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Film Reviews

BABEL See film feature

THE BRIDGE Eric Steel’s The Bridge opens with a captivating coup de cinema: real footage of a man hurling himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. Steel apparently spent all of 2004 photographing the bridge, filming many of the 24 jumpers who leaped to their deaths that year. In addition, he interviewed many family members and friends of these suicidal individuals — including one man who miraculously survived the 225-foot drop. These talking-head interviews are intercut between stylish, time-lapse shots of the San Francisco Bay and post-card images of its iconic suspension bridge. The result is an attractive, well-intentioned film that is surprisingly dull and uninvolving. Unlike Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker article “Jumpers” (which inspired Steel’s project), The Bridge has no authorial perspective or editorial grace. Steel resists conventional nonfiction techniques (he doesn’t use a narrator or voice-over) but his story simply doesn’t speak for itself. More testimony than documentary, the film’s dry, clinical style seems intentional; but the personal histories recounted demand more intimacy — and greater context. Without it, the impact of the startling scenes of real people literally on the edge of death is diminished. Alex Heffes’ tasteful but bland Thomas Newman–esque score further distances the viewer from the lives depicted and from any deeper ideas on the psychological mysteries of suicide. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (James C. Taylor)

CATCH A FIRE See film feature

CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD Less a rousing religious tale than a fawning rags-to-riches biopic, Conversations with God recounts how a lost soul became a literary sensation after he asked God for a sign and ended up writing several self-help best-sellers about their supposed exchange. Henry Czerny plays real-life author Neale Donald Walsch. Director Stephen Simon introduces Walsch at the height of his celebrity in the mid-’90s with the publication of his first God book, but then focuses on the lean years that preceded the writer’s notoriety when a serious car accident and unemployment wiped out his finances and forced him to live in a park scrounging for food. At first, Simon seems to be delivering a sermon on the importance of respecting the poor, although the film’s lethally squeaky-clean tone ensures that the homeless people Walsch encounters all have good hearts and exhibit not a speck of mental problems or drug addiction. Soon, however, God’s higher purpose presents itself, and we become trapped in a hokey, unexceptional tribute to Walsch’s ascendance from unhappy bum to wealthy, New Age-y spiritual messenger who somehow manages to sell more than 7 million books while spouting groan-inducing insights along the lines of “don’t work a job you don’t like.” Beyond a lack of enthralling characters or convincing plotting, though, what’s most glaringly missing in this self-promotional marketing tool is, of all things, God, who gets only a bit role as Walsch’s muse in a few scenes. He really oughta fire His agent. (Selected theaters) (Tim Grierson)

CRUEL WORLD A disgruntled former reality-TV-show contestant (Edward Furlong) takes over the camera-rigged house where he was humiliated and sets up a new contest, exclusively for his entertainment, where losing participants get killed. It’s amazing it took this long for a horror movie to employ such a premise. As with the best classic slasher setups, Cruel World allows us the vicarious pleasure of seeing annoying archetypes get decimated (the would-be mack daddy, the sexually manipulative Southern belle, the smart-ass gay guy, the wholesome country boy, etc.), but director Kelsey T. Howard (Scorched) doesn’t take things as far overboard as he needs to, at least at first — the kills aren’t graphic enough, you don’t fear for the leads, and the tropes of the reality-TV genre aren’t parodied as effectively as they could be. But once the story gets going, things do become a bit more inventive: Furlong is more fun to watch as he goes over the top, and the late introduction of Daniel Franzese as his demented brother is a good call. Watchable, but not quite a cult classic. (The Bridge; Cinespace) (Luke Y. Thompson)DEATH OF A PRESIDENT Manufactured history guarantees a manufactured controversy: Gabriel Range’s Death of a President, which docu-dramatizes the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, has been preceded by a long, raucous fanfare. Excoriated on talk radio, damned as a snuff film, banned by two theater chains, the British production has also garnered celebrity dis-endorsements. Dramatically inert, but a minor techno-miracle, Range’s movie is a faux documentary with fake talking heads and seamless digital effects. Invented characters are gumped into actual news events and vice versa. The editing and audio sleight of hand are nearly as impressive. Bush is but a special effect. Death of a President is really a movie about 9/11 — an essay on a national tragedy used to create an even greater tragedy. It’s also a movie about itself — a demonstration of reality shaped to fit a particular hypothesis. But the film’s warning about blow-back has its own unintended consequences: What follows the assassination is so awful that anyone might be excused for leaving the theater convinced of the urgent need to keep Bush alive. (Selected theaters) (J. Hoberman)

 

