Film Reviews: Chalk, The Ex, 28 Weeks Later and Delta Farce

PICK 28 WEEKS LATER The story thus far: Seven months have gone by since the Rage virus passed from chimp fang to British bloodstream in an animal-rights intervention gone awry, unleashing a horde of the frenetic undead in the direction of Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones. England since quarantined, the zombie menace has starved to death, and an America-led NATO force now proceeds with the reconstruction. A man named Don (Robert Carlyle) oversees the infrastructure of a heavily fortified “green zone” established for preliminary resettlement. You can guess how that turns out. Yes, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo bluntly raids the Zeitgeist in his sequel to Danny Boyle’s new-school zombie smash 28 Days Later. That’s forgivable because (a) 28 Weeks Later kicks ass; (b) etiquette forbids Nancy Pelosi from discussing the occupation in terms of gore-drenched cannibalistic anarchy; and (c) topical dissent is as intrinsic to the zombie genre as topical skin problems. Eventually the zombies return, and Fresnadillo displays a fine sense of scale, shifting from a God’s-eye perspective of mushrooming chaos to subjective, street-level reportage, and an uncompromising commitment to unrelenting dread. Happy times! And superior horror. 28 Months Later  can’t come too soon. For the full review click here. (Citywide) (Nathan Lee)

AMERICAN PASTIME Racism and fear mongering as sport is a potent metaphorical jumping point for a period drama that climaxes in a baseball game between Japanese-Americans from an internment camp and a minor-league team composed of white bigots. It’s World War II, and the tight-knit, L.A.-based Nomura family has been uprooted to a camp in the Utah desert, where jazz-loving, baseball-scholarship-earning son Lyle (Aaron Yoo) stirs up trouble by getting involved with the daughter (Sarah Drew) of an embittered guard (a stoic Gary Cole) who’s got a son fighting in the Pacific and fast-fading dreams of a call from the Yankees. With such rich material about dreams deferred, it’s disheartening that co-writer–director Desmond Nakano’s nobly made but patchy drama mires itself in nostalgia tropes and storytelling clichés — about race-mixing romance, winning the big game and delivering comeuppance to the stock racist character (a barber who won’t cut “Jap” hair) — rather than the rich human details that come from the terrible bizarreness of having to live with dignity in undignified circumstances. What’s strange is that it’s a subject close to Nakano too: His parents and their families were sent to the camps. Perhaps it’s a case of the difficulty of telling a simplistic tale of talent and shared sacrifice from a wartime chapter that was about anything but good sportsmanship. (Grande 4-Plex) (Robert Abele)

 CHALK Trouble paying attention in class, low self-esteem, hormonal confusion — and those are just the teachers in director Mike Akel’s zippy debut feature about first-, second- and third-year instructors at an Anytown, USA, public high school. Drawn from Akel’s (and star Chris Mass’) own on-the-job experiences, Chalk opens by telling us that 50 percent of teachers quit within their first three years on the job, and then proceeds to show us why in fly-on-the-wall mockumentary fashion, cutting between the classrooms of an introverted first-year history teacher (Troy Schremmer) whose lack of enthusiasm about his subject is contagious; the jovial Mr. Stroope (Mass), who spends more time thinking about the upcoming teacher-of-the-year contest than his own lesson plans (and who, in one priceless moment, kindly begs of one student, “In class, try not to know as much as me”); and a female P.E. coach (Janelle Schremmer) who worries that her job and short haircut will make people think she’s gay. Though Akel and Mass share writing credit, Chalk was actually shot in a loose, improvisational manner in the mode of Christopher Guest’s films, and its best set pieces are like devastatingly effective pinpricks puncturing the Hollywood hot-air balloon of inspirational teacher/coach melodramas. Think of it as To Sir, With Sarcasm. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)

DELTA FARCE  You could make a case that any movie in which Mexicans and rednecks become best of friends is a net positive for society. But to do that, you’d have to ignore the severe boredom that sets in about halfway through this comedy — a Three Amigos with fewer laughs — in which Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, and DJ Qualls play useless weekend warriors who somehow never imagine that being a reservist in wartime might result in having to actually go to war. Sure enough, they get called up, but one preposterous accident later, they wind up in Mexico...which they think is Iraq, tee hee. By the time they figure out it isn’t, they’ve run afoul of an evil bandito named...wait for it...Carlos Santana (Danny Trejo, doing his damnedest). Surely nobody expected Delta Farce to be much better than Ernest in the Army, or Pauly Shore’s In the Army Now; what’s sad is that it doesn’t even live up to the comedic “standards” set by last year’s Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. Even fans of gay-rape jokes are likely to feel burned out by the movie’s end. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)(Citywide)


