Film Reviews: Delta Farce, Hollywood Dreams, Fay Grim and more

BROOKLYN RULES As a longtime series writer on The Sopranos (his credits include the classic “Pine Barrens” episode), Terence Winter has admirably steered clear of most of the hoary old clichés about lives lived in and around organized crime. Unfortunately, he’s now poured them all into director Michael Corrente’s anemic urban drama (shot in 2004) about a trio of best friends growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn in the pre-gentrification ’80s. The always engaging Scott Caan stars as the preening wise-guy wannabe who can’t walk past a mirror without checking his slicked-back pompadour; Entourage’s Jerry Ferrara is the goodhearted mamma’s boy who we know is a goner from the second he kneels to pray in front of a Catholic church; and, just when you thought it was safe to go back into a movie theater, there’s Freddie Prinze Jr., doing a tortured Sylvester Stallone impersonation as the kid from the wrong side of the tracks (or at least of Prospect Park) trying to reinvent himself as Joe College. Characters have names like Carmine, Bobby and Caesar and say things like, “It’s good to remember who your friends are.” Alec Baldwin (cast as a charismatic Gambino family captain) pops up just long enough to lop off some poor schlub’s ear in the deli slicer of a Satriale’s-like deli. “Sympathy for the Devil” blares on the soundtrack (presumably because “Gimme Shelter” was already in use over at The Departed). Even if Brooklyn Rules is the week’s only new attraction at your local multiplex, take my advice and fuhgeddaboudit. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; AMC Broadway) (Scott Foundas)

DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT Scene for excruciatingly intricate scene, it’s not easy to decide whether Julia Loktev’s movie about a young girl readying herself to commit an act of terror is an ingenious study in the banality of evil, or a particularly exquisite form of audience torture. Emulating vérité with input from Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson, Day Night Day Night asks not why, but how as it walks us through the girl’s intensive prep for the big day, from her arrival, clutching a lacrosse racket, at New York’s Port Authority to the moment when she’s instructed by extremely polite masked handlers to detonate a backpack full of explosives at a Times Square crosswalk. With huge gray-green eyes sunken into her bony face, non-pro actress Luisa Williams is an arresting presence who makes us want to know what would motivate this compliant young woman to believe so totally in her mission. But Loktev supplies no motive, only the details of the strenuous ablutions that suggest both ravenous hunger and the need to purge evil from her skinny body. This is one clean terrorist, and such an eater! Loktev turns the sound way up on her washing and chewing, which goes on so long that by the time she starts in on an enormous, crisp red apple, I was ready to press the button myself. The movie charts a journey from belief to despair with occasional touches of humor, but by the end I was so deadened by its minimalist style and method, I could barely summon the energy to ask why. (Music Hall, One Colorado) (Ella Taylor)

DELTA FARCE You could make the case that any movie in which Mexicans and rednecks become the 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 D.J. 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)

EVEN MONEY Perhaps I’m still nursing the blow-back burns inflicted by Smokin’ Aces, which used its Vegas backdrop to typical glittering, decadent effect, but it was refreshing to see the casinos in Mark Rydell’s Even Money presented as what they are: a dreary, bourgeois skid row. Unfortunately, that’s about all this treatise on the perils of gambling has got in the freshness department, as Rydell’s impressive cast humps through a series of debts induced by and collected toward the big game, where various storylines converge. Kim Basinger is a blocked writer who lies to her husband (Ray Liotta) with alarming ease; having blown the family savings on the slots, she is in deeper than Forest Whitaker, though he’s in more trouble — beholden to both his basketball-star brother (Nick Cannon) and two bookies (Jay Mohr and Grant Sullivan) whose first resort is violence. Kelsey Grammer bookends the film as a crippled detective with a silly stick-on nose; Danny DeVito is a washed-up magician; and Tim Roth plays an oily, preening number two to the mysterious kingpin. The problem with ensemble films, and this one in particular, is that they often flit instead of float between story arcs. With deep lags in momentum, it is this lack of cohesion that nearly cancels out what’s great about ensemble films, and this one in particular: the performances. (ArcLight; Century City 15) (Michelle Orange)

