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Film Reviews: Antarctica, The First Basket

Antarctica

THE ALPHABET KILLER Any number of TV shows in recent years has depicted an out-of-the-ordinary investigator who either talks to ghosts, sees what the killer sees, or believes what no one else will. Eliza Dushku, veteran of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tru Calling, is perhaps the perfect choice to tweak this formula a tad, as a detective who does indeed see dead people ... because she’s schizophrenic. A mixed blessing, that, as it makes her obsessive enough to figure things out but also subjects her to visions of scary zombified victims that really aren’t as helpful as they could be. The mystery itself, allegedly based on a true story, is fairly rote: Someone is killing little girls with alliterative initials, and the perpetrator will presumably turn out to be one of the principal cast members. But when that roster includes the likes of Michael Ironside, Tom Noonan, Cary Elwes (massacring a Noo Yawk accent) and Bill Moseley, it makes the guessing game a little tougher and the story a lot more entertaining. Wrong Turn director Rob Schmidt ably goes through the motions, though the hook for a sequel at the end is truly annoying. Still, The Alphabet Killer may well make enough money to justify a Part II, as it features a split-second shot of Dushku topless, guaranteeing hefty rental revenues from the Buffy-ites. (Monica 4-Plex) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 GO ANTARCTICA Gay film slipped palatably out of Israel’s closet with the films of Eytan Fox, who with his partner Gal Uchovsky made Yossi & Jagger, The Bubble and the subliminally homoerotic Walk on Water. But writer-director Yair Hochner takes it to a daring new level that both invites and challenges the mainstream audience. Like The Bubble, Antarctica takes urban loneliness as its subject, but though all the characters are strikingly attractive, there’s nothing frothy or pandering about Hochner’s hermetic homosexual world — mothers and siblings included — where uncompromising carnality and an endless supply of ring-tones define the shifting couplings of gay men and lesbians ineptly looking for love and family in Tel Aviv, Israel’s answer to New York. The script, by turns crisply iconoclastic, wistfully romantic and sublimely silly (an alien landing is thrown in for the fun of it), supports Hochner’s fluid juggling of tone. In what passes for escapism in Israeli film, Antarctica is resolutely apolitical, but there is a subversive politicking in its insistence on portraying gay life as is, promiscuity and all. Which may be why the only Israeli theater that would show this lovingly goofy tribute to John Waters is a cinematheque. (Regent Showcase) (Ella Taylor)

B.O.H.I.C.A. D.J. Paul’s anti-war screed B.O.H.I.C.A. (the acronym stands for “Bend over, here it comes again,”) has one thing to recommend it, but even that will likely appeal to a small subset of filmgoers: the cult of Brendan Sexton III. Sexton, who made his film debut as a scowling, inept, preadolescent white-trash rapist in Welcome to the Dollhouse, has made a just-below-the-radar career out of playing all manner of scruffily marginalized young men. Here, he initially plays to type but then flips it with the revelation of his character’s religious beliefs and political theories. That turnabout illustrates the problem with B.O.H.I.C.A. as a whole. Stranded in an arid patch of Afghanistan, four U.S. soldiers (Sexton, Nicholas Gonzalez, Matthew Del Negro, Jamie McAdams) pass the time boozing, tormenting one another and holding talking-points filled conversations about religious bigotry, the brainwashing power of the American political machine, and assorted other sociopolitical topics du jour. When a sinister duo of lost airmen appears, the film stays its talky course a while longer before tragedy inevitably strikes. Paul and co-screenwriter Joseph “Bo” Colen wear their left-leaning politics on their sleeves, which is fine. But it’s not art or artfully rendered, and nothing they’re saying is news. Still, it is good to see Sexton again. (Fairfax) (Ernest Hardy)

