Film Reviews

Soldier boy (Cineville)

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE There’s no official rule which says that werewolf movies have to be boring, but it doesn’t seem like anyone has tried particularly hard in a long, long time. Blood and Chocolate does nothing to buck the trend. Looking as bored as the viewer is likely to feel, Agnes Bruckner goes through the motions as Vivian, a Hungarian-American werewolf in Bucharest who inexplicably falls for a dumb-ass comic-book artist named Aiden (Hugh Dancy, who looks more like a boy-band refugee than your typical geek). The head werewolf (Olivier Martinez) lives in an absinthe factory. The beastly transformations are accomplished via circa-1980 camera dissolves. And there are multiple pathetic attempts at faking martial-art-du-jour Parkour. At one point, Aiden says to Vivian, “If you cared a goddamn thing about me, you’d have left me before we ever met!” By the same logic, dear reader, if you care a goddamn thing about your evening’s entertainment, you’ll walk out of this howler before you ever buy a ticket. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

CATCH AND RELEASE In the small pantheon of successful women screenwriters, Susannah Grant is aristocracy. But the muscular dialogue that fed so many great lines to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and Cameron Diaz in In Her Shoes goes AWOL in Grant’s directing debut, a slack dramedy about a young woman (Jennifer Garner) whose grief for her dead fiancé — they’re called Gray and Grady, respectively, which doesn’t bode well — is assuaged not by the usual band of earth mothers, but by his three buddies, each of whom suffers in his own strenuously odd way. This mildly fresh premise never takes off, in part because Grant flashes most of her emotional cards in the first half-hour, leaving all the characters to rot in underdeveloped eccentricity. Garner is no more than serviceable as the tightly wound Gray, unwinding in the arms of Grady’s lothario friend Fritz, very badly played by Timothy Olyphant (a disconcerting cross between Billy Zane and Sir Cliff Richard with a lot invested in grating raffish charm). Kevin Smith is a dreary inverse of his Silent Bob character as the good-hearted Fat Friend who stops gabbing only when he’s scarfing down leftover pizza, while Juliette Lewis salvages what scraps she can from her role as a New Age L.A. ditz. Revelations pile up, followed by insight and maturity, and pretty soon there’s nothing left to do but go fishing in scenic Colorado and be really, really nice to your friends. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

EPIC MOVIE The speeds of sound and light remain constants, but the speed of crap accelerates like a rocket luge on Crisco Mountain. Seriously, the daddy of the (blank)-movie genre, 1980’s Airplane!, stocked its pop culture arsenal with references to 1957’s Zero Hour, 1970’s Airport, and 1975’s Jaws. By contrast, this ostensible parody of big-budget adventures (specifically The Chronicles of Narnia) reaches all the way back to last May’s The Da Vinci Code, July’s Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and October’s Borat. (Borat?!) Just like the filmmakers’ previous Date Movie, this feeble fast-buck shitbomb is an amateur-hour game of Spot That Reference, intended for people who crack up simply at the mention of anything topical — sudoku, “Lazy Sunday,” Cribs. Which means that by the time this dud drops on NetFlix, it’ll be as obsolete as a Chia pet jokebook. The only bright spot: Darrell Hammond’s spot-on demolition of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, uncanny right down to his swashbuckling dying gesture. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

  FUNNY MONEY In a farce, the comic action typically occurs in a house with an enormous living room and lots of side doors, through which assorted characters, in a manic flurry of confusion and mistaken identities, can be abruptly flung. In Funny Money, an American adaptation of Englishman Ray Cooney’s hit play, that’s the fate awaiting two detectives (Armand Assante and Kevin Sussman) who arrive, separately, at the Hoboken home of Henry Perkins (Chevy Chase), a wax-fruit-factory foreman with plans to upend his humdrum life by absconding with a briefcase full of Mob money that’s inadvertently come his way. Henry’s plan sends his wife Carol (Penelope Ann Miller) straight to the whiskey bottle, and if one’s interest in this never-hilarious but often-quite-amusing film fades in the home stretch it may be because director Leslie Greif and co-writer Harry Basil make the mistake of sending Carol upstairs to pass out, thereby losing out on more of Miller’s revelatory comic timing. She’s terrific, as is Chase, who is more relaxed and generous than he’s ever been, as if having taken seven years off to stay home with his daughters has reminded this perennial scene gobbler that there are pleasures to be found in letting the other guy score the laugh. (Beverly Center; One Colorado; Regal Irvine; Agoura 8) (Chuck Wilson)