FAY GRIM Hard to remember but, back in the early 1990s, Hal Hartley was regarded as the hot young American indie filmmaker, and the 1997 Henry Fool, a seriously frivolous allegory on art, fame, fate and the power of the Internet, was hailed as his breakthrough. Hartley’s career promptly stumbled; as Henry Fool’s belated sequel, Fay Grim seems nearly an act of desperation. Three of the principles return: the Queens sanitation man turned poet Simon Grim (professionally affectless James Urbaniak), his sister Fay (Parker Posey), and, briefly, the saturnine mystery tramp who changed their lives, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). A decade has passed as the CIA comes to Queens in the form of Jeff Goldblum, who appears as a duplicitous spook. Not lacking for ambition, Fay Grim adds a topical, national-security subtext to Henry Fool’s more romantic concerns: The MacGuffin is a series of confessional notebooks that Henry may have written in a code that amounts to a secret, highly damning history of the Reagan era. Off to Paris in search of the notebooks, Posey looks smashing in a fitted town-coat ensemble and, for perhaps 40 minutes, Fay Grim actually sort of works as a comic thriller. But it’s precisely when Fay Grim strains for the big narrative revelation that it seems least consequential. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

 HOLLYWOOD DREAMS The 15th film in 35 years written and directed by Henry Jaglom, that love-him-or-hate-him iconoclast of American independent filmmaking, is also one of his warmest and most inviting, despite the potential for cynicism inherent in its premise — that old saw about a would-be starlet (newcomer Tanna Frederick) living out of her car and scrounging for a gig. (In one hilarious scene, she’s even refused a role in an amateur video being made by schoolchildren!) The movie buzzes with the quirky rhythms of Jaglom’s patented improvisational shooting style, and those of Frederick herself, whose go-for-broke zaniness recalls that of a former Jaglom ingénue, Karen Black. By the time Black appears here (as an actress musing with a mix of melancholy and acceptance about her former stardom), it’s clear that Hollywood Dreams is a walk down memory lane for its own maker, stuffed with references to his earlier films and appearances by many members of his stock company. Consider it a wistful contemplation of the fickle nature of movie success and the altogether unlikelihood of being Henry Jaglom. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)

IN SEARCH OF MOZART As he turns 250, Wolfgang Amadeus gets lionized — and somewhat embalmed — in this solemn festschrift by British filmmaker Phil Grabsky. At two hours plus, In Search of Mozart should really be seen in its designated format, a television series structured around performance of his music (ineffable) and excerpts from his correspondence (lively and flatulent), with narration by actress Juliet Stevenson, she of the mellifluous syllables. Grabsky’s search for visual stimulus occasionally gets a little desperate, as in endless aerial pans over the rooftops of Salzburg, capped by a panicked cutaway from news of Mozart’s marriage to Constanza, to a couple of contemporary be-jeaned lovebirds holding hands on city streets. The music is divine, but the film sags beneath several tons of expert talking heads. Against this torrent of bombast, it’s refreshing to hear Jonathan Miller, alumnus of Beyond the Fringe turned opera director, vehemently inveigh against the “Glyndebourne view” of Mozart’s famous gassiness. The film sniffs mightily at Milos Forman’s Amadeus, but even if you found that film over the top and off the wall, you might find yourself wishing for a little more “Volfie” and a little less Saint Wolfgang. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

