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Film Reviews

PICK BORAT: CULTURAL? LEARNINGS OF AMERICA? FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN Those Kazakhstani nationals who’ve gotten their panties in a twist over the first celluloid adventure of Central Asia’s most endearingly tactless television journalist have it all wrong. Instead, they should be celebrating Borat Sagdiyev (a.k.a. Sacha Baron Cohen) as a national treasure. After all, it’s not Kazakhstan but rather the good old US and A that comes off most unflatteringly as Sagdiyev and his rotund producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), embark on their tour of cultural ambassadorship, inadvertently uncovering the not-so-latent racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia lurking beneath the Stars and Stripes. Crash — to say nothing of Michael Moore — has nothing on this. As with Borat’s appearances on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show , the gimmick is simple but devastatingly effective: Never once breaking character or acknowledging that he’s in on the joke, the Jew-fearing, grammatically challenged reporter ingratiates himself with his unsuspecting, average-American victims before uproariously turning the tables on them — whether it’s showing up at a Southern Confederate dinner party with a black hooker in tow or mangling the national anthem at a Virginia rodeo to an extent that makes Roseanne Barr look like Plácido Domingo. Wherever Borat goes, Cohen implodes notions of political correctness and leaves you both hurting from laughter and marveling at the fact that he managed to get the movie in the can without getting himself lynched. And if Cohen isn’t exactly an equal-opportunity offender (most of his vitriol is directed at the red in red, white and blue), who can begrudge him a few good jabs at Southern aristocracy? Yet, if you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that awareness of Borat (which was directed, to whatever extent direction is involved, by Seinfeld vet Larry Charles) is at its least in the places that need a visit from Sagdiyev the most. Which may mean that the most openly subversive movie funded by a major Hollywood studio in I don’t know how long will also end up the ultimate proof of the impossibility of a truly vital American political cinema. (Citywide)  (Scott Foundas)


COCAINE COWBOYS Director Billy Corben’s documentary about the Colombian cocaine trade that overran Miami in the 1970s and ’80s should be, by any reasonable expectation, an average rise-and-fall story of drug dealers living the life and then doing the time. Instead, Cocaine Cowboys is more luridly thrilling than we could have imagined — and much more horrifying. Bringing together the traffickers, DEA agents and hit men who witnessed it firsthand, the film creates a lively, menacing oral history of Miami’s evolution from quiet retirement community to prosperous coke mecca to deadly haven for violent crime. Corben and co-editor David Cypkin dynamically cut between talking heads, local news footage of the time, and well-placed fictional re-creations, achieving a hypnotic, energetic pace without glossing over the real misery brought on by the overflowing body count and shattered lives. But the film’s greatest strength is its wealth of frank interview subjects — specifically, its bad guys (the smugglers and the enforcers), who are a mesmerizing bunch possessing varying degrees of blasé sociopathic behavior. (Little wonder that the detectives interviewed here still sound haunted by these criminals’ viciousness.) Some will object to Corben’s adrenalized style, dark sense of humor and seemingly amoral tone — the film even flaunts a synthesizer-heavy score from Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer — but Cocaine Cowboys’ pulpy entertainment value merely lures us into a grim, kaleidoscopic look at how one city was both destroyed and, ironically, eventually saved by some of the worst human beings to walk the Earth. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Tim Grierson)


DEATH & TEXAS If Christopher Guest turned his patented mockumentary approach on the worlds of sports and media — and lost his sense of humor — the result might look something like writer-director Kevin DiNovis’ witless Death & Texas, which hobbles onto a single Los Angeles screen this week, more than two years after it premiered as the closing-night attraction of the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival. Guest is the obvious influence behind this “true” story of disgraced pro footballer “Barefoot” Bobby Briggs (The Practice star Steve Harris), who finds himself furloughed from a death-row prison sentence (for a murder he didn’t commit) in order to sub for an injured wide receiver in a Super Bowl–esque championship game. The writing is on the wall: If Briggs saves the day, he’ll win himself a pardon, and, if not, he’ll walk a green mile on something other than AstroTurf. That incestuous commingling of sports celebrity and the due process of law holds rich satiric potential in the age of O.J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant, but in DiNovis’ butterfingery hands, the movie tumbles into a pedantic anti-death-penalty rant that’s about as funny as a firing squad. (Grande 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)