PICK G.I. JESUS A young Marine named Jesus (Joe Arquette) survives honorable service in Iraq, but the year away has left a scar on his marriage to Claudia (Patrícia Mota): The passionate spark is still there, but another man is circling, and there are hints Claudia leads two lives. His little daughter Marina (Telana Lynum) loves him — but a ghostly stranger named Mohammed (Maurizio Farhad) now frequently appears (only Jesus can see him) to quietly scorch his conscience over a father and daughter Jesus killed by chance and without malice in a Fallujah-like firefight. As a Mexican who enlisted to secure U.S. citizenship, Jesus suffers further when he’s ordered back to Iraq. He will absolutely lose his family if he leaves them for another year. As these pressures become murderous, writer-director Carl Colpaert never loses his balance, despite the David Lynchian leap of faith he asks us to make midway, in a twist so bold as to be a backflip. If anything, this extra layer in the story effectively illuminates the moral choices Jesus must navigate. In 2006, I was on the jury at CineVegas, which gave top prize to G.I. Jesus , because Colpaert has so vividly seized the contemporary moment, and explored it with his own eyes and conscience. He has also brought together a flawless cast: Arquette, Mota, Lynum and Farhad are phenomenally gifted, each an exciting new discovery. And he’s brought it all off on a shoestring budget. In the time since, Colpaert (best known as the producer of Gas, Food Lodging , Mi Vida Loca and The Whole Wide World ) has painstakingly reworked the film technically (which he shot on HDDV) to eliminate the once-flaring reds that distorted the action. The imagery is now crisp and feels “filmic.” Whenever there’s a bit of video-esque texture, it seems freely chosen, thematically appropriate to a war we know mostly through video, and — more importantly — innate to a story that asks us to sort out just what is real in war, and in having a conscience.  (Showtimes) (F.X. Feeney)

THE HITCHER What, have we already exhausted the world’s reserves of recyclable 1970s schlock? Apparently not, given the poster in the megaplex lobby for the goddamn The Hills Have Eyes II. But nobody told music-vid whiz Dave Meyers, who sets his way-back machine for dimly remembered 1986 and fetches a beat-for-beat remake of Robert Harmon’s sick, scary cult fave about a cross-country driver who picks up a hitchhiking Terminator on a homicide spree. Sean Bean, stubbly and sinister but no match for Rutger Hauer’s archangel-of-death gravitas, plays the unexplained psycho, who slaughters cops and civilians aplenty as he dares motorists Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton to retire his opposable digits. (If the idea was to create a reactionary fable of unmitigated evil laughing in the face of dithering appeasement, mission accomplished.) Alas, switching the hero from a lone driver to a couple spoils the original’s most intriguing idea: that the mass-murdering jackal may be the driver’s own escaped id. That leaves little to fill 83 expendable minutes, which barely register as a movie even with snazzy KNB gore effects, critic-baiting clips from The Birds, a splattery variation on the ’86 Hitcher’s most notorious scene, and some out-of-place Bruckheimerisms on loan from producer Michael Bay. Meyers lays on the shallow focus with a dusting of the art-directed scuzz that passes for grind-house revivalism nowadays, but to little avail: This Hitcher is all thumbs. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

MAFIOSO Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso dates from 1962, but this nearly forgotten dark comedy could be the most modern (or at least modernist) movie in town. The sort of man who admonishes a worker for laboring too fast and shaves while polishing his shoes and talking nonstop, Alberto Sordi’s character is a wildly successful Sicilian transplant living in Milan — complete with a chic Northern wife (Brazilian actress Norma Bengell) and two blond children. Modern times turn feudal once he returns to his home village for a vacation. Wife and kids are swept up in a series of screaming reunions and huge meals. Always voluble, he becomes borderline hysterical, his “Northern” persona disintegrating as he abruptly bursts into song upon his return. Lattuada satirizes Sicily as he acknowledges Northern prejudices, but the light comedy shifts when, out with his family in a boat, Sordi is summoned to the don by an unseen messenger. Mafioso was seemingly the first Italian movie to portray the modern Mafia, and it’s a blueprint for The Godfather in sardonic, compressed, anecdotal form. Given the movie’s virtual dictionary of Mafia euphemisms, it’s hard to believe that Mario Puzo hadn’t seen it when writing his novel. (Royal) (J. Hoberman)

