Film Reviews: Black Snake Moan, Wild Hogs and more

THE ABANDONED A punishing dose of zombie Chekhov for lifetime Fangoria subscribers, the first feature by Spanish splatter maven Nacho Cerda traps an American movie producer (Anastasia Hille) in the decrepit Russian farmhouse where she was abandoned 40 years before as an infant. Her only company is the fraternal twin (Karel Roden) she never knew she had — oh yeah, and their pasty-faced ghost-world doppelgängers, part of an endless-loop nightmare that has sucked the siblings back to the site of a grisly family tragedy. The relatively tame horrors on display here — mostly of the blip-in-the-night variety, accentuated with a tooth-rattling soundtrack of drones, moans, creaks and shrieks — may disappoint fans of the director’s gut-spelunking short Aftermath, which made him an underground hero on the abra-cadaver circuit. Worse, though, is that Cerda’s striking creep-show atmospherics, desaturated palette and off-kilter editing rhythms are a style in search of a movie: The muddled Twilight Zone payoff here is hardly enough to justify a sluggish two-character round robin of “Don’t look in the basement!” The last thing a filmmaker named Nacho needs is more cheese. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

AVENUE MONTAIGNE See film feature by Ella Taylor

BLACK SNAKE MOAN In Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer’s follow-up feature, a gaunt and almost unrecognizable Christina Ricci stars as a proverbial piece of poor white trash who, the moment her soldier boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) ships off to war, finds she can’t suppress the itch between her legs and starts spreading those twiggy appendages for anyone with a pulse. Enter a bitter, just-divorced musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who finds a beaten and battered Ricci by the side of the road. He then decides to rid her body of its sinful desires — a rehab that basically involves chaining her to a living-room radiator and serenading her with some soulful R&B. Few detested Hustle & Flow, with its white-boy fetishization of pimp culture, more than I did, and though I wouldn’t deem Black Snake Moan much of an advance (at least where its attitude toward women is concerned), the film does offer ample proof of Brewer’s facility with the camera, his understanding of Southern culture and — once you cut through all the bondage and anal penetration — a sweet-natured temperament (especially in a couple of lovely courtship scenes between Jackson and a kindly pharmacist played by S. Epatha Merkerson) that’s at odds with his evident yen to earn brownie points with the misogyny crowd. Surprisingly, 35-year-old Brewer is actually an old-fashioned guy: Just as Hustle & Flow seemed like a revisionist take on the classic Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show musicals, Black Snake Moan is, at its core, a fairly straightforward variation on George Bernard Shaw — Pigsfeetmalion, if you will. One day, when he outgrows his terminal adolescence, Brewer might be the perfect filmmaker to tackle Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

{mosimage} PICK ENCOUNTER POINT In a corner of the world defined by long-running intransigence, it comes like balm to the soul to meet the Bereaved Families Forum, a fragile but determined association of Israelis and Palestinians whose hearts were softened, not hardened, by losing loved ones in their region’s ongoing conflict. In this fascinating documentary, directors Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha ask what kind of person counters malicious violence with activist conciliation, but offer neither pat answers nor false redemption. Instead they observe the forum’s members, who crisscross the region promoting peace as best they can given the ubiquitous checkpoints, roadblocks, and the reactive vengefulness of their countrymen on both sides. They’re a disparate bunch — a graduate of an Israeli jail who read Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela and Gandhi while in prison; a former right-wing settler whose daughter was killed while riding in their car; a burly Israeli army veteran whose daughter died in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing; a Bethlehem teacher who lost his own daughter. But they’re united, however temporally, by their commitment to nonviolence, by their fiercely independent minds and their willingness to risk the antagonism of their own compatriots. Encounter Point  is not a sentimental film: Its most piercing moments are about the uphill internal and external struggles of these good people, bound together more by forgiveness than by love. Just how badly these voices of reason are needed grows crystal clear when Roni, the South African–born, leftist mother of a soldier killed by a Palestinian sniper, visits a Jewish settlement and, angered by the more rabid speakers at a meeting, compares their separatism to apartheid. You don’t have to agree with her to be horrified when a settler sitting next to her asks incredulously, “What’s wrong with that?” (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

