silences. This time, the setting is New York City, where Alan (the wonderfully dazed and confused Justin Rice) is an indie-rock musician trying to go solo, while poorly suppressing his attraction to Ellie (Rachel Clift) — who happens to be the girlfriend of Alan’s best friend, Lawrence (well played by Bujalski himself). As before, Bujalski’s preference for nonprofessional actors, his ear for the rhythms of conversation among bright young 20-somethings and his adept use of a roving, hand-held camera (this time shooting in fuzzy black and white) lend the film an invigorating energy. Yet the movie’s defining characteristic — especially in two hilarious sequences set at a pair of underpopulated, overlong parties — may be its languor, its familiar sense of how we drag our feet in the sands of time to delay “growing up” and, worse still, becoming our parents. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7)  (Scott Foundas) Click here to read Scott Foundas’ Web-exclusive interview with Andrew Bujalski.

AMERICAN BLACKOUT Ian Inaba’s American Blackout isn’t a flashy or genre-busting documentary. Stylistically and structurally, it’s strictly by the book — full of talking heads, file footage and unlimited access to controversial Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. It’s also one of the most important of the deluge of political docs that have flooded the cultural landscape over the last several years. Kicking off with the detailed argument that black voters in Florida were systematically disenfranchised in the 2000 presidential election, the film then pulls double duty: It’s a fine-tooth examination of both the continued, unconstitutional marginalization of black voters in America and the attempts by various political and media machines to crush McKinney in retaliation for her outspokenness on that subject and on the illegality of the war in Iraq. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, except that the film’s interview with a Republican operative who gloats at the way he helped sabotage McKinney’s 2002 re-election campaign is quite real, as is news footage of Katherine Harris smilingly shrugging off the question of what she did to remedy the unlawful purging of thousands of black voters from Florida rolls. American Blackout is an illuminating, infuriating document that paints McKinney as a true American heroine and patriot and confirms your worst fears about just how rotten our “democratic” process is at its core. (Magic Johnson Theatres) (Ernest Hardy)

THE BRIDESMAID Given Claude Chabrol’s doggedly consistent fascination with psychopathic crime intersecting with bourgeois lives, it’s a surprise to find that The Bridesmaid is only his second adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel (after La Cérémonie). It is, in any case, a psychodrama of typically brisk efficiency and relaxed gallows humor. The semi-functioning family at the center is sketched in — responsible son (with incestuous lurkings) Benoit Magimel, high-spirited single mom Aurore Clément, bickering sisters — before we meet the titular catalyst at a family wedding: Senta (Laura Smet), a sensuous but off-putting seductress with a mysterious past. Magimel is all pro, deciphering life with his eyes, as the chump who gets vacuumed in by this odd girl’s impulsive devotions and Nietzschean delusions, but Smet, all eyelashes and butterscotch skin, is the film’s prize; she doesn’t act out the character’s slowly revealed pathologies so much as keep them barely contained behind her mesmerizing stare, like mad dogs in a cage. Chabrol sets us up, of course, which is half the fun, and the experience is a delight, for lack of pomposity (his visual storytelling remains no-nonsense) as well as genre expertise. (Nuart) (Michael Atkinson)THE COVENANT was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here soon. (Citywide)

CRANK Ludicrously named hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) ­awakens to the news that he’s been injected with a deadly poison, the effects of which can be staved off by cranking his adrenaline up to insanely high levels. Naturally, his reaction is to turn the city of Los Angeles into his own personal Grand Theft Auto game while searching for the culprit (Jose Pablo Cantillo). Property is destroyed, racial prejudices are indulged, and Chev even delivers a very public doggy-style sex scene with his doofus stoner girlfriend (Amy Smart). First-time feature directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor play with speed and sound to re-create effectively the buzz of an over-caffeinated all-nighter, delivering one of the year’s best pure junk-food entertainments. They get that a stimulant high isn’t just about fast motion, and induce weird periods of slowness and distortion into the mix too. If you stop to think too hard about any aspect of the story, things might fall apart; but stopping is something the movie never lets you do. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)HOLLYWOODLAND See film feature.