FLUSHED AWAY A third collaboration between Britain’s Aardman studio and DreamWorks animation, this puckish charmer about a posh Kensington mouse flushed down the loo into London sewer country is to action-adventure what Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was to Hammer Horror. Aardman’s first foray into CGI may spell woe to loyal fans of the Plasticine monobrow, but there are gains too in the delights of a watery, Technicolor alternate universe, fully furnished with shopping malls and populated with a cast of thousands, that could never have been brought off with stop-motion. Pampered house mouse Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman) also sings, as who wouldn’t after being rescued by a can-do sewer rat named Rita (Kate Winslet) wearing red spaghetti hair and an iron will? Abetted by other critters with names like Millicent Bystander, the two rodents face off against the dastardly Toad (Ian McKellen) and his less-than-competent goons (Andy Serkis and the adorably adenoidal Bill Nighy). Beyond the obligatory Hollywood moralizing about community and cooperation, and the usual Aardman pokes at the mutual disdain of Brits and Frogs, there’s a heartfelt upstairs-downstairs tale of urban loneliness redeemed by love and family. And what’s not to love about a premise in which thousands of upstanding rodents stand together against a Big Wave generated by thousands of TV-watching soccer fans flushing their toilets at halftime? (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)


REQUIEM Using the same factual basis that inspired the recent courtroom shocker The Exorcism of Emily Rose, this quietly unnerving psychological study from German director Hans-Christian Schmid wields its ambiguity about religion and science like a double-edged blade. Freely adapting the story of Anneliese Michel, a 23-year-old German student who died in 1976 after a grueling exorcism, Schmid and screenwriter Bernd Lange imagine the girl (here called Michaela) as more Carrie White than Regan MacNeil — an epileptic, sexually blossoming seeker whose fits seem logical (and understandable) as explosive tantrums at her repressive religious upbringing. But Sandra Hüller, a young German stage actress making a harrowing feature debut, invests Michaela’s terrified, possibly schizophrenic outbursts with unholy conviction: When she claws toward a crucifix in mortal terror, the devil’s handiwork no longer seems a remote possibility. Or maybe it’s more appealing than the alternatives: a God who would allow such suffering as a test of divine allegiance — or no God at all, just the mind and its endless capacity for self-torture. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Jim Ridley)


THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE It’s Santa Claus (Tim Allen) versus Jack Frost (Martin Short)...Who’s gonna win? Oh, like there’s any doubt. Santa vanquished a fascistic robot doppelganger in part two — is there really a chance Martin Short in a blue wig will pose any threat whatsoever? Rather than cheer your favorite winter character, you’ll more likely search for an escape clause of your own, as this overstuffed three-quel milks the reindeer dry one last time. The humor in the first two Santa Clause movies primarily derived from the way Scott Calvin’s double life as Santa infringed upon the real world, but this film is set mostly at the North Pole, which has recently been more richly imagined in the likes of Elf and The Polar Express. Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret are mildly amusing as Scott/Santa’s in-laws, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s Mrs. Claus may draw in a few fans of her newfound fame on Lost, but this is all really a big waste. At least the out-takes at the end are actually funny.  (Citywide) (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 rib-cage 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 effecting 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)


SHOTTAS Shottas, based on a true story, has been sitting on shelves for a few years now, accruing mythology as a great film that’s been unjustly sidelined. That, it is not. Shit’s wretched. Bigs (Ky-Mani Marley) and Wayne (Spragga Benz) grew up on the mean streets of Kingston, Jamaica, pulling armed robberies before they were teens in order to fund a trip to America and dreaming of better lives. As adults, the duo live the gangsta-glamorous life (bitches, weed and bling) in Jamaica and Florida, with nonstop violence as the foundation of their existence. The only interesting thing about the film is how generically adolescent it is. Written and directed by Cess Silvera, the film tells you less about the real lives of its characters than it does about how powerfully Hollywood’s and hip-hop’s gangster/gangsta narratives have colonized the minds of civilians and artists alike; both Silvera and his characters, and the men whose stories he’s telling, are crushingly banal in their brutality and in their aspirations. It doesn’t help that the level of acting in the film brings nothing but accidental humor to the mix. Marley only rings true when he’s doing blunted-to-the-bones; Benz is marginally better, while the actor playing the psycho sidekick (complete with over-the-top ghoulish laugh) is cringe-inducing. (Beverly Center) (Ernest Hardy)