DON In Don, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan makes the snazziest gangster-dude entrance since Chow Yun-Fat’s in A Better Tomorrow, way back in 1987. The sheer sensuous relish of a fantasy of mob glamour that favors Oakley shades and blue-velvet Nehru jackets and sudsy marble bathtubs and kung fu kicks in superslow motion is one of the principle charms of Farhan Akhtar’s glossy green action fantasy, which eschews originality from the outset except in the fetishistic details of the international megathriller vocabulary. The film is a remake (with surprising variations) of the classic Amitabh Bachchan vehicle of 1978, a down-and-dirty B movie with A actors co-written by Farhan’s father, Javed Akhtar, one half of the culture-shaping Salim Javed screenwriting team that created Bachchan’s “angry young man” persona in films like Zanjeer (1973) and Sholay (1975). The two halves of the central dual role, both the international crime lord Don and the paan-chomping street performer Vijay, who assumes Don’s identity after his death, were written expressly for Bachchan and were tailored perfectly to his talents. Only a very foolhardy actor would attempt to beat The Big B at his own game, and Khan is nobody’s fool. His normal acting style is so stylized it often verges on pantomime, and he finds an only slightly more flamboyant approach that fits perfectly in this aggressively self-conscious fantasia in which timing the actors’ movements to the pattern of the split-screen effects is more important than their emotions. After only two features, Dil Chahta Hai and Lakshya, Akhtar is a superlative craftsman. There is a slum-demolishing car chase as electrifying as anything in the Bourne movies, and a shootout in a nightclub that’s composed almost entirely of claustrophobic close-ups, but even the standard expository scenes have been pumped full of caffeine. Working to keep the home audience interested in a story it knows by heart, Akhtar adds so many additional betrayals and secret identities to an already far-fetched plot that the real world becomes a distant memory, and happily so. (Fallbrook 7, Naz 8) (David Chute)

EXCELLENT CADAVERS Director Marco Turco has shaped his documentary on the Italian Mafia, and the ill-fated prosecutors who dedicated their lives to bringing them down, like a Hollywood political thriller. Based on the book by Alexander Stille, the documentary is filled with connective footage of the author trekking through libraries, poring over boxes of old papers and staring pensively as he narrates the stories of the brave, relentless prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The film offers an engrossing, detailed history of the birth and growth of the Mafia (especially the ways in which “legitimate” politicians employed and then became snared by the mob during the Cold War). But what really hooks the viewer are the copious news footage and crime-scene photos of Sicily and Palermo drenched in blood — car bombs, decapitated heads, bodies spilled in awkward poses after assassinations in street cafés. In showing all the stuff that the History Channel discreetly edits out, Excellent Cadavers dismantles the celluloid romanticizing of the Mafia, nowhere more so than when an inconsolable widow addresses a crowd of mourners, sobbing, “They [the Mafia] won’t change. There is no love here.” (Grande 4-Plex) (Ernest Hardy)

GREG & GENTILLON Greg and Gentillon (Louis Durand and Thomas Michael) are best friends from suburban Quebec and the toast of their local bar, where the lame, almost majestically unfunny comedy double-act they’ve been honing since high school is the toast of their drunken buddies. Cursed by the imperishable shared delusion that they have a scintilla of talent between them, they head for Toronto to make it big. That’s the hook of this tepid mockumentary from Canada, in which everyone is real except for Greg and Gentillon (or, as their tin-eared fliers have it: “G2: 2 Guys, 1 Laugh!”). Trouble is, sending two faux-provincial innocents into real-life situations involving levelheaded, genially imperturbable Canadians offers only the mildest kind of comedy. Greg’s mangled English is occasionally amusing (“Je ne suis pas dans un beau head space maintenant! J’ai fucked up!”) and Gentillon’s ironfisted and totally misguided certainty about making it big someday (“in Las Vegas! In L.A.!”) is touchingly demented, but the movie lacks the kind of sharp, provocative, overarching premise — the kind so carefully sculpted in advance by mockumentary maestros like Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais or Christopher Guest — that might elicit true discomfort or raw ire, let alone prompt laughter from the (in this case) luckless viewer. (Laemmle Music Hall) (John Patterson)

 

HOLLYWOOD Testing the theory that aspiring actors truly will watch anything that has to do with their chosen profession, Hollywood trots out every reach-for-the-stars banality for one more excruciatingly tedious portrait of up-and-coming thespians trying to make their way in show biz. The plot centers around three actors at different crossroads: Owen (writer-director Rick Rose) is close to breaking through but, darn it, his girlfriend (Tava Smiley) wants him to get a real job; Abby (Martini Paratore) works as a real estate agent to pay the bills but can’t find time for auditions; and Jazzy (Katherine Azarmi) tirelessly promotes herself but keeps being typecast as “too ethnic.” While we’re expected to sympathize with these characters’ foibles and struggles — we’re supposed to understand that these people are hopelessly shallow because the cutthroat industry made them that way — Hollywood’s shoddy DV look and uninspired script feel like the cinematic equivalent of the score-settling, self-indulgent one-person shows that befoul every half-filled performance space between Fairfax and Highland. Taking potshots at the city’s myriad life coaches, acting classes and therapists, Rose decries what he sees as the false idols who seduce the naive with promises of self-improvement — though, oddly, his own character’s path to enlightenment is guided by a trip to a yoga instructor. Filled with halfhearted inspirational messages and clear contempt for most of its luckless dreamers, Hollywood argues for staying true to your Art and abandoning all distractions that get in the way. You should heed that message and steer clear of this dud. (Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)