FULL OF IT New Line Cinema horns in on the youth market with British director Christian Charles’ strenuously edgy take on a hoary old teen-comedy standby — high school dweeb sells his soul for status, and lives to reap as he has sown. Ryan Pinkston (of the television show Quintuplets) is excellent as Sam Leonard, an insecure runt whose humiliation at the hands of big bullies in his grubby new high school leads him to lie his way to self-reinvention as a studly achiever. His nose doesn’t grow longer, but his puny member does, and gradually takes over his personality as he brags his way to universal popularity. The twist is that all Sam’s lies come nightmarishly true — his wholesome parents (John Carroll Lynch and Cynthia Stevenson) become heedless narcissists; his pretty blond teacher turns into a sex maniac; the dog really does eat his homework; everyone but his above-the-fray friend (Kate Mara) wants a piece of him; and, worst of all, the It girl he covets (a very funny Amanda Walsh) turns out to be a ravenous stalker. Full of It abandons the de rigueur hot pastels of the average high school caper in favor of distressed browns and greens, but in the end, all the funky style masks little more than a Pinocchio retread for the adolescent grunge set. (AMC 30 at the Block) (Ella Taylor)

GBRAVICA: THE LAND OF MY DREAMS See film feature by Ella Taylor

 TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER Nothing is too crazed, corny or freakishly florid for writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng’s debut, Tears of the Black Tiger. Together with cinematographer Nattawut Kittikhun, Sasanatieng dyed his images through digital postproduction, pushing colors to impossible hues of eccentric radiance. Electrifying from frame one, the story opens with a blast of nuclear fuchsia in the shape of Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), a well-to-do belle who awaits her bad-boy lover (Chartchai Ngamsan as Seua Dum) on a pagoda swamped in turquoise lily pads — a Monet by Warhol. Staged against garishly artificial backdrops and expressionistic weather, full of silly talk and sillier mustaches, the plot diagrams the tragic love triangle between Rumpoey, unhappily betrothed to a police captain (Arawat Ruangvuth), and Dum, her girlhood crush. The trajectory of these ill-starred lovers is narrated in flashback, as is the backstory of how Dum became the bandit “Black Tiger,” complete with slo-mo Peckinpah massacres and symphonic Morriconean freak-outs. One wit has dubbed the movie a “pad thai Western.” Obsolete by design, this singular stunt and shock to the cinematic system is both of and beyond its own time. (Nuart) (Nathan Lee)

WILD HOGS This sitcom-shallow comedy imagines itself as an amalgam of St. Elmo’s Fire, The Wild Bunch and Deliverance — or so says smarmy, hammy Woody (John Travolta), whose supermodel wife has left him bankrupt and homeless. It’s Woody who convinces his pals (played by Tim Allen, William H. Macy and Martin Lawrence) to ditch their day jobs for a week on the road, traveling from Ohio to California in strip-mall-purchased leather pants and perfectly polished Harleys. Wild Hogs, written by a man who’s done some Arrested Development episodes and directed by the guy who made Van Wilder, also fancies itself a sorta-sequel to Easy Rider; hence the last-scene cameo from one of that movie’s stars, who shows up to apologize for the bad behavior of a biker gang that’s lost sight of what it means to “be free.” In that respect, Wild Hogs would have you believe it’s a successor to Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, in which an adman ditches his comfortable, conformist existence to drop out and discover the countryside. But Brooks’ film was a heartfelt send-up of the coddled yuppie who believes he was born to be wild. It was shot through with honest desperation, which made the jokes not only resonant but also redemptive. At least he knew he was being an ass. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

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