SHUT UP AND SING More ballsy than profound, lead singer Natalie Maines’ offhand 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 airtime on country-music radio stations terrified of alienating their hyperpatriotic 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 househusbands 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 kowtowing music industry, and to all the bullies who picketed her concerts, wanting her dead. (Century City 15) (Ella Taylor)


SOLDIER OF GOD Soldier of God’s opening title card may say that we’re in the Holy Land in 1187, but the film’s self-serious tone, copious amounts of bloodshed, and didactic dialogue make it perfectly clear that we’re more accurately situated in the land of moralizing fables. French Templar knight Rene (Tim Abell, sporting Viggo Mortensen locks) is selflessly devoted to spreading Christianity during the Crusades but is troubled by his glory-seeking superiors. When Rene is captured in battle and later escapes into the desert, he encounters Hasan (William Mendieta), a Muslim with a mysterious past and a goofy mustache. In the fine tradition of The Defiant Ones, these two men may be divided by mutual distrust, but, wouldn’t you know it, their close proximity forces them to look beyond their prejudices and into the heart of their fellow man. Throw in a beautiful Muslim widow (Mapi Galán) who offers them shelter and trite wisdom, and you have all the ingredients for a heavy-handed character piece in which Rene, whose allegiance to Christ forbids him from enjoying the sins of the flesh, begins to doubt his belief system and discovers a stirring in his loins. Director W.D. Hogan labors to give the desert locations an epic profundity, but the one-note characters and love-thy-neighbor thematic simplicity undermine his Kingdom of Heaven visual aspirations. No question Soldier’s criticism of religious extremism is painfully relevant, but it’s hard to appreciate that message when you’re busy rolling your eyes. (Music Hall) (Tim Grierson)


STOLEN Several potentially compelling narratives jockey for breathing room in this disappointing documentary about the unsolved 1990 heist of 13 paintings (valued at $500 million) from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Director Rebecca Dreyfus returns to the scene of the crime, focusing on the crown jewel of the swiped masterpieces: Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert. However, Dreyfus doesn’t just want to make a whodunit; instead, the high-profile burglary becomes a launching pad for an investigation into the personalities connected to the case. We meet eccentric septuagenarian art investigator Harold J. Smith, renowned as much for his skill at recovering confiscated paintings as for his omnipresent bowler, eye patch and horrific scars from a lifelong battle with skin cancer. Then there’s Gardner herself, a strong-willed turn-of-the-century woman who died hoping that her museum (and its contents, which she scoured Europe to find) would be her lasting legacy — a dream now dashed because of the void created by the robbery. But Stolen exudes a PBS-dull gentility throughout, which keeps these intriguing characters at a frustrating distance. (Likewise, the film’s halfhearted stabs at finding the paintings amount to only slightly colorful red herrings.) By contrast, the director’s brief, terrific interviews with Vermeer scholars and enthusiasts are the film’s true highlight — their heartfelt testimonials single-handedly demonstrate how fine art can transfix its admirers to the point of obsession. Running only 85 minutes, Stolen is ultimately too lightweight and indecisive — ironic, for a film ostensibly about people in thrall to an all-consuming passion. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)


