Film Reviews: Diggers, Next and Banished

(Magnolia Pictures)

AMERICAN CANNIBAL Even more desperate than reality TV these days might be the indie film, its audience thinned to near nonexistence by small-screen fare. Case in point: American Cannibal, a reality-style movie about the making of a reality show that was maybe almost aired. It follows two hungry young hustlers who pitch a porno financier on their virgin concept — kids competing not to get laid — but who instead take his money to concoct a sick Survivor wherein starving contestants are faced with the prospect of feeding on one another. For real? American Cannibal screened in the documentary category of last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and immediately drew skepticism. Co-directors Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro, whose collective résumé includes work in play writing, publicity, criticism, and screenwriting instruction, may or may not be documentarians, but they can at least be credited with provoking the question of whether cinema should continue being held to higher standards than television when it comes to delineating what’s real. Too bad their mock-doc equivalent of The Producers isn’t funnier. (Grande 4-Plex) (Rob Nelson)

BANISHED Banished, the debut of director Omid Shabkhiz (who also co-wrote, co-produced, co-starred, edited and served as cinematographer), is terribly made and poorly acted, but also so bizarrely off-kilter that you almost wonder if the whole thing is an elaborate put-on. Master assassin Charlie Vespa (Nariman Norouz) has left the business to start a family, but when crime boss Ohar Odette (AmirAli Barani) has Charlie’s wife and child whacked, it’s time for vengeance. In Banished, though, that vengeance apparently requires myriad mano-a-mano tough talk and occasional gunplay that results in bloody wounds that are comically way too large for the pistols the characters fire. Despite the frequent muffed dialogue and poorly choreographed fight scenes, the film has an admittedly dorky charm reminiscent of the slapped-together action movies 16-year-old boys make during their lonely weekends. Judging by his mise en scène, Shabkhiz, who recently turned 25, spent his youth mainlining Michael Mann’s oeuvre. But his baby-faced cast are so adorably clean-cut that their pseudo-weighty monologues unintentionally satirize the macho gravitas. Or is it unintentional? When co-writer Peter Banifaz shows up as Theodore, the unhinged hit man assigned to kill Charlie, his goofball demeanor practically owns up to the film’s straight-faced ludicrousness. Is Banished actually a sly send-up of artsy actioners? The Leonard Cohen songs, Gregorian hymns and Middle Eastern chanting on the soundtrack answer that question: Nope, this silly little flick is deadly serious. And seriously awful. (Town Center 5) (Tim Grierson)

THE CONDEMNED See film feature

 PICK DIGGERS A death in the family forces Hunt (Paul Rudd), a Long Island clamdigger, to face up to his becalmed life and those of his three brawling mates in Katherine Dieckmann’s terrific movie about a dying way of life. The Ford-Carter debates simmer quietly in the background, but Dieckmann doesn’t snow it with ’70s symbolism. This very particular movie has a lyrical feel for place, period and the rhythms of a small-town community trying —­­ and tragicomically failing — to run in place while the world around it opens its arms to the creeping corporatism that will compound the everyday hurts and losses suffered by this scruffy, messed-up group. Rudd is sweet and funny as the floundering Hunt; Ron Eldard and Josh Hamilton are great as the town’s aimless studmuffin and philosophizing pothead, respectively. But the movie belongs to Ken Marino, who is riotously funny as the family man whose anger-management problem at last finds a fitting target in the big businessmen who come to destroy his living. Marino also wrote the outstanding script, which traps the foulmouthed vitality of working-class speech in a bottle and makes it sing. Beautifully shot by Michael McDonough, Diggers is not a film you watch — it’s a movie you live in, and when time’s up you feel the same elegiac sense of loss as do those who realize they have no choice but to move on. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)

