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Film Reviews: Black Sheep, 1408, You Kill Me

BLACK SHEEP Think of this daft New Zealand splatter comedy about mutant ewes on the warpath as Killer of Sheep II: The Revenge. “Get ready for the Violence of the Lambs,” promises the tagline, and writer-director Jonathan King does not disappoint: In their dietary preference, King’s little lambs lean more toward intestines than ivy. They’re victims of genetic engineering on an isolated Kiwi farm, where a ruthless rancher (played by Peter “Get Me a Bruce Campbell Type!” Feeney) plans to revolutionize the livestock industry with his poppin’-fresh “Oldfields.” Once bitten by an infected fetus, the woolly gut-munchers go on a rampage, ripping off limbs and festooning the barnyard with innards. Cloned from the warped DNA of fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, the movie is all gory hyperbole and blood-spewing sight gags, with the grotesquerie of appetite (“My haggis!”) setting up many of the sickest jokes. The broad comedy and one-note characters eventually cancel out the horror, leaving elaborate set pieces that are more frantic than funny. But writer-director King deserves credit for wringing every ounce of ovine mayhem from his premise. There is no such thing as an unfunny cutaway to a sheep. (Sunset 5; Nu Wilshire) (Jim Ridley)


BROKEN ENGLISH Nothing has turned out as expected for Nora, the drifting, doleful heroine played by Parker Posey in writer/director Zoe Cassavetes’ debut feature. Confronted in her mid-30s by a sinkhole of unaddressed expectations — only a few of them her own — we meet Nora as she attempts to slog through a backlog of doubt and uncertainty without going under completely. If urban female confusion is the new suburban male confusion, surely Posey’s lost and wary eyes are the face of that angst. As a beautiful woman with the curious big-city habit of accepting loneliness as her lot, Posey is beguiling for the first third of Broken English; lovely, fragile and tense, she’s the lonely girl who screens phone calls and winces at compliments. But, alas, we must wait for a fully realized investigation of what Nora’s mother suggests is eating — and paralyzing — young women in the city today: too many choices. When the Manhattan man shortage threatens to doom the inexhaustibly stylish Nora (this girl has cute tops for days) to a life of closet rearrangement, a charming Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud) swoops in with some grade-A Euro-lovin’. Nora’s initially existential problems become nothing that a romantic pick-me-up can’t fix. (The Landmark; Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Michelle Orange)


1408 There’s every reason going in to believe that 1408, based on a Stephen King short story, will be nothing but a Shining rip-off made on the cheap. The screenwriters are collectively responsible for Reign of Fire, Problem Child 3 and Agent Cody Banks; John Cusack has proven he’s not above taking a gig for the paycheck; and Swedish director Mikael Håfström’s sole previous English-language film was the dreadful Derailed. Yet it’s a surprisingly effective movie — terrifying as it builds tension and heartbreaking as it offers release. Cusack plays a former novelist named Mike Enslin, who, after the death of his daughter and a separation from his wife, abandons all interest in the living to focus on the dead, writing travel guides with titles like 10 Haunted Hotels and 10 Haunted Lighthouses. But in Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan, in which dozens of corpses have piled up since the 1920s, he finds his first truly “evil fucking room.” The horror wouldn’t work without Cusack, who makes what could have been a rote acting exercise — Be tough! Now be angry! Now be defensively funny! Now tough again! — play instead as a cathartic ritual. We’re never sure if Mike’s losing his mind or saving his soul. More than likely, it’s a bit of both. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