 

HURRICANE ON THE BAYOU This family-friendly IMAX documentary, warning of the potential for disaster if the erosion of the Louisiana wetlands isn’t reversed, was in postproduction when Hurricane Katrina struck. Less than a week later, director Greg MacGillivray (Everest, Coral Reef Adventure) and his crew were back in New Orleans, borrowing from the Miami Vice movie set a helicopter on which they mounted their huge cameras. The resulting footage — of crumbled homes, a cargo ship hurled onto a freeway, and water-sunken neighborhoods — is familiar yet powerful, and the giant IMAX screen offers a sense of scale that simply isn’t possible on television. To counter the sense of hopelessness such images might inspire in their young target audience, MacGillivray and screenwriter Glen Pitre return again and again to their exploration of the life-renewing wetlands, complete with a mama alligator sitting atop 50 about-to-hatch eggs, and the band of humans cheering them on, chiefly, Cajun musician Tab Benoit and 14-year-old violin prodigy Amanda Shaw, who narrates much of the film (along with Meryl Streep). A film free of political fury, but full of activist optimism, this tame but heartfelt documentary is a fine companion piece to a day at the science museum. (California Science Center IMAX Theater) (Chuck Wilson)

IDIOCRACY The strange irony of Fox off-loading the new (yet long-completed) Mike Judge comedy without screenings, trailers, posters or marketing is that, in the IQ-obliterated future Judge’s movie envisions, the biggest evil in the collective sanding of our brains is arguably advertising. Luke Wilson plays a present-day average Joe experimentally frozen by the Army and forgotten about until he’s accidentally awakened in 2505, where he discovers a slovenly, sophomoric, masturbatory, junk-food-engorged world of mental midgets, who first imprison him, then make him secretary of the interior once they realize he’s probably the smartest man in the world. It’s an eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too concept — stupid humor as dystopian satire. Idiocracy squeezes out just enough embarrassed heh-hehs and what-if loopiness to justify outraged film-geek conversations of the “They’ll release [insert despised studio film here] and dump this?” variety — my own favorite gag being an Orwellian Carl’s Jr. that punishes infrequent patrons by taking custody of their children — but it’s a low-boil affair from the Office Space auteur that wears out its dumb-and-dumbest playbook early on. When we see CGI cityscapes of neglected, barren skyscrapers and monuments tilting, it’s somehow appropriate: The movie just feels off. If you crave a lively and funny trek through the farcical possibilities of unchecked dimwit power, Judge is still your guy. Just go rent Beavis and Butt-head Do America instead. (Citywide) (Robert Abele)

