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Film Reviews: Angels in the Dust, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Trade

PICK  ANGELS IN THE DUST It’s not just children whom Marion Cloete and her family are rescuing in the de facto orphanage and school they’ve set up in rural South Africa, but childhood itself for these pint-size refugees from rape, child prostitution, hunger and — above all — an AIDS epidemic that’s killing by the hundreds of thousands. A big, jolly, boundlessly energetic former commie activist from the apartheid era who walked out on a life of luxury in Johannesburg to do good, Cloete has carved out a shelter for the children. She’s a licensed therapist who understands the value of a sympathetic ear, but also an advocate who trusts her charges enough that she can refract their grim reality back to them as hope, action and self-care. In Angels in the Dust, director Louise Hogarth (whose last documentary, The Gift, dealt with HIV-positive men who deliberately transmit the virus) deftly weaves in the big picture through Cloete’s bursts of anger at government ministers and traditional healers who willfully propagate the belief that sleeping with virgins cures disease. But the children’s most heartbreaking obstacle is the apathy and denial of their broken families, ground down by poverty, illness and despair. Hogarth creates such a complete and satisfying world in the village that when her camera pans away to a forest of tiny graves in a Soweto cemetery, it’s a necessary shock to realize that Cloete’s haven is one happy drop in an ocean of suffering. Cry if you must — then go to participate.net and do something. (Music Hall)  (Ella Taylor)

 FEAST OF LOVE Based on a 2000 novel by Charles Baxter, Feast of Love transposes the setting from an idealized Ann Arbor to an idealized Portland, where men play touch football on the grassy lawns of Portland State University, while philosophy professors mingle with coeds in a coffee shop called Jitters. The café in question is run by Bradley (Greg Kinnear), an eager fellow who has no luck with the ladies. After his first wife leaves him for another woman, Bradley gets hitched again to Diana (Radha Mitchell), a real estate agent who doesn’t believe in true love. Meanwhile, Bradley’s two young baristas are falling in mad, mad love over the cappuccinos that they decorate with foam hearts. But two couples do not make an intersecting-storyline movie, so, yes, there’s yet another relationship: Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander are in old-people love, which means that they hug a lot and drink wine together in their creaky-floored, tastefully decorated Victorian home. Feast lays out an interesting project for itself — to catalog the look and feel of relationships at different stages in our lives. But for a film that purports to be an epic consideration of Love in Our Time, it’s strikingly uninterested in any but the most obvious kind of romantic love. In this rosy, cozy world, either you fall for someone in the blink of an eye, or you never do. (Citywide) (Julia Wallace)

THE GAME PLAN It seems like a promising, if slightly clichéd, start when we meet Joe “The King” Kingman, an egotistical athlete prone to talking in catch phrases, referring to himself in the third person, showing off expensive possessions and singing Elvis songs. Clearly, the character (and self-parody) could only have been written for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — this is what WWE fans loved him for in his prior profession. Unfortunately, there is an even more thoroughly obnoxious character in Andy Fickman’s The Game Plan: Joe’s 8-year-old daughter (Madison Pettis), who shows up out of nowhere uttering precocious diatribes no real kid that age would even understand, and constantly shrugging her shoulders in extreme close-up, which is apparently adorable to . . . somebody. Johnson’s a good actor, but it would take the ghost of Laurence Olivier to convince us that a grown man could legitimately fall for this brat. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

GOOD LUCK CHUCK No matter how hard Hollywood tries, Dane Cook is never going to be adorable. Though he’s known for his mildly edgy standup, someone in authority has decided Cook would be well-suited for fluffy romantic comedies, but like last fall’s Employee of the Month, Good Luck Chuck is so undistinguished that it feels like an extended screen test. Cook plays Charlie, a womanizing dentist who discovers that his exes always find their perfect mate right after dating him. He hopes to break that cycle with Cam (Jessica Alba), a klutzy nerd who works with penguins and unfailingly finds everything Charlie does delightful. Despite the R rating that allows for more nudity and swearing than your typical date flick, the directorial debut of longtime editor Mark Helfrich is the sort of offensively safe rom-com where the “colorful” supporting characters talk about boobies and doobies but the angelic central couple are ultimately just two goofy mush heads looking for real love. It’s total malarkey, of course, and isn’t helped by Cook’s bizarre inability to act heartbroken or Alba’s ill-advised confidence in her gift for slapstick. Still, compared to his complete discomfort at playing someone other than himself, at least her bland hotness seems genuine. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND See film feature.

HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS This third feature by the Chicago-based director Joe Swanberg (Kissing on the Mouth, LOL) could be considered the ne plus ultra of the American indie filmmaking movement christened Mumblecore, in which hyper-verbal yet fundamentally inarticulate twenty­somethings — noncommittal in life and in choice of apartment furnishings — engage in copious literal and figurative naval-­gazing while navigating their way through romantic relationships that teeter on the precipice of going the distance or ending that very moment. If you’ve seen Swanberg’s earlier films, or those of Mumblecore doyen Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation), you’ll have a reasonable idea of what to expect from Hannah, whose title character (actress/playwright Greta Gerwig) is a gamine writer for some sort of Internet TV series, looking for love and not quite finding it in the arms of three successive suitors (one played by Bujalski and another by The Puffy Chair writer/star Mark Duplass). The rotating boyfriends become more or less indistinguishable from one another as they lie next to Hannah on her Ikea floor mattress — which is, I reckon, more or less the point. It’s Hannah herself who’s the star attraction here, whether going into meltdown mode over the blue towel fuzz that won’t come unstuck from her nipples, or sitting pensively in her bathtub in swimsuit and diving mask. She’s that kind of girl, and Gerwig is a modest (like everything in Mumblecore) revelation in the role, with a lithe, teasing sexuality and a vibrant personality that seems to be darting off in as many directions as her tousled blonde hair. Like most of the men in the film, we would happily follow her anywhere. (Sunset 5) (Scott Foundas)

ITTY BITTY TITTY COMMITTEE Writer-director Jamie Babbit’s follow-up to But I’m a Cheerleader, while flawed and in need of at least one more script overhaul, is smarter, funnier and more accomplished than its predecessor. It’s also refreshingly unapologetic about its far-left politics. Brooding after being dumped by her girlfriend, Anna (Melonie Diaz), who works in a plastic surgeon’s office, stumbles onto the radical-feminist collective C(i)A — Clits in Action — and into a crush on their sexy blond leader. The film wobbles mightily in many spots, uncertain of what tone it’s going for, with the biggest problem being that newly politicized Anna’s dogmatic, undergrad feminist speeches are a little too straightforward in delivery for the satiric spark being sought (and that is desperately needed). Babbit’s biggest accomplishment is in showing how the line between awakened political consciousness and grating self-absorption can so easily be blurred. But that insight often seems accidental, especially when applied to Anna, who often just comes off as a pill. Still, the sly digs at dyke relationship drama, the insightful depiction of the sugar mama/kept girl scenario (with dykon Melanie Mayron as the benefactor), and a very sexy cast (including queer goddess Jenny Shimizu) goes a long way in smoothing over tonal glitches. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

THE KINGDOM See film feature

THE OTHER SIDE A horror movie is an ideal Hollywood calling card for a first-time director. One can be made on a shoestring budget — you can mix up your own blood — and, by its nature, the genre offers a budding filmmaker the chance to show visual flair. By that measure, this debut feature by USC graduate Gregg Bishop is a true success. Shot in Athens, Georgia, on a reported budget of $15,000, this unapologetically bloody movie tells of a recent college grad named Sam (Nathan Mobley, excellent) who’s murdered on the very night his girlfriend goes missing. Upon his death, Sam wakes up in hell (literally) but escapes “the Pit” with several other sinners who join him in a search for the missing girl, even as they attempt to elude the three “reapers” the devil has sent to retrieve them. While the acting is uneven (a staple of the genre) and the finale full of clunky exposition, the steady stream of wittily staged action sequences — involving gunfights, sword play, and a black hat that’s forever tumbling in the wind — are pretty terrific. Bishop has chops; someone give this man a meeting. (Showcase) (Chuck Wilson)

RAISING FLAGG In theory, Alan Arkin playing a stubborn codger who holes up in bed and pretends he’s dying should be comic gold. In Raising Flagg, however, this conceit — and the ragtag subplots that support it — is about as funny as a rusty plow. Last year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner plays Flagg Purdy, an Oregon farmer even less believable than his name (Arkin’s fake, cornpone accent further strains credibility). The rest of the likable, accomplished cast — including Austin Pendleton, Glenne Headly, Lauren Holly and Clifton James — appears uncomfortable and stilted, as if directed with a cattle prod. The director, Neal Miller, also co-wrote the script, which is equally awkward, relying on old checkers rivalries, farm irrigation and tired family squabbles for drama — and knee-slappers like “cellulose phones” and sheep-urination jokes for comedy. Even fans of the 1984 PBS–American Playhouse special Miller wrote, A Matter of Principle, which also starred Arkin and Barbara Dana as a rural married couple, will find this slow going. Erich Roland’s HD cinematography is the only element of the film one can honestly enjoy. Roland gives the Oregon settings a bucolic beauty, but his professional camerawork only serves as a reminder of just how bush-league everything else about Raising Flagg really is. (Monica 4-Plex; One Colorado) (James C. Taylor)