DOWNTOWN: A STREET TALE Angelo (Joey Dedio, who wrote the script), nicknamed “Kick,” is a 27-year-old New York petty thief and hustler with abandonment issues and a heart of gold. He’s the great hope of Aimee (Genevieve Bujold), who runs a rescue center for homeless youth, and counts on Kick to look after the half dozen vagabonds who crash with him in an abandoned factory. Dedio was reportedly raised in the Bronx, but scenes like the one in which Kick learns that his ex-girlfriend, Maria (a plaintive Flora Martinez), is using drugs again by finding track marks while passionately kissing her arm feel like the work of someone who learned everything he knows about the “street” from other movies, not the school of hard knocks. The more brutal truth is that Dedio shouldn’t be playing Kick — he’s a 42-year-old actor trying to pass for 27, and that’s not a pretty sight. Apparently realizing this, director Rafal Zielinski keeps the focus on Kick’s charges, an ethnically diverse group of hookers, drug addicts and potential suicides whose traumas are ­passionately acted, particularly by Chad Allen, who steals the movie as Maria’s louse of a boyfriend. There’s vibrancy too in Helge Gerull’s color-drenched cinematography. Clichéd though it may be, this movie was clearly made with love. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

DUCK Despondent over the recent death of his wife, and still grieving the passing of his son years ago, an aging, penniless man named Arthur (Philip Baker Hall) is lying in the woods, about to swallow sleeping pills, when up waddles . . . a baby duck. Arthur takes the duckling home, names him Joe, and weeks later, after being evicted, the duo take to the streets of L.A. As a dramatist, writer-director Nic Bettauer has a 1950s sensibility that infuses situations with a kind of back-lot falseness, as if Duck were an old teleplay about innocents ­facing down the cruel city streets. Bettauer means for Arthur and Joe’s adventures to be a fable about empathy and hope, but her tone shifts awkwardly between silly and ponderous. The filmmaker is good with actors, and in Hall, she has a lead with such innate authority that you can’t take your eyes off him, even when he’s manhandling flapping waterfowl. There’s also fine work by Bill Cobbs and Bill Brochtrup as kindhearted homeless men, and in the film’s best-written scene, a lovely cameo by Amy Hill as an immigrant pedicurist who fills a basin with water and gives poor dried-out Joe a much-needed dunking. (Los Feliz 3) (Chuck Wilson)

THE EX When career slacker Tom (Zach Braff, keeping his “Look how cute I am” tics to a welcome minimum) gets fired from his latest job, he packs up his wife, Sofia (Amanda Peet), and their newborn kid and trades life in the Big Apple for the calming pleasures of small-town Ohio — Sherwood Anderson country. There, he takes up his sad-sack father-in-law (Charles Grodin) on the offer of an “assistant associate creative” position in a New Agey advertising company, only to find himself under the thumb of Sofia’s paraplegic former high school classmate (and possible ex-flame), Chip (Jason Bateman), a seemingly benevolent cripple who’s really a Machiavelli on wheels. That’s an inspired starting place for a farce, and director Jesse Peretz (working from a sometimes tasteless, often insidiously funny script by first-time screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman) has a knack for casting bright comic talents — Amy Adams, Donal Logue, Mia Farrow and Paul Rudd round out the ensemble — who basically just have to show up. At its best (which is at least half of the time), The Ex has the off-the-wall, go-for-broke zaniness of that great modern screwball comedy, Flirting With Disaster. The movie is Bateman’s to steal, however, which he does early and often, whether re-enacting an old high school cheerleading routine or trying to seduce Sofia by showing her the money shot from one of his favorite movies: Coming Home. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

GEORGIA RULE See film feature

THE HIP HOP PROJECT This is a story you’ve heard before: Inner-city kids falling to drugs/crime/pregnancy are saved by the power of music/dance/art. Don’t let that premise (or the credited producers Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah) dissuade you from checking out this documentary about a nonprofit hip-hop program in New York City founded by Chris “Kazi” Rolle, a quietly charismatic, formerly homeless teenager. The doc toggles between Kazi’s personal story (he grew up on the streets of the Bahamas and remains mostly estranged from his mother), the inner workings of the Hip Hop Project, and the home lives of Kazi’s protégés. From domestic strife to studio triumph, the most impressive accomplishment of the project is not the student-made album, but that when Kazi says cheesy things like “This is healing through hip-hop,” you actually believe him. (Magic Johnson Theatres; Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Jessica Grose)