DALTON TRUMBO’S JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN Having already been a novel, radio play, movie (famously excerpted by Metallica for the “One” video), and one-man stage show, it’s hard to know what’s gained by yet another take on Johnny Got His Gun. Nonetheless, here’s a film version of the stage version, with The O.C. vet Benjamin McKenzie’s entirely creditable turn as Joe Bonham, lifeless World War I corpse. Stripped of his arms, legs and facial features, Joe rants and raves his way into an understanding of where he now belongs in the world. First there are the nightmares, then the flashbacks to better times and finally, a furious, rejected desire to be put on display to dissuade all further war. Leigh Allen’s lighting design is tops, and director Rowan Joseph does the most he can behind the camera, seizing the opportunity for an overhead shot whenever possible to open things up. But filmed theater is an inherently dubious genre, and Johnny Got His Gun is little more than a good performance of dated material. Originally published as part of an effort to keep the U.S. out of World War II, Trumbo’s pacifist rant now seems pleasantly corny in its memories of small-town America and absolutely irrelevant to the very real issues of present-day warfare. (Sunset 5) (Vadim Rizov)

 

FADED MEMORIES Okay, is somebody fucking with me here? One 16-year-old Anne-Sophie’s feature debut, Faded Memories is a Malibu-set Little Girl Lost soap operetta that seems to have cost a few bucks to make, and I simply cannot grasp how or why (was that a helicopter shot!?). If the resulting work fell anywhere between Rimbaud and the Shaggs on the ingrown-teenage-weirdness scale, I’d overlook my suspicions of mollycoddling parental underwriting, but Faded Memories is aNoBoDy UnDeRsTaNdZ indulgence reflecting an unexamined and seriously limited worldview. The director casts herself as a troubled teen hauled all over creation by a peripatetic slut aunt (white-trash burlesque — ever seen a drunk open a screw-off cap with their teeth?) After dallying with some ponytailed mong, our heroine spirals toward a breakdown as unconvincingly histrionic as any adolescent “suicide attempt” on Tylenol PM. Anne-Sophie’s MySpace lists her influences as “European cinema,” which may be why her dialogue reads like hastily translated subtitles. Some of the lovers’ babble, however, achieves a high-grade inanity (e.g., “I kind of wish I was a plane, but then I don’t, ’cuz then I wouldn’t be able to think”). If this was secretly intended as some kind of satire, it’s brilliant. (Town Center 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

 GO THE FIRST BASKET Though hardly the first testament to Jewish physicality, which is as old as Samson, David Vyorst’s clear-eyed, jaunty documentary briskly walks us through the history of American Jews in basketball, a sport many believe belonged to blacks and very tall white goyim. Along with boxing, the low-cost sport served as a major avenue of upward mobility and cultural assimilation for working-class Jewish immigrants, beginning with the Settlement House teams on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century and progressing through the professional leagues all the way to the NBA. Narrated by actor Peter Riegert, with period footage and testimony from sports historians and wonderful old gents in New York and Florida (including the late, irrepressibly belligerent Red Auerbach) who once played or coached, The First Basket is more than a triumphalist screw you to those who think Jews don’t play sports. Vyorst skirts neither the anti-Semitism that attended Jewish success in basketball (one journalist blithely concluded in print that it was the ideal sport for Jewish trickery and deceit) nor the culpability of Jews and blacks in the point-shaving scandals that rocked City College and other urban universities. With success and suburbanization, Jews drifted away from this quintessentially inner-city sport, and today, Jews play pro basketball mainly in Israel, where the sport is “huge.” But, as one commentator from within the tribe gleefully notes, basketball, like crime and entertainment, was one of the easiest ways for a Jew to become an American. (Music Hall; Town Center 5; Fallbrook 7) (Ella Taylor)

HOUSE A few months ago, Lionsgate issued for Saw V a trailer that tried to fake out viewers into thinking they were watching an ad for a Christian film. (Sample ad copy: “His gift is life.”) House is sorta like that, but in reverse; neither a reboot of the ’80s horror-comedy franchise nor a big-screen bow for Hugh Laurie’s dyspeptic doctor, it’s a Christian parable dressed up in horror trappings. Director Robby Henson (who previously made the serial-killer genre palatable to the faithful with Thr3e) here throws two dysfunctional couples into an old creepy house, where they confront not just a family of crazy Satanists but more importantly (and boringly, alas) their own emotional traumas. Henson cribs from the best with a scattershot approach that includes references to The Shining, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Dead Zone among many others, but the central problem here is one common to faith-based films: the heroes (Reynaldo Rosales and Heidi Dippold) are both overly bland and poorly cast. Thankfully, the villains include Michael Madsen, Lew Temple and former Devil’s Rejects Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook, who keep things entertaining when they’re onscreen but too often take a back seat to tediously obvious flashback sequences. (Selected theaters) (Luke Y. Thompson)