FAKERS If you can’t count on a British con movie to deliver at least a few moments of entertaining color, well, then what can you count on? Director Richard James’ slight and wobbly Fakers comes close to shattering one’s faith in a just and orderly universe. Written by Paul Gerstenberger, the story turns on the recycled travails of smalltime hustler Nick (Matthew Rhys), who has five days to pay back £50,000 to a London loan shark or end up sleeping with the fishes and chips. Lo and behold, the day Nick gets his deadline is the same day that the blond bartender (Kate Ashfield) he’s been chatting up for months turns out to have a naive brother (Tom Chambers) adept at making perfect copies of rare art works. And so the con is on but not without a cascade of equally unbelievable coincidences, a streak of good fortune that would put any self-respecting con artist to shame for being so beholden to blind chance. Such artless inattention to the con man’s craft, however, might be overlooked if any of the characters or performers had the personality to pull one over on us, the audience. (Beverly Center, One Colorado) (Paul Malcolm)


THE FAR SIDE OF JERICHO Blink and you’ll miss the premiere and one-week Los Angeles run of The Far Side of Jericho, a rollicking “femme oater” directed by Tim Hunter, who has inexplicably languished as a television director for hire since making the 1986 indie classic River’s Edge and the pretty good 1993 drama The Saint of Fort Washington. Refreshingly free of solemn parallels with Society Today, this is no earth-mother Western either, though it’s plenty playful with its homage to Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now. Moderately wrinkled and as handy with a whiskey bottle as they are with a Smith & Wesson, the three gangster widows (nicely played by character actresses Judith Burnett, Suzanne Andrews and Lissa Negrin) are automatically neither loyal nor kind to one another as they go on the run from several posses — led by a fake preacher (James Gammon) and a crooked sheriff played by Patrick Bergin — with a more than passing interest in the treasure buried by their husbands before they were hanged. The movie gives every cheerful appearance of having been shot with no time and less money, and it doesn’t have much on its mind, unless you count the moral integrity supplied by local Apaches more by way of Mel Brooks than Howard Hawks. It’s a fun night out, though, and if you show up, you’ll have the added satisfaction of being a good film citizen who might help this jolly Western to a commercial release. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre) (Ella Taylor)

THE INVISIBLE Director David S. Goyer has made a fortune milking the brooding loner shtick for all it was worth with his overrated Batman and Blade screenplays, but when the template is applied to an ordinary high-schooler rather than a marquee-level superhero, it doesn’t work at all. Apparently based on a Swedish novel and film — though it might just as easily be considered a remake of Just Like Heaven with all the humor leached away — The Invisible centers on golden boy Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin, of the similarly annoying The Chumscrubber), an honor student who’s been emotionally numb since the death of his father. When he inadvertently finds himself drawn into a conflict with the delinquent Annie (Margarita Levieva), things go drastically wrong and she ends up beating him to death...or does she? Awakening as a disembodied spirit unseen by all, Nick must discover whether he’s a ghost, or merely in some kind of limbo. It’s all, y’know, such a deep metaphor for alienation, man, especially since nobody truly “sees” Annie for who she really is, either. And yes, you are supposed to take this all extremely seriously; it probably sounded layered and complex when the writers were stoned. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson) JINDABYNE See film feature

KICKIN’ IT OLD SKOOL This ostensible comedy may be a new depths-of-hell low in the Emmanuel Lewis filmography, but for star Jamie Kennedy it’s par for the coarse. Combining the appalling infantilism of Son of the Mask and the dork entitlement of Malibu’s Most Wanted into a perfect storm of celluloid agony, Kennedy plays an ’80s breakdance whiz who awakens after a 20-year coma (now that’s comedy!) to reunite his old crew. Of course, the hottie he loved back then (Maria Menounos) adores his idiot-manchild ways; of course she’s still hooked up with his snotty rival (Michael Rosenbaum, detestable beyond the call of duty), who gets knee-slappers such as calling Kennedy’s Asian-American and Hispanic crewmates “rice” and “beans.” (Other gags concern bitchy black baby-mamas, dollar signs as Jewish symbols, and me-rikey-flied-lice dialect humor; if the movie were a human being, it would be a bellowing ex-jock who wields “post-racial” like his lawyer’s business card.) The only tolerable part of director Harvey Glazer’s subhuman farce is the climactic dance-crew step-off, choreographed by the one, the only, Adolfo Quinones, a.k.a. Shabba-Doo. The rest is strictly a Shabba-Don’t — or, to borrow the hero’s description of his so-called life, “a big, soggy piece of...shit-cake nobody wants!” Word. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)  NEXT Orchestrated by evildoers from hostile quarters of the global village, a nuclear holocaust looms over Los Angeles. This ought to ease traffic, but the FBI, headed by an extremely excitable Julianne Moore, is concerned enough to forcibly recruit the services of a two-bit Vegas magician (a buffed and alluringly gaunt Nicolas Cage) who until now has made trivial use of his power to see two minutes into the future. That’s unless you count his moony recurring visions of a dewy stranger played by Jessica Biel, who has little to do but look aghast with gelignite strapped to her lovely bosom. Oh, never mind the daft plot, lifted by heavy-breathing writers Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum from a Philip K. Dick story: Directed by Lee Tamahori with his customary flash and glitter, Next lives from one brilliantly executed chase sequence to the next, which is more than enough reason to stay the course. The clever climax plays out in downtown L.A. not far from the madding crowd of Spring Street, where, had the bad guys not got theirs at the hands of our glorious intelligence services, they would surely have been mown down by a pack of departing Los Angeles Times staffers with buyouts under their arms. If the deliciously sneaky trick at the end doesn’t make you gasp, then I’m sorry to say you are no longer capable of surprise. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)