PICK EVAN ALMIGHTY See film feature


JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM Now this is more like it: Flirtatious repartee between glamorous stars in travel-poster international locations; a gratifyingly simple plot with puzzles and sleight-of-hand surprises; and, at regular intervals, outbursts of gaudy, energetic dancing infectiously exploding. After a dispiriting series of summer films from both Hollywood and Bollywood that aimed at nothing more than fun and failed to achieve even that, Shaad Ali’s nutritious and filling (and glossy and sexy and inventive) Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is light entertainment so gratifyingly well crafted that it’s uplifting. It restores our faith in the high calling of making people feel good. The central romantic situation couldn’t be simpler: Preity Zinta and Abishek Bachchan, playing off each other like longtime sparring partners, are two strangers who meet at a café in London’s Waterloo Station while waiting for their respective fiancés. Or so they claim. But because JBJ distinctly resembles two other recent hits — Bunty aur Babli (which was made by the same producer-director team) and Bluffmaster — in both of which the dashing young Bachchan played high-stepping con artists — we can’t help squinting at the film’s flashbacks, searching for evidence of some elaborate hustle. (When the underlying agendas are revealed, they may seem to be a cheat in genre terms, but they reward our affection for the characters, and this is a higher code than the rules of any genre.) The entire last half hour of the film is one long blowout of a production number, a dance contest in Southall at which all the relationships are sorted out. Dancing, in fact, is the movie’s governing metaphor: The title translates as “Sway Baby Sway,” and it clearly refers not just to a dance step but to an attitude toward life. The dancer who expresses this best, in a running cameo appearance, is Bachchan’s father, veteran superstar Amitabh Bachchan, as a Greek-chorus-like street performer with hippie hair and a Technicolor dreamcoat, who effortlessly invests a minimalist, macho two-step with the attitude of a lifetime. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)


A MIGHTY HEART See film feature


YELLOW Hot Puerto Rican babe immigrates to New York and becomes a Broadway dancer: If that sounds like a bad cross between Flashdance and Stayin’ Alive, stay tuned, because Yellow is a fresh take on an oft-told tale. After the death of her dancer father, lithe, beautiful Amaryllis (Roselyn Sanchez, who wrote the script with Nacoma Whobrey) leaves Puerto Rico for the Big Apple, where she moves into her cousin’s spacious apartment (he’s away, conveniently), befriends the poetry-spouting old man next door (Bill Duke, very good), and gets a job in a strip club after (of course) dazzling the heart-of-gold owner and the other girls with her soulful dance moves. All of this is predictable, but Yellow has been made with an attention to detail that raises it above cliché. Director Alfredo de Villa and cinematographer Claudio Chea (who also shot de Villa’s acclaimed 2002 debut, Washington Heights) wash Amaryllis’ world in deep, vibrant color, from her knockout stripper outfits (designed by Julia Michelle Santiago) to such minutiae as the pastel food packaging in the background of a grocery-store scene (purposefully arranged, I’d wager). Mostly, there’s Sanchez, who knows how to listen to other actors and can dance up a storm. In another time, director-choreographer Bob Fosse would have made her a star. (AMC Burbank 16; Beverly Center 13) (Chuck Wilson)


YOU KILL ME Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Montana-born director John Dahl made a name for himself with a series of nifty, darkly comic neo-noirs bearing wonderfully hard-boiled titles like Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. The past decade has been less kind to Dahl, who’s foundered with a series of bigger-budget studio assignments and only sporadically (as in 2001’s Joy Ride) shown signs of his old B-movie mojo. Called You Kill Me and made from a comic-thriller script by Narnia scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Dahl’s latest appears to be a return to form but in fact may be the worst film he’s ever done — an inert, tone-deaf melange of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under about an alcoholic assassin (Ben Kingsley) in the New York Polish mafia who becomes a better man (and a better hit man) by joining AA and going to work in a San Francisco mortuary. Mixing the comic and the thrilling in roughly inverse proportion to what one would have hoped, Markus and McFeely’s script supposedly kicked around Hollywood for years before attracting Sir Ben’s interest, and its age shows in the torrent of rimshot-worthy gay and Polak jokes, the gay-but-not-gay-seeming AA sponsor (Luke Wilson), and the submissive love interest (Tea Leoni, a far cry from Dahl’s usual steely dames) who doesn’t mind that Kingsley’s a killer as long as he’s not, you know, gay. (ArcLight; The Landmark; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Universal Studios Cinema 100) (Scott Foundas)


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