UMRAO JAAN  Usually I write off as Bolly-wussies even those close friends who whine that Hindi movies are too long for their jam-packed schedules. But at three-and-a-half hours, J.P. Dutta’s lugubrious period melodrama Umrao Jaan defeated me. It feels endless. Unlike some trendier recent productions, Umrao Jaan is a true Old School Bollywood music drama: there are over a dozen songs that serve a dramatic purpose, all of them staged in the same watered-down pseudo-classical style. You would not go far wrong thinking of the movie as an Indo-Islamic Memoirs of a Geisha. Based on a celebrated Urdu novel published in 1905 (previously filmed in 1981 with the miraculous Rekha in the title role), it follows the titular young girl as she is abducted in mid-19th century Lucknow and sold into servitude as a tawaif — an ultra-refined courtesan (played as an adult by international fashion plate Aishwaria Rai) trained in classical song and dance and the composition of Urdu poetry, her favors available only to the uppermost crust of Muslim nobility. The great, brooding love of Umrao’s life is the unimaginable wealthy Naweb Sultan (Abishek Bachchan), who allows her to experience a love that is freely given rather than bought — until he is disowned by his father and can no longer afford her company. Although the novel was supposedly based on the life of a famous actual tawaif, the story suspiciously has all the elements of pulp melodrama. But by the time we get to the tumultuous third act, in which the Mutiny of 1857 scatters the characters and Umrao enjoys a road trip with a paperback-cover-model bandit (Suniel Shetty), our patience has been exhausted. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Laguna Hills 3) (David Chute)


VOLVER See film feature (ArcLight; Royal)


WRESTLING WITH ANGELS: PLAYWRIGHT TONY KUSHNER In Freida Lee Mock’s adulatory and tightly woven documentary about playwright Tony Kushner, there’s a motif from his quasi-autobiographical musical Caroline, or Change that’s developed into a more extended scene, later in the movie, of Kushner visiting his Jewish family in Louisiana. We see, right after 9/11, snippets of scenes from his Afghanistan play, Homebody, Kabul, revealing how his head and heart were already visiting a country about which most Americans were, at the time, oblivious. With that, and with the timing of his Pulitzer Prize–winning gay fantasia, Angels in America, Kushner struck gold twice, demonstrating his ability — rather, his gift — to reside intellectually three steps ahead of the cultural Zeitgeist. Mock captures Kushner’s brilliance, his generosity of spirit, and his deeply felt convictions for a more equitable and humane world, while muting the leading player’s prickly sides — how, for instance, despite all the accolades and accomplishments, he says he refuses to read reviews. That’s because there have been some scathing ones. Like every pioneer and sage, Kushner has detractors, and they’re not in this film. What’s also missing is his prediction that the American people would throw out George W. Bush from office in 2004 and would rally behind the cause of gay marriage. This certainly doesn’t make Kushner stupid, but that prediction would have put the movie’s closing image of Kushner’s unwavering political optimism in a more paradoxical context. It’s a loving film, but Kushner’s own characters are more richly textured than Mock’s depiction of the playwright and the divided, divisive world he’s trying to fathom. (Nuart) (Steven Leigh Morris)


ZEROPHILIA A case of provocative issues at the mercy of unskilled execution, Zerophilia is a psychological-horror comedy that pokes its toe into dangerous sexual waters but then scurries away. Virgin college student Luke (Taylor Handley) has recently enjoyed a passionate one-night stand, but since then, he hasn’t felt like himself — not to mention that his penis is shriveling and he’s developing C-cup breasts. Even more troubling, this condition manifests itself most acutely when he’s around his new girlfriend, Michelle (Rebecca Mozo). How can he keep dating her if his attraction might permanently turn him into a woman? As Luke struggles to combat this affliction, with the help of his close friends and an eccentric, libidinous doctor (Gina Bellman, vamping for all she’s worth), Zerophilia positions itself as a campy satire on masculine stereotypes and gay panic. (One of the film’s smarter jokes, left — like so many ideas here — uncultivated, is that because Luke is such a sweet, sensitive guy, maybe he would make a better woman than man.) Writer-director Martin Curland teases us with his premise, even throwing in a potentially juicy twist when Michelle’s hunky brother (Kyle Schmid) unknowingly falls for Luke’s female persona, which triggers unwanted urges in Luke as well. But the film quickly devolves into plot contrivances, on-the-nose dialogue and witless humor of the “Dude, my best friend has boobs!” variety. Zerophilia can’t decide if it’s supposed to be silly or sincere or outrageous and therefore is none of the above. (Regent Showcase; One Colorado) (Tim Grierson)


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