IRAQ FOR SALE: THE WAR PROFITEERS Likely the first film in history with more than 3,000 credited producers, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers was financed largely by fans of director Robert Greenwald, the trash-TV maven turned liberal muckraker responsible for the successful, colon-happy agit-docs Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Greenwald puts his mouth where their money is, and a lot of what he says sticks. While it doesn’t deviate from the snippy, newsmagazine format of its predecessors, Iraq for Sale stays mostly on point and on target, as Greenwald trains his sights on the ruinous consequences of corporate involvement in the Iraq war. His inventory of unsavory activities won’t necessarily surprise news-savvy viewers, but should prove plenty that’s incendiary for the uninitiated. Greenwald’s technique: Locate an unquestionably distressing issue — for example, the shameless, back-scratching relationship between the U.S. government and privatized money-mongers like Halliburton and Blackwater — and give it an anguished human face. The film is assembled out of ax-grinding interviews (the mother of a Navy SEAL–turned–Blackwater contractor killed in Fallujah; the wife of a Halliburton KBR truck driver ambushed in the line of nonmilitary duties), and pointed, sympathetic testimony from attorneys, whistleblowers, watchdogs and journalists. (No devil’s advocates here.) The antagonistic tone (shades of Michael Moore) won’t win many converts from the other side, but Greenwald’s sense of indignation carries the day: He preaches to the choir — and apparently passes the collection plate — with evangelical furor. (Music Hall) (Adam Nayman)LAGE RAHO MUNNA BHAI (KEEP ON GOING...) This odd-duck sequel to one of Bollywood’s smartest recent crowd pleasers edges perilously close to repudiating the beloved original, Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), in which a lovable hulk of a soulful Mumbai gangster (Sanjay Dutt) bullied his way into medical school to win the respect of his estranged parents. With a script as clear and simple as a fable, and frequent injections of street-thug sarcasm to cut the sentimentality, Munna Bhai was an almost perfectly calibrated mainstream entertainment. (Mira Nair’s looming U.S. remake, Gangster M.D., has been offered to Chris Tucker.) Writer-director Hirani’s new Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Keep On Going...) squanders most of the goodwill generated by Part 1, banishing nearly all of its supporting characters to the Shadow Zone and starting all over again from scratch, with Dutt’s engaging sad-sack goonda re-imagined as a lonely-guy mobster with a moony crush on a popular radio personality. Munna spends so many sleepless nights studying Gandhi to impress his ladylove that he imagines the ghost of the Mahatma tagging along behind him offering advice, like the spirit of Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. The obstacle that Munna is determined to overcome with his newfound nonviolence is a greedy developer (Boman Irani as a stereotyped Sikh vulgarian) who has evicted the residents of a retirement home. The only real suspense factor is how often Hirani will cut to a close-up of expert comic scene-stealer Arshad Warsi, who gets all the biggest laughs as Munna’s right-hand stooge. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)

 

NEO NED There’s a scene halfway through director Van Fischer’s cockeyed second feature where a neo-Nazi skinhead and an African-American woman run laughing through a park holding hands, accompanied by chimey, upbeat music. Such are the ironic, often comedic upendings that Fischer and screenwriter Tim Boughn unload on audiences in this “us against the world” love story between racist young thug Ned (Jeremy Renner) and suicidal single mother Rachael (Gabrielle Union), who meet cute in a psychiatric ward. Oh, and did we mention that Rachael thinks she’s Adolf Hitler? The film revels in absurdist Harold and Maude–esque shtickery: When Ned draws Rachael a romantic picture, it is of crayon swastikas and cute bumblebees wielding machine guns. When they go for ice cream, Ned orders a Chocolate Swirl. Ned lectures Rachael on “mixing the races” in the moments before their first kiss. Ned wears his Nazi T-shirt backward during a job interview with an oblivious employer. The problem lies in the film’s inability to decide whether such loaded images are funny in a Farrelly Brothers/Dave Chapelle kind of way or if they mean something deeper. The terrific lead performances only heighten this confusion. Renner invests Ned with a weirdly supercharged sense of all-American can-do spirit, while a decidedly de-glammed Union burns with a fierce intelligence and brooding wit that suggest that her and Ned’s redemption is but a brief, delusional flash. (Fairfax) (Matthew Duersten)

THE PROTECTOR Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger passed the action-hero torch to The Rock in The Rundown, Muay Thai star Tony Jaa gets the nod here from a similarly qualified veteran making an unbilled cameo. Jaa has the skills for the job, and shows them off in numerous fight scenes; it’s just a shame that the movie he’s in is barely acceptable in any other respect. The plot (if we may even call it that) sees Jaa traveling to Australia in order to bust a Sydney-based Thai crime syndicate whose leader (Jin Xing) kidnaps elephants in order to bedeck their skeletons with jewels and become one with their spirits — or something like that. Edited for the U.S. with atrocious partial dubbing and an incongruous new score by the RZA, the movie might be a waste if not for the four-minute, single-take restaurant fight scene, and the glorious final sequence, which does for breaking bones what Kill Bill: Vol. 1 did for amputations. Best to wait for DVD so you can just skip directly to it. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

