Film Reviews: Bratz, El Cantante, Hot Rod and more

Ganging up: Thomas Turgoose gives an extraordinary debut performance as a neophyte skinhead. (Photo by Dean Rogers)

BECOMING JANE See film feature


BRATZ Inspired by the eponymous, semi-skanky dolls that launched a thousand parental protests, this tween comedy does a good job rebranding the Bratz as wholesome do-gooders you’d want to take home to Mom — especially if Mom likes the ethnics, because Bratz is nothing if not worldly. Blond, fair-skinned Yasmin is Latina, so of course there’s a mariachi band in her kitchen. At 8 in the morning. On a school day. Jade, who is half-Asian, is the math-and-science whiz of the group. Blond Cloe is a Suzanne Somers–style klutz. And African-American Sasha is a sassy cheerleader. The Bratz spend most of the movie crusading against the insidious clique overlord, Meredith, at authoritarian Carry Nation High. Meredith, with the help of her father, gutless Principal Dimly (Jon Voight), tries to keep the Bratz in line, but the fearless foursome (spoiler alert!) eventually manages to triumph. In the end, the most offensive part of Bratz isn’t its stereotypes or brand expansion; it’s the sorry state of Jon Voight’s career. Up next: National Treasure: Book of Secrets. (Citywide) (Jessica Grose)

EL CANTANTE Director Leon Ichaso, already responsible for mucking up a made-for-TV Jimi Hendrix biopic, is back at it with this turgid film about salsa star Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthony), which doesn’t go so much behind the music as beneath it. Focusing almost solely on Lavoe’s addictions (drugs and women, ho and hum), El Cantante is a garish, dispiriting bit of work — a mountain of biopic clichés snorted through the lens of a fidgety camera that never pauses long enough for us to get to like, or even know, the man responsible for making the Nuyorican sound a mainstream American commodity in the 1970s and early ’80s. Every so often, a character appears to tell us Lavoe’s sound “will change everything,” but nothing happens after that; it’s the same ol’ self-pity party as Lavoe, whose papa doesn’t approve of his move from Puerto Rico to America, blames everyone but himself for his woes, despite his seemingly instant fame. Worse, Anthony’s real-life wife, Jennifer Lopez, tries to make the film about her; miscast as Lavoe’s missus, Puchi, Lopez hides behind aging makeup that makes her look like Bebe Neuwirth as she talks to a documentary crew about a husband we don’t really see. Hector’s “corny,” she says, but the movie never proves it. “Interesting” we’d settle for, but we don’t even get that. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

GANDHI, MY FATHER The premise is intriguing: the terrifying downside of having one of the greatest visionaries in human history as your old man. A first feature written and directed by theater veteran Feroz Abbas Khan, and produced as a “home production” by the great Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor (Mr. India), Gandhi, My Father radiates sincerity. It’s a beautifully shot and staged period reconstruction, and is at times impressively acted, at least in the secondary roles. What it lacks is fresh insight. We’re not surprised to learn that the unshakable principles that enabled Mahatma Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala) to shift the world on its axis were not always so helpful in dealing with individually flawed family members. Oldest son Hiralal Gandhi, in particular, led a frustrated and restless life, embracing several contradictory political and religious extremes, from Islam to Hindu fundamentalism, before ending his days in alcoholic destitution. Our sympathy for Hiralal as a victim, a poor schlub who would have been happy with a much less extraordinary life, is undercut by the weak-kneed performance of the often likable actor Akshaye Khanna (previously wonderful as the moonbat painter in Dil Chata Hai), who from the outset seems so sheepish and self-pitying that it would hardly take the force of a Mahtma to crush his spirit. This guy’s spirit comes pre-crushed. (Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)