THE PARALLEL A callow youth gets a cosmic comeuppance in The Parallel, an amateurish mashup of The Butterfly Effect and The Family Man (talk about unholy hybrids!) that strains patience from the get-go. Danny Fitzgerald (Taylor Gerard Hart) is the proverbial Big Man on Campus, throwing touchdowns, fielding Ivy League recruitment officers and cheerfully disdaining the existential musings of his gorgeous blond girlfriend, Lynn (Margaret Scarborough). Not that a firmer grasp of Kant would necessarily help Danny out of his ensuing predicament: High on the ecstasy of graduation (and the Ecstasy slipped to him by his best pal during a righteous graduation party), he picks a fight with a Will Ferrell–looking Gypsy, whose caravan has conveniently set up shop just down the beach. One drugged softcore sex interlude with his girlfriend’s come-hither pal Margie (Darla Gordon) later, Danny awakens depressed, middle-aged, unhappily married (to Margie, natch) and desperate to reclaim his lost youth. It might not seem fair to pick on this low-budget effort’s unconvincing textures (i.e., the feeble aging makeup on the principals), but The Parallel’s cheapness is also figurative. Writer-director Jack Piandaryan spares no clichés of the this-is-not-my-beautiful-house/wife mind-fuck subgenre, belaboring the actions-have-consequences theme and dully ratcheting up the melodrama (violence! Murder! Jesus poses!) to distract from the banality of the material and the obviousness of the plotting. Worse, Piandaryan’s conception of his female characters is misogynistic in both temporalities: Poor Lynn grows up to be a crazed, embittered wreck, while Margie remains a once and future slut. (Town Center 5) (Adam Nayman)

PROVOKED Jag Mundhra’s film dramatizes the real-life ordeal of Kiranjit Ahluwalia (Aishwarya Rai), an Indian housewife living in Britain who was imprisoned in 1989 for the arson murder of her abusive husband, Deepak (Naveen Andrews). We follow the uphill efforts of spunky, hip members of a women’s advocacy group, the Southall Black Sisters, to publicize Ahluwalia’s case and win her freedom — and, along the way, to establish battered-wife syndrome as an accepted legal theory. Unfortunately, syrupy music, reductive characterizations and bland cinematography turn her case into an earnest feminist fable that plays like an afterschool special for grown-ups. (Call it the anti-Longford.) Bollywood superstar Rai draws the camera to her passive beauty, but Rai’s portrayal of Ahluwalia only jerkily evolves during Hallmark moments of self-empowerment. Miranda Richardson is eminently watchable as her tough but protective white cellmate who’s also in for hubbycide. It’s a narrative that offers few meaningful conflicts and surprises, although even more shocking than Andrews’ burn makeup is the sight of Robbie Coltrane in a barrister’s wig. Rebecca Pidgeon turns in a single-note performance as Ahluwalia’s determined but ultimately inept solicitor, who somehow escapes the censure of screenwriters Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta. (Music Hall; One Colorado; Fallbrook 7) (Steven Mikulan)

THE SALON “What makes a beauty shop so great is that it really is a microcosm of society,” intones an earnest voice-over at the beginning of The Salon. Indeed. The denizens of this eponymous inner-city beauty shop, helmed by Vivica A. Fox, are a panoply of multicultural stereotypes, from a fat black woman who scarfs doughnuts to a flamboyant (but secretly insecure!) gay man to a Chinese manicurist whose mispronunciation of the word “election” is just hilarious. Most cringe inducing of all is the token white chick who insists on initiating a discussion about spanking, “or whoopin’, as you guys call it.” Or maybe it’s the “hos” who are sporadically chased across the screen by their pimp. (Where’s Al Sharpton’s decency parade when you need it?) Okay, no, I think it’s definitely the bug-eyed homeless guy who prances around outside the salon, cackling wildly and mumbling in gibberish. You get the idea. Only a heady cocktail of apathy and boredom could explain so many gratuitous girlfriends and sistas. Writer-director Mark Brown, he of the Barbershop franchise, also has an inexplicable fondness for close-ups that cut off the tops of the actors’ heads — unfortunate in a movie about hair. (Mann Chinese 6; Magic Johnson Theatres) (Julia Wallace)

THE SHORT LIFE OF JOSÉ ANTONIO GUTIERREZ The end of this German-produced documentary informs us that Hollywood has bought the rights to the life story of the titular USMC corporal, killed by friendly fire on the first day of the Iraq war, yet it’s hard to see how anything uplifting could be made from his 28 years of hardship. Born into Guatemalan poverty, the glue-sniffing street kid was briefly sheltered in a well-run orphanage, then traveled 2,000 miles alone — riding the rails on Mexico’s notorious Tren de la Muerte — to the U.S. border. Crossing over at age 22, he passed for 16, being so small and malnourished and suffering from TB. After foster care and high school, he decided on the Marines as his ticket to citizenship (thanks to a 2000 act of Congress), and became a so-called Green Card Soldier, one of more than 30,000 in the military today. A few letters to his sister and family photos are the only direct evidence of Gutierrez here. And though director Heidi Specogna adds interviews and contemporary scenes from Guatemala, her subject sadly never comes to life. You’re left marveling at Gutierrez’s determination, but it’s hard to mourn such an enigma. (Grande 4-Plex) (Brian Miller)


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