SHERRYBABY Fresh out of the joint with a heroin habit at bay, bottle-blonde Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) swoops down on the young daughter she left behind, who’s being cared for by Sherry’s brother and his wife. In her hapless efforts to become a reformed mother, Sherry all but swallows the little girl whole and tries to bend an unbending world her way with a poisonous mix of seduction and brutish hostility, leavened with the requisite hint of Good Person beneath. Glistening with Sundance Lab grit (rain-soaked streets, dreary strip malls, etc.), Sherrybaby is by no means a terrible film. Capably written and directed by Laurie Collyer, whose documentary background is clearly in evidence, the movie is enhanced by intelligent acting from Gyllenhaal (who takes to blue-collar like a duck to water), Brad William Henke as her sensible brother and Danny Trejo as a sympathetic fellow former addict. But we know exactly where the action is going from word one, and the movie never shakes free of the 12-step psychology that carries its main character doggedly from good intentions through relapse, more relapse, to the big secret that explains why this confused young woman is as she is, to the inevitable glimmer of hope. Sherry may represent a generation detached from its moorings, but as an individual, she’s no more than the sum of her pathologies. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

 

VAJRA SKY OVER TIBET “When the Iron Bird flies, the dharma will go to the West,” says a 1,500-year-old Tibetan Buddhist prophecy, one that seems to have been amply fulfilled in 1959, when Mao’s Communist forces overwhelmed Tibet, killed a million or so Tibetans, and forced the 14th Dalai Lama into his still-continuing Western exile. In the near half-century since, there has been a deliberate long-term undermining of Tibet’s ancient Buddhist culture — crudely violent in the Great Helmsman’s time, more subtle and insidious since. Deep physical and spiritual scars remain on this tiny, beleaguered nation. Longtime Buddhist filmmaker John Bush took a two-person crew into the country — without official permission, they avoided interviews for fear of reprisals — and filmed, often surreptitiously, the great religious sites as they exist now, after decades of oppression from Beijing. He finds a resilient, welcoming people who continue to practice their religion (now “officially tolerated”) despite the infiltration of Chinese agents into their monasteries, the razing of many sites to facilitate surveillance, and the kidnapping of the family of the 9-year-old Pandau Lama (whose future duty is to choose the next Dalai Lama) and his replacement by a 6-year-old Beijing-backed stooge. Filmed only with direct light and sound, Bush’s stunning camerawork adroitly captures the majestic landscapes and icons of Buddhism: its murals and artworks, monks and nuns. Not incidentally, the film also offers a compact primer in the ways of dharma. A tonic for Buddhists, no doubt, it offers many pleasures to atheists as well. (Westwide Pavilion; One Colorado) (John Patterson)

THE WICKER MAN Gender-combat provocateur Neil LaBute remakes the cult 1973 British film, and it’s something of a muddy, methodical slog, and as overwritten as you’d expect, with plenty of the-past-was-no-accident ploys and character traits (a bee allergy, for instance) that — surprise! — emerge as plot functions. Faithful to his own prejudices, LaBute has reinvented the generalized Celtic pagans of Anthony Shaffer’s original screenplay as a mother-goddess-worshipping matriarchy whose main product is honey, and whose men are all mysteriously mute and subservient. Now, the mainland officer (Nicolas Cage), haunted by a highway wreck and in search of a missing girl, has only the quasi-Amish colony’s irrationally antiquated ways to infuriate him. Given its origins, the film is curiously sexless — curiously, that is, until you realize how LaBute is shaping the material, unleashing his particular brand of savage-sympathetic woman hating. The film boils down to Cage’s hangdog investigator barking at implacable and gorgeously forbidding women and, eventually, punching the shit out of several, as the story’s timer ticks down to a murderous fertility ritual. This wasn’t a horror film the first time around, and LaBute makes sorry feints at effective creepiness, letting the story roam in circles just like Cage. (Citywide) (Michael Atkinson)


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