HOT ROD The Saturday Night Live comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — collectively known as The Lonely Island — shot to the heights of YouTube celebrity with their parody music videos (including the immortal “Lazy Sunday,” a.k.a. “The Chronic of Narnia”). Unfortunately, their aggressively silly debut feature, which stars Samberg as an amateur motorcycle stunt man who dreams of Evel Knievel–style glory, more immediately recalls a different sort of viral video — the ones where anomic suburban teens film themselves engaging in backyard wrestling throw-downs and other sub-Jackass antics. It’s not that Hot Rod, which Schaffer directed from a script (by Pam Brady) originally conceived as a Will Ferrell vehicle, doesn’t have its moments: I dug the Flashdance-style training montages in which Samberg readies himself for a death-defying 15-bus leap, and I found it hard to resist the movie’s ’80s nostalgia (running the gamut from the long-forgotten Paul Rodriguez comedy The Whoopee Boys to the musical stylings of Europe). But like so many movies from the SNL factory, there are perhaps 10 to 15 minutes of good, gag-worthy material here stretched out to interminable lengths. Or to put it another way: It’s a very small d**k in an oversize box. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


I KNOW WHO KILLED ME Watch the mallrats’ jaws drop as they pay to see the same old teen slicer-dicer, only to get this wacko hodgepodge of the Brian De Palma horror filmography and — I swear to God — Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. Lindsay Lohan plays a demure honor student who gets abducted by a psycho and appears weeks later in a hospital bed, missing — well, let’s just say that piano scholarship may need rethinking. Worse, the girl not only has no memory of her past but claims to be someone else entirely — a jackpot for her horny jock boyfriend (Brian Geraghty), whose girlfriend suddenly morphs from a bashful abstinent into an exotic dancer hot to hit the pole. In short, it’s a gift-wrapped part for Lohan, who plays her good-girl/bad-girl role with wit and an air of sly calculation. Despite some disgusting (and obligatory) meatball surgery with rotting fingers and severed hands, this intriguing oddity directed by Chris Sivertson (The Lost) is less a shocker than a surreal, disjointed mood piece about teen alienation. The script even has the nerve to forsake the obvious solution for something much crazier and over the top — the kind of high-altitude nonsense that can only be explained onscreen by radio paranormal maven Art Bell via a Kafka allusion. Yes, it’s that kind of Lindsay Lohan movie. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

PICK LAURA SMILES When she smiles, the soft, pale face of Laura (Petra Wright), the wife and mother at the center of Jason Ruscio’s sophomore feature, quickens with a supernal glow and she seems a becalmed figure, the sort of woman who asks nothing more from life than what she has been given. It is, in fact, an illusion, and has been in the nine years since Laura watched as her fiancé, an aspiring writer (Kip Pardue), was hit by a car and killed on a New York street. In that moment, it was as if Laura stepped outside of herself and never quite returned; now she watches her life pass from a distance, like a movie or a waking dream. She wanders dazedly through the freshly waxed, fluorescent perfection of a suburban supermarket and makes eyes with a young stockboy who she tells pointedly that she wants to fuck right then and there, as she similarly seduces a kindly widower neighbor (Jonathan Silverman) — sex being the last part of herself she feels she has to give, that reminds her she is alive. Trafficking in the sort of middle-class ennui that has been the staple of movies like American Beauty  and Little Children  and wrapped in a therapist’s-office framing device that ultimately feels unnecessary, Laura Smiles is hardly a novel achievement. But as the film begins to simmer with the ordinary, everyday madness of movies like Todd Haynes’ Safe and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, it casts an increasingly hypnotic spell, thanks in no small measure to Wright — a fearless actress (and the real-life wife of writer-director Ruscio) who brings this sometimes despicable, often heartbreaking character to life with every atom of her being. (Music Hall)  (Scott Foundas)

NO END IN SIGHT See film feature.