THE RAPE OF EUROPA The Rape of Europa is old-school documentary filmmaking: the coolly cultured voice-over (courtesy of Joan Allen) imparting reams of facts; an endless stream of deeply informed talking heads; rare old photos and newsreels that fill the screen with imagery that is both thrillingly breathtaking and horrifying. It’s a History Channel or PBS special that’s leaped the fence from the boob tube onto the big screen. And it’s riveting. Tracking the tortuous paths of art masterpieces that were stolen from both private Jewish homes and assorted national museums of Europe during WWII, and then funneled into the private collections and storehouses of Hitler and his Nazi minions, Rape of Europa is a history lesson dressed as a measured thriller. Directors Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham canvass seven countries and travel back and forth between past and present to bring forth information that fleshes out familiar history notes, such as pointing out that frustrated art student Hitler mapped his conquest of Europe, in part, based on the art he wanted to lay claim to. Simultaneously, the trio’s portrayal of the issues around recovered art (battles between descendants of those who originally owned the art and the museums that now have possession; the attempts by historians and conservators to restore retrieved pieces) is a timely metaphor for the ways that the past lives so thornily in the present. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ernest Hardy)

RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION Why should you see a third installment of what has been, up until now, a tedious portfolio of international film-financing strategies disguised as a video-game adaptation? Let me count the ways: One, Milla Jovovich plays some sort of spaghetti-Western wraith who emerges from an underground bunker in a miniskirt/gunslinger ensemble to whoop ass on the living dead. Two, Milla Jovovich plays some sort of spaghetti-Western wraith who emerges from an underground bunker in a miniskirt/gunslinger ensemble to whoop ass on the living dead. Three — well, you get the picture. And so does director Russell Mulcahy, who uses all the flashy moves he honed on Duran Duran and Billy Joel videos to munch guts, pop eyes, and scatter brain matter to the far corners of the wide screen. This is wall-to-wall mayhem that dashes from one stylish, splattery, nonsensical set piece to the next, while the star attacks her silly role with the carnivorous brio of an ocelot clawing a side of ham. As such, it’s the first of the agonizing Resident Evil movies that could remotely be considered fun. I eagerly await a sequel in which Milla Jovovich’s clone army encounters a battalion of genetically modified Asia Argentos, and life as we know it ends in a maelstrom of bee-stung lips, crazy eyes and runway hair pulling. Until then, this’ll do. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

TRADE Based on a 2004 New York Times Magazine article about the sex-trafficking business, and starring a very straight-faced Kevin Kline, Trade should be a gritty, multifaceted, high-minded story about the price and politics of human slavery. Instead, it’s pure exploitation — the kind of movie after which you need a long, hot shower. German director Marco Kreuzpaintner’s movie looks like Traffic and Syriana — clearly his role models — but is little more than our generation’s version of 1979’s Hardcore. It’s set mostly in Mexico, where girls are snatched from streets and airports to become unwilling sex slaves — among them Veronica (Alicja Bachleda-Curus), who is lured to Mexico from Poland and is set to go up for auction in New Jersey, and Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), a teenager knocked off her bike and snatched in the broad-daylight streets of Mexico City. From Mexico to Jersey, we see plenty of pit stops at which these women (and, in one ghastly sequence, a young boy) are abused. Kline is the cop looking for his own grown daughter. Kreuzpaintner has managed to take an exhaustive and troubling investigative story and render it into a tawdry little thriller. Among its myriad problems is the fact that Trade doesn’t say anything about sex trafficking other than “Wow, it’s horrible.” (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)

GO YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS In this information-dense documentary, filmmaker Curt Johnson gives representatives from various animal-rights and animal-welfare groups (there’s a difference) a chance to state their case. Saving the Fidos and Fluffys of the world from abandonment or medical experimentation, it turns out, is a complicated, anger-filled enterprise. Actually, the animal-welfare folks would say that the animal-rights people aren’t interested in saving Fido at all, with many accusing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of killing more dogs than it saves. PETA, which once put out a comic book for kids titled Your Mommy Kills Animals, declined to participate in this film, as did the Humane Society of the United States, another mega-money organization with few friends in this crowd. And it is a crowd — Johnson’s film has almost too much testimony, the most incendiary of which is centered around the so-called SHAC-7. These young American members of an international group that uses the combative tactics of anti-abortionists to vilify those who’re doing business with a major products-testing company were recently labeled terrorists by the FBI and put on trial. That one can’t quite decide if these charming men are heroes or villains is a mark of Johnson’s calm, even approach to an issue seemingly fueled by emotions run amok. (Grande 4-Plex) (Chuck Wilson)