JCVD JCVD wastes little time working itself into a pretzel. The action begins under the credits with Jean-Claude Van Damme working his way through a crazy urban battlefield accompanied by a Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation ballad. As funny as anything in Tropic Thunder, this exceedingly long take ends with a falling flat (the aging actor having missed his mark) and a tantrum thrown by the movie’s Chinese director. Van Damme is next seen in family court fighting for custody of his daughter as his wife’s attorney enters his DVDs as evidence against him. Suddenly, he’s back in his Belgian hometown, where it’s not long before he finds himself in a Jean-Claude Van Damme situation, held hostage in the local post office. Crowds of fans surge outside while the cops, who have set up a command center in the local video store, think that he’s the hostage-taker. JCVD is all about the hassle of being JCVD, but self-parody effectively precludes self-pity. In the most remarkable sequence, this hitherto limited actor launches into a lengthy soliloquy on his reasons for making this movie, explaining why he took up karate and recounting his feelings about celebrity (as well as America, women and drugs). It’s near risible, but who would dare laugh? Jean-Claude is really crying! What exactly is JCVD? Comedy? Confession? Confusion? No one will ever mistake these backstage shenanigans for Irma Vep. But as a self-regarding expression of masculine angst, it’s a Damme sight more fun than Synecdoche, New York. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

 

 GO PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL Some political documentaries suffer from overselling the urgency of their agenda, but director Gini Reticker’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell nicely underplays the significance of its subject — the 2003 nonviolent protest by thousands of Liberian women, which brought down warlord president Charles Taylor. Focusing on interviews with several of the movement’s leaders, Reticker mixes in archival footage while explaining how these women, of Christian and Muslim backgrounds, rallied to demand the end of the bloody civil war waged between Taylor’s regime (with its child armies) and the country’s rebel factions. On camera, the organizers are largely unremarkable, and Reticker smartly refrains from turning Devil into a canonization or (worse) a simplistic you-go-girl celebration of calm feminine strength trumping brutal masculine aggression. Instead, the film’s slightly dry detailing of the major incidents that led to Taylor’s eventual exile complements the protestors’ impassioned but unshowy resolve to build momentum for their examples of defiance. Reticker offers perhaps a too-narrow focus on this historical moment, but Pray the Devil Back to Hell remembers the golden rule of moviemaking — rather than tell, it shows, and what it shows is quietly affecting. (Music Hall) (Tim Grierson)

RYAN AND SEAN’S NOT SO EXCELLENT ADVENTURE Who are these idiots? Japanese-American teens Ryan Higa and Sean Fujiyoshi became YouTube sensations through a series of silly parody videos, which they have parlayed into an excruciatingly unfunny movie starring themselves, in which they venture from Hawaii to Hollywood trying to become the next big thing. Though directed by Richard Van Vleet and written by Brian Zemrak, Ryan and Sean’s Not So Excellent Adventure is really just a series of lazy, point-and-shoot vignettes, as our heroes fart around Tinseltown (literally), mocking every obvious El Lay archetype when they’re not making spoofed-to-death references to Brokeback Mountain and There Will Be Blood. As performers, Higa and Fujiyoshi’s only strength is their utter faith in their adorableness — no matter how many terrible jokes they make about poop or little people, they just keep grinning. Ryan and Sean’s could inspire a dissertation on the corroding effect that bite-sized Web entertainment has had on narrative cinema, especially comedies — but that would be putting more thought into the movie than the film­makers did. After each Hollywood phony they meet, Ryan and Sean discuss whether they really want to become stars. That’s probably not a legitimate worry, fellas. (Downtown Independent) (Tim Grierson)


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