THE TEN A cross between Kieslowski’s Dekalog and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, though without the poignant curiosity of the former or the anarchic fury of the latter, The Ten is a star-studded, half-baked, take-it-or-leave-it “goof” on The Ten Commandments, in the parlance of actor/co-writer Ken Marino’s surgeon character, who’s keen on leaving instruments inside his patients’ bodies because it makes him giggle. (He’s the “thou shalt not kill” commandment, natch.) It’s divided into skits pasted together by Paul Rudd–delivered monologues interrupted by his wife (Famke Janssen) and lover (Jessica Alba), and it features recurring characters (played by the likes of Winona Ryder, Marino, Rob Corddry, Liev Schreiber and others) who glide in and out of sketches like party-goers in search of someone more interesting to talk to. As it was made by Marino and director David Wain (the men who brung you Wet Hot American Summer, a film whose sole ambition was to remake Meatballs), it ain’t all that interested in theological discussions, merely eliciting a few giggles as it travels down a darkly comic trail in need of a burning bush — unless you count the prison sequence full of “man rape” references. (The Landmark; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Robert Wilonsky)

PICK THIS IS ENGLAND There is scarcely a false note in writer-director Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical drama about a withdrawn, fatherless boy coming of age in Thatcherite England. The year is 1983: A world away, the Falklands War has only recently come to an end, while back at home the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer — and angrier — as waves of immigrants flood into the streets. The air seethes with emasculated rage and nationalistic propaganda, and 12-year-old Shaun (played by the extraordinary newcomer Thomas Turgoose, who has a small, compact body and an old, wizened face) finds, in the skinhead gang headed by the explosive, charismatic Combo (Stephen Graham), the sense of belonging he desperately seeks. Because this is a world the Midlands-born Meadows (whose previous films include TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass) knows from the inside out, he depicts the gang less as a unified pack than as a collection of distinct personalities, some of whom see their Ben Shermans and Dr. Martens as little more than fashion accessories, while for others they are armor in a battle for the very soul of a nation. The result is a film marked by eruptions of brutal violence, but also passages of extraordinary tenderness, particularly in the tentative romance between Shaun and the wild-haired Smell (Rosamund Hanson). This is England, yes, but it is also the fulfillment of Meadows’ promise as one of the singular voices in contemporary British cinema. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)


UNDERDOG Poor Underdog, ending up Disney’s bitch and working for the folks who snuffed Old Yeller. The pill-popping canine crime-fighter from the 1960s Total TeleVision cartoon comes to the big screen as a realistically (I guess that’s what you’d call it) computer-animated beagle who talks in Jason Lee’s pleasantly scruffy Earlspeak. Only now, he’s the agent of bonding between a widowed ex-cop (Oliver Stone—oops, James Belushi) and his sullen son (Alex Neuberger), whose coming together forms the movie’s emotional arc. It was probably a good idea not to traumatize kids with the static, violent weirdness of the old TV show, but director Frederik Du Chau and his three screenwriters haven’t replaced it with anything more memorable: Even the promising team of Peter Dinklage’s mad scientist Simon Barsinister and Patrick Warburton’s henchman Cad turns out to be a bust. But Underdog does get an upgrade for the show’s Sweet Polly Purebred, here a literal horndog (voiced by Amy Adams) who dreams of going “off-leash” with the hero: “There isn’t a hose cold enough to break that up.” The running time is 84 minutes. To answer your question: Yes, there are “outtakes.” (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

WHO’S YOUR CADDY? Name this movie: an up-and-comer from the city buys his way into a high-class country club, but the WASPy club president won’t stand for it. Meanwhile, a poor young caddy is secretly the best player on the course. When the parvenu and the WASP finally decide to settle it all with a high-stakes match out on the links, the caddy steps in to make sure our hero wins. No, it’s not Caddyshack — just swap Jews (Rodney Dangerfield) for blacks (Big Boi) and you’ve got Who’s Your Caddy? The movie, of course, is terrible; God knows why the writers went to the trouble of “improving” on the plot, giving Big Boi, unlike Dangerfield, some deep motivation (he’s trying to avenge his father, an old-time caddy who was kicked off the course) and adding... midgets. (Citywide) (Charles Petersen)

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