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Film Reviews

One big happy family?

PICK 51 BIRCH STREET Worms crawl slowly and gently out of the can in Doug Block’s marvelous home movie about the underground life of his parents’ 54-year Long Island marriage. A documentary filmmaker who — nice irony — ­also moonlights as a wedding photographer, Block had been capturing his family on camera for years, but 51 Birch Street only took shape when, shortly after his mother’s sudden death, his father upped and married the woman who had been his secretary 40 years ago. On the face of it, the question for Block and his stunned sisters, as they help their visibly happy father pack up their childhood home for the move to Florida, was how long this affair had been going on. But when Block, his loving son’s guilt productively at war with his curiosity, delves into his mother’s prolific diaries, the movie grows organically into scenes from a difficult marriage his father now reluctantly admits was more functional than loving. By any measure, Mina Block was high maintenance: Good-looking, endlessly introspective and needy. An ambivalent mother (Block was very close to the woman her daughters describe as remote), she was a deeply unfulfilled suburban matron who got little understanding from her practical, uncommunicative spouse and took refuge in pot and a painfully unrequited crush on her therapist. Open-minded, probing but never prurient, 51 Birch Street is much more than a portrait of suburban ennui. It’s a loving, painful map of the gulf between thought and word, between word and deed, that props up good marriages, and sends bad ones to hell. (Westside Pavilion) (Ella Taylor)

EL CORTEZ Lou Diamond Phillips does his best Anthony Perkins impersonation as Manfred, the bellboy at a seedy Nevada hotel who has a mild manner but a dark past and the capacity for serious violence if pushed too far. And pushing him is something everyone does, from the wheelchair-bound con man (Bruce Weitz) who sees him as an easy mark, to the local drug dealer (Glenn Plummer) whose ex-hooker girlfriend (Maria Bello wannabe Tracy Middendorf) seems to be coming on to Manfred, and, of course, the shady cop (NYPD Blue’s James McDaniel) who busted Manfred for a previous offense. Every “twist” is so telegraphed that there’s little suspense here. Phillips’ performance is an enjoyable change of pace, and the gratuitous sex scene with Middendorf is fairly hot, but the story’s just an aggravating wait for the inevitable double-crosses. For it to be a true lowbrow pleasure, more sex would be needed. (Music Hall) (Luke Y. Thompson)

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS  See film feature

FLICKA It takes a pristine gift for mediocrity to ruin Mary O’Hara’s muscular children’s novel about a wild boy and his wild horse, but director Michael Mayer has brought off the massacre with aplomb. En route from the 1943 movie through the beloved 1956 television series into this sorry remake, the boy has become a Katy (played by Alison Lohman as well as anyone can of whom little is asked but to come on mournful and/or mutinous), and we can tell the kinship between girl and horse by the teased hair they both toss whenever adversity heaves into view. Mayer is primarily a theater guy, and his way with actors is stiff and awkward, though I can imagine country singer Tim McGraw (who plays Equally Stubborn Dad, a man who should be locked in a room with “Feelings” on the turntable) would pose a challenge to almost any director. The harsh, livid lighting gives the movie a distressed Ralph Lauren look, and the few scenes of genuine rodeo excitement are marred by the fact that Katy has dressed herself up to look like Johnny Depp, the pirate version. Rain falls, sad things happen, and as we left the theater, I could have sworn I could hear horsy girls all over America crying — with laughter. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

THE GRUDGE 2 The second Grudge movie is worlds better than The Ring 2, but it would seem that the trend toward American remakes of Japanese horror movies about pissed-off demon girls with long, stringy hair has run its course. In Tokyo, Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) has arrived from the U.S. to rescue her older sister (Sarah Michelle Gellar, in a brief cameo), who was terrorized in the first film by the angry ghost of a murdered woman and child. Ignoring some very sensible advice, Aubrey enters the dead people’s creepy house. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a young boy (Matthew Knight, superb) begins to suspect that there’s something evil lurking in the apartment next door. Generating gore-free unease through sound effects and scary faces is the specialty of director Takashi Shimizu, who helmed the original series (known in Japan as Ju-On). He creates some unsettling moments here, but the evil ghost itself is a predictable one-trick pony. The finale, in which the separate stories come together in America, isn’t an ending at all, but a setup, for a third film, which looks to be something along the lines of The Grudge Takes Manhattan. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

 

I LIKE KILLING FLIES “Postmodern pancakes” won’t go out of style anytime soon, and neither will this endearingly cockeyed portrait, albeit 4 years old, of Shopsin’s, the West Village greasy spoon cum fusion haven that for decades has been owned and operated by head chef/resident philosopher and world-class crank Kenny Shopsin. Shot in the summer after Calvin Trillin’s 4,000-word New Yorker ode brought a new set of customers for Shopsin to bully back to the curb, I Like Killing Flies does as much as any movie could to humanize the R. Crumb of restaurateurs. (“They have to prove it to me that they’re okay to feed,” he says of first-timers.) The doc follows Shopsin’s begrudging move from Bedford Street to Carmine Street, no more than a storefront or two from the gentry’s grip, and paints his resistance to every variety of bourgeois etiquette as heroism — even or especially when his food prep and fly killing are both done by hand. As directed in aptly unfussy fashion by music-video vet Matt Mahurin, the movie itself is a curiously tasty dish, one that could leave even a vegan with a burning desire to sample Shopsin’s lamb chops. (Grande 4-Plex, Town Center 5) (Rob Nelson)