SALAAM-E-ISHQ: A SALUTE TO LOVE Writer-director Nikhil Advani (Kal Ho Naa Ho) cuts with crisp elegance between six passionate love stories in this master-class, South Asian Extreme version of a tear-streaked Bollywood music drama. The nominal leads, Priyanka Chopra and Salman Khan, are as sleek and sexy as they’ve ever been (which is saying a lot) in the screwball comedy anchor plot about a spoiled Mumbai movie star and the mysterious stranger who is pursuing her. The playfulness of that storyline frees the movie to track some much darker emotions in the various subplots, the most engaging of which feature the deep-welled ‘80s leading man Anil Kapoor (1942: A Love Story) as a catatonically depressed London TV producer contemplating an affair; heartthrob John Abraham (Water) as a devastated husband nursing his wife after an accident; and comedy star Govinda (Coolie No. 1) as a motor-mouth Delhi tax driver whose faith in romance is rewarded by the seemingly magical appearance of the leggy blonde foreign woman of his dreams. With so many chances to burrow under our defenses, Salaam-e-Ishq should be a delirious wallow, but it isn’t quite, although the musical sequences in particular evoke an impressive variety of moods. The celebratory air of a mid-film production number in which the protagonists of all six stories, in as many different locations, sing and dance to the soaring title tune, contrasts sharply with a later interlude in which the affairs all hit a bad patch and the music becomes a wailed prayer: “Oh God, is this love or punishment?” In a Bollywood movie, scenes like these aren’t one-off stunts, as they can be in American movies such as Magnolia. Here they express a deep-rooted sense that all these lovers, and many more besides, are all dancing to the same cosmic tune. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8; Laguna Hills 3.) (David Chute)


SERAPHIM FALLS You have to love the casting of Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson — two Irishmen — as Civil War vets sprinting across the Western plains, with Neeson the pursuer and Brosnan the pursued. The whole project, filled with familiar faces (Angie Harmon, Anjelica Huston, other “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors) in teensy roles, reeks of old-fashioned Big Studio entertainment — this could have been made sometime between, oh, 1953 and 1978, and danged if you (or your dad) wouldn’t watch it on late-night TV. Directed by a maker of — no surprise — TV procedurals (David von Ancken), Seraphim Falls has decent pep in its step until the final 30 minutes, when it’s finally revealed why Neeson’s bounty hunter is after Brosnan’s surly mountain man. The flashback finale and all that comes after (and keeps on comin’) drags on so long that even the actors look exhausted. Before that, the movie is yet another replay of The Most Dangerous Game, and Brosnan and Neeson are game for it. My wife suggests that Brosnan, who takes a dip in icy white water and treks from frigid mountaintops to arid deserts among his myriad deeds of derring-do, should have been paid a small fortune, since he “gets the shit beat out of him.” Neeson too is a credible hero — or is that villain? See, we’re never sure who’s who till the end, and even then, von Ancken ain’t achin’ to pick sides. (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)

SMOKIN’ ACES Writer-director Joe Carnahan’s third and most elaborate feature presents as its antihero a glitzy stage magician cum mobster mascot turned Mob kingpin then FBI informer. Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is, as someone in this overstuffed baloney-and-ketchup sandwich puts it, “the great white whale of snitches.” Everyone wants a piece of this joker’s hide, which, given its rumored million-dollar price tag, makes the Lake Tahoe penthouse where he’s laying low something of a magnet for a gaggle of competing hit squads. To add to the barbarism, the killers have orders to not just ice Israel but — pace Mel Gibson — to cut out his heart. Let the games begin. Smokin’ Aces has no particular narrative: It’s basically a study in convergence as a vast assortment of FBI guys, hotel security men, SWAT teams, and killers of all varieties — including a clan of lunatic chain-saw neo-Nazi mohawk-coiffed punks — fight, claw and swarm their way up to Israel’s suite. Self-important but not untalented, the movie is tonally consistent from beginning to end, and, for all its bloody mayhem, kinetic nihilism and jive minstrelsy, has a surprisingly light touch. What Carnahan’s picture lacks in hilarity, it recuperates with a well-developed, albeit mumbling, sense of the absurd. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)

PICK VERDICT ON AUSCHWITZ: ?THE FRANKFURT-AUSCHWITZ TRIAL 1963–’65 If you pay any attention at all to Holocaust history, there’ll be few surprises in the actual evidence about the biggest site of Hitler’s Final Solution offered in this three-hour exhumation (shortened from a much longer 1993 version) of the trial of former Nazi apparatchiks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Consider the context, though, and this German-made documentary becomes a fascinating record — via a two-year Frankfurt courtroom drama less splashy than either the Nuremberg or Eichmann trials that preceded it — of the country’s awkward baby steps toward confronting its hideous legacy. Culling from 430 hours of audio recordings and limited archive footage from the proceedings, as well as interviews with observers and participants, filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner provide a deconstruction of the mechanics of life at Auschwitz so exhaustive, it would make Claude Lanzmann proud. Verdict on Auschwitz dwells properly on the uniform mendacity and lack of remorse among the functionaries who ran the Third Reich’s most efficient charnel house — liars and cowards all, long after the fact. In testimony after testimony, often delivered in chillingly dispassionate tones by former victims about their treatment by sadists who went way beyond their brief, the film handily dispatches the notion that those who ran the camps were just following orders. The big fat elephant in the room is the court’s heavy emphasis on the perpetrators and nervous avoidance of the word “Jew.” Still, this is required viewing for everyone, especially for David Irving, Mel Gibson’s dad and all other profane deniers of a bloody century’s bloodiest genocide. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

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