THE LAST TIME Indestructibly upbeat Ohioan salesman Jamie (Brendan Fraser) takes a job at his company’s New York branch, pairing up with Ted (Michael Keaton), the firm’s acidic hotshot who talks in the same pithy, caustic, entirely unrealistic style afflicting all hard-working bums since Glengarry Glen Ross. Jamie’s pie-eyed wholesomeness killed back in the Midwest, but it’s clear he can’t hack it in Manhattan’s cutthroat environment. As if Jamie wasn’t having a hard enough transition, Ted also starts secretly sleeping with Belisa (Amber Valletta), Jamie’s gorgeous fiancée. The torrid infidelity gives The Last Time its only spark of originality: First-time feature filmmaker Michael Caleo gets high marks for coldly examining how, beyond hormones, their affair seems borne from a mutual, narcissistic understanding that they’re too worldly to be saddled with this nice-guy bumpkin. And in a role that’s similar to his turns in Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American, Fraser is terrific at playing the charming dolt who, faced with a little adversity, implodes — his sweetness evaporates into sweaty, unsightly failure. But Caleo doesn’t have enough confidence in his script’s underlying winners-versus-losers themes and instead pads the film with Mamet-ian digressions: tired swipes at the macho-posturing corporate workplace and maddeningly unnecessary plot twists and double crosses. By the time Ted’s obligatory back-story revelation comes a-calling — spoiler alert: The jerk has a soft side — The Last Time seems even more hapless than the Midwestern rube it’s skewering. (Beverly Center Cinemas) (Tim Grierson)

ONCE See film feature

PARIS JE T’AIME The French producer Claudie Ossard (Amélie) invited filmmakers spanning nearly a dozen nationalities to create short-film valentines to 18 of Paris’ 20 districts, or arrondissements. (What exactly happened to the two missing arrondissements — the 11th and 15th — is anyone’s guess.) As with most such hydra-headed “omnibus” projects, the concept here holds more promise than the execution. While Paris’ incredibly varied neighborhoods certainly don’t lack for local color, the stories that most of the Paris Je T’aime filmmakers (among them the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuarón, Walter Salles and Tom Tykwer) elect to tell bear so little connection to their surroundings that they might be taking place in any neighborhood in any city anywhere in the world. Which would be less of a problem if the stories themselves weren’t so devoid of interest. (Around the time Juliette Binoche shows up as a grieving mother fleetingly reunited with her dead child in Nobuhiro Suwa’s overwrought “Place des Victoires,” I started to tally how many segments remained.) As it happens, it’s we freedom-fries-loving Yanks who emerge from Paris Je T’aime the least scathed, from the delicate act of youthful seduction that comprises Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marais” to the wacky sparring match between married acting divas (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) staged by Richard LaGravenese in the red-light district of “Pigalle.” Best of all — and, cannily, saved for last — is Alexander Payne’s “14th Arrondissement,” in which a Denver letter carrier (the wonderful Margo Martindale) reports, in disarmingly awkward schoolgirl French, about her six-day Parisian vacation. Overflowing with Payne’s signature dry wit and the potent je ne sais quoi that has seduced so many foreigners to the City of Lights, this miniature masterpiece is the most unapologetically American segment of Paris Je T’aime, yet also the one that comes closest to the small-scale humanism of that most French of French filmmakers — Jean Renoir. (Art Theater; Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Scott Foundas)

SHREK 3 See film feature

THE WENDELL BAKER STORY Luke Wilson — who wrote the thing and directed it with brother Andrew — plays the title character, a con man who thinks dreaming big means living small. Wendell runs a fake-ID business along the Texas-Mexico border, where he fast-talks migrants out of their loose dinero. His girlfriend, Doreen (Eva Mendes), wishes Wendell would quit the illegal biz and get a real job, but the feds stop him first and throw him in prison. Wendell finally gets paroled to a state-run old-folks’ home populated by unscrupulous nurses (including Owen Wilson) who gouge cagey codgers (Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel, Kris Kristofferson) out of their pension checks. For a movie aiming to play like some 1970s throwback, both in sound and spirit, the most depressing thing about The Wendell Baker Story is how messy and impersonal it feels — like it could have fallen off a studio assembly line 30 years ago or the day after tomorrow. It’s also astoundingly odd that Luke Wilson’s most “personal” film looks like all the other spotty products that soil his filmography once stripped of the Wes Anderson glow. Luke just can’t carry a movie, not even if you spotted him the forklift. (AMC Broadway; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Robert Wilonsky)

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