MARIE ANTOINETTE  See film feature

THE MARINE WWE champion John Cena plays a Marine so elite he can uncover al Qaeda fortresses in Iraq. But as those who’ve seen Cena beat up Vince McMahon know, he has a problem with authority. Discharged from the service and fired from his first civilian job for getting in a fight, he’s on a nice peaceful vacation with his wife (Kelly Carlson) when he runs afoul of a gang of diamond thieves led by Robert Patrick. A lengthy chase through the apparently alligator-infested swamps of South Carolina ensues. As an action hero, Cena’s no Rock, though he could be the next Roddy Piper, except for the fact that he appears to have taken his catch phrase “You Can’t See Me” too literally, becoming a peripheral player in his own movie. Patrick and henchman Anthony Ray Parker dominate, the latter hilariously recounting childhood traumas involving rock candy. Tongues are planted firmly in cheek; it’s impossible to endorse a full-price ticket, but fans of campy action should check this out. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

THE PRESTIGE See film feature (Citywide)

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS See film feature (Citywide)

SLEEPING DOGS LIE A movie with a premise and an ad campaign promising sexual outrageousness, Sleeping Dogs Lie turns out to be rather tame, give or take a few shots of dogs pooping. Written and directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, the film tells of the lovely Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton), a grade school teacher who foolishly admits to her fiancé (Bryce Johnson) that one night back in college she had an appallingly intimate encounter with her dog. He freaks, as do her parents, who get the news from Amy’s bitter, meth-addicted brother (Jack Plotnick, working hard). It takes Goldthwait about half the movie to get to all this, and once he does, things turn fairly serious. So much so that one realizes that the filmmaker is attempting a grown-up look at the impact of secrets on family life. That’s admirable enough, and the director’s principals, including Colby French as Amy’s co-worker, give solid, committed performances. Yet Amy’s sin never for a second rings true, and eventually grows tiresome. Goldthwait’s filmmaking has certainly improved since his so-bad-it’s-funny feature debut, Shakes the Clown, but next time out, he may need to admit to himself that he’s outgrown the adolescent humor that made him famous. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Galleria Stadium 16) (Chuck Wilson)

. . . SO GOES THE NATION From its riveting opening to its gripping conclusion, . . . So Goes the Nation is arguably the most intelligent, kinetic analysis of the modern election process since The War Room. Documentary filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo take us back to the contentious final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign as George W. Bush and John Kerry battled for Ohio’s decisive 20 electoral votes. Aided by hindsight — not to mention interviews from a bevy of influential strategists, including both parties’ national-committee chairman and campaign manager — Nation replays the contest with a mostly unbiased, always electric urgency, as if the outcome hasn’t yet been decided. While Beltway wonks will happily devour the behind-the-scenes anecdotes, even the average viewer will be swept up by the cold-blooded candor of these political operatives, who nonchalantly evaluate their candidates as well-honed products to be sold to voters. As a counterpoint to these professional campaigners, Nation also takes us into the lives of Bush and Kerry volunteers. The eager idealism evident on both sides adds up to a multifaceted portrait of the people who make up our divided electorate. With its mixture of thoughtful insight and cinéma vérité authenticity, Nation makes it clear that elections are ultimately an intermingling of heart and head, of strongly felt passions and virtuoso tactics. Kerry supporters might be hoping for a sad-eyed memorial to his failed presidential bid, but the filmmakers have done the Democrats a more meaningful service: This is an instructive recap of how close they came to winning and a brutal assessment of what went wrong. (Regent Showcase) (Tim Grierson)

 

TIDELAND And now for something completely different from Terry Gilliam. Shot during the prolonged postproduction wrangling over The Brothers Grimm, this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel smacks of a big “fuck you” to the studio suits. Produced by the famously hands-off Jeremy Thomas on Gilliam’s tightest budget in a long while, Tideland features what the MPAA accurately describes as “bizarre and disturbing content, including drug use, sexuality and gruesome situations, all involving a child.” Alone in a decrepit prairie farmhouse after her junkie parents embark on a permanent vacation, 10-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) lets her fertile imagination run amok. And why not, when her only companions are witchy, glass-eyed taxidermist Dell (Janet McTeer); four disembodied Barbie heads; Dell’s lobotomized brother, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher); and a talking squirrel? Curiouser and curiouser: Several animated dream sequences suggest a Baptist Svankmajer, a prolonged disemboweling scene involves the flatulent corpse of a well-known movie star, and then there’s a disturbingly sexualized episode in which Jeliza-Rose entreats Dickens to take her upstairs and show her his “special secret.” If the content sounds extreme, the treatment is wilder still. Only Gilliam would swing a wide-angle lens about on a Steadicam for two hours. This Southern Gothic Alice in Wonderland is not for the faint-hearted, to be sure, yet amid the swaying chaff there are moments of piercing grace and beauty when we’re reminded of the lost, lonely child at the heart of this tale. If nothing else, it’s liberating to see one of cinema’s unrepentant fantasists going out on a limb like this and cutting loose. (Nuart) (Tom Charity)

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