JAAN-E-MANN The surprisingly durable Bollywood leading man Akshay Kumar started out 15 years ago as a karate-chopping action hero. But even then there was something chinless and ungainly about him. Now, on the cusp of 40, Kumar has reinvented himself as a likable romantic stumblebum, a winsome dork in the body of a hunk. Kumar is just about perfectly cast in Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-E-Mann (Beloved), a garish family entertainment for Diwali, roughly the Hindi movie equivalent of the Chinese New Year season in Hong Kong. In an early flashback sequence, Kumar relishes putting on coke-bottle glasses, radiator braces and a braying laugh as Agastya Rao, a college meganerd who will grow up to be a studly-looking astronaut, without managing to outgrow the agony of being ditched by Piya (Preity Zinta), a lively classmate who was miles out of his league. The story continues seven years later, as Agastya flies to New York to renew the courtship, in the company of Piya’s loutish rock-star-turned-film-star ex-husband, Suhaan (a charmless Salman Khan), who shadows the couple in a series of clownish disguises (including disco-diva drag) to coach Agastya and feed him sure-fire sweet talk through an earpiece. That episode is the movie’s centerpiece, though it was doomed at the script stage by the fact that Khan’s character is the focal point rather than Kumar’s. Apart from an extended scene-setting flashback that takes the form of a lavish Farah Khan song-and-dance montage, most of the running time is devoted to wearying flop-sweat farce. Viewers who are not already Bolly-heads are likely to be appalled. (Fallbrook 7, Naz 8) (David Chute)

JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE See film featureROMEO AND JULIET: SEALED WITH A KISS Almost single-handedly animated by Disney veteran Phil Nibbelink over the course of several years, this feature brings together what are apparently the director’s two favorite things: Shakespeare and seals. Yes, the star-crossed lovers are now baby seals (get it? “sealed”?) cavorting beneath a strangely psychedelic landscape and occasionally breaking out into big-band musical numbers. Nibbelink’s daughter voices a fish who babbles in near–baby talk, when she’s not quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger. Needless to say, this is one odd concoction, which should find its primary audience among college potheads who like to watch ’70s Hanna-Barbera creations on the Cartoon Network late at night — the reverb-heavy love song that plays as Romeo (Daniel Trippet) and Juliet (Patricia Trippet) float out into an ever-morphing cosmos is as trippy as any Pink Floyd number. There’s no Shakespearean violence to worry about in this telling, nor is there any explanation as to why these two seals of different colors fall for one another, but explanations may be beside the point if enough mind-altering substances are consumed. It isn’t really possible to recommend viewing the film any other way. (Selected theaters) (Luke Y. Thompson)

SAW III  The third time isn’t exactly the charm for the Saw franchise: the elaborate, Rube Goldberg torture traps have come to seem a tad rusty and the one-thing-after-another pacing is now more loose spring than corkscrew. Stick with Saw III, though. It still delivers the goods. Series co-creator Leigh Whannell (who wrote the Saw III script) and director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II) remain the undisputed masters of imaginatively unpleasant bodily harm (including, but not limited to, death by ribcage evisceration, a near-drowning in pig vomit and a vivid illustration of the physics of cold fusion). But as before, their real interest lies less in the latest subject of Jigsaw’s torture gauntlet — here, a distraught father seeking revenge on his son’s killer — than in the life and opinions of the cancer-stricken genius/madman (Tobin Bell, reveling in what may be cinema’s most protracted swan song since Garbo in Camille). In Saw III, that focus expands to encompass Jigsaw’s complexly creepy relationship with his apprentice/former victim Amanda (Shawnee Smith), until, as the two halves of the film dovetail in the final act, we find ourselves in the grips of a downright Hegelian debate over vengeance, forgiveness and the possibility (or lack thereof) of affecting human change. That may not exactly thrill those who admire the Saw films only for their splatter quotient, but all told, this is a more affecting study in grief, guilt and human frailty than Babel. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas) (See film feature)

 

 SHUT UP AND SING More ballsy than profound, Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines’ off-handed 2003 remark at a London concert about being ashamed that George Bush was from Texas cost the Dixie Chicks dearly in record and tour ticket sales, and in air time on country music radio stations terrified of alienating their hyper-patriotic fan bases. That she had the right to say it, and say it again at the same venue in 2006, will be uncontroversial to almost anyone who goes to see Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s engaging documentary. Kopple and Peck went on and off the road with the band for the three years of waffling, agonizing and  defiance] in between Maines’ mouth-offs. The freedom of speech stuff is far less gripping than the emergent slice of girl-band life, which is more about fertility babies and supportive house-husbands than about sex, drugs or booze. Best of all, it’s a great portrait of Maines, a rebel girl you’d really want to spend time with so long as she’s on your side. Truculent, effortlessly funny and congenitally mutinous, Maines is a bull in a china shop with the voice of an angel, and you can’t help but cheer her fuck-you to a kow-towing music industry, and to all the bullies who picketed her concerts, wanting her dead. (Century City 15) (Ella Taylor)

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