SING NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PEACE This uneven romantic comedy is firmly in the Zach Braff–ian mold: It features a group of 30-something men who are so terrified of growing up that they behave semimoronically for most of the film, until they’re chastened by the love of a good woman (or, in this case, several good women). What makes Sing Now less tolerable than your average rom-com is that it’s full of John Mayer and Coldplay renditions — a cappella renditions. In fact, a cappella singing is a major part of the plot, as narrator David (David Harbour) and his college singing buddies gather 15 years after graduation for a Hamptons wedding weekend. It’s too bad the script doesn’t hold up to the talent, which includes stage actor Harbour — now in the Tom Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia — and the generally adorable Molly Shannon, misused as an overbearing wife. (Broadway 4; Music Hall; Playhouse 7) (Jessica Grose)

SNOW CAKE In the kooky little Canadian town of Wawa, whose chief selling point is a 30-foot statue of a goose, a stranger knocks on the door of an autistic woman to break the news that her daughter was killed while hitching a ride in his car. So begins an awkward pairing of mutual emotional benefit between Linda (a no-frills, no-makeup Sigourney Weaver), who responds to the bad news by munching snow and focusing on shiny ornaments, and Alex, a taciturn fellow (Alan Rickman, who else?) whose spirit has been all but snuffed out by past trauma. My schmaltz-meter invariably vibrates in the presence of movies about the supposedly mentally ill healing the supposedly normal: Sure, we’re all human, but there’s a meaningful line to be drawn between the well and the ill, even in the case of spectrum autism. Marc Evans’ indie drama, from a script by Angels Pell (who has an autistic son), keeps sidling up to the brink of mawkishness, then pulling back so nicely into Weaver’s rich, hard-headed evocation of Linda’s limitations, that one forgives the eye-popping speed with which Alex, grieving for two people he’s never known, re-enters the human race and falls for sexy neighbor Carrie-Ann Moss. (Sunset 5; One Colorado) (Ella Taylor)

SOMETHING TO CHEER ABOUT In 1927 Indianapolis, the Ku Klux Klan opened the all-black Crispus Attucks High School, with the intention of keeping black children out of allegedly superior white schools. The plan backfired, and Attucks became one of the premier schools in the entire country, its staff populated by Ph.D. holders who couldn’t find work elsewhere. By the 1950s, it was also home to one of the greatest basketball teams in the country, led by future immortal Oscar Robertson, who, in 1955 and ’56, led the Tigers to back-to-back state titles — the 1955 championship marking the first time an all-black school took home the title in an integrated sport. Robertson and his teammates are on hand in this documentary to retrace old footsteps on the hardwood and claim their place in history. But Betsy Blankenbaker’s film doesn’t possess the kinetic charge of the tale itself; it’s too reliant on talking heads and faded photos. In short, Cheer feels amateurish for a generation raised on sports films — a cable-access version of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie waiting to happen. Should have been a slam dunk too. (Grande 4-Plex) (Robert Wilonsky)

STEPHANIE DALEY See film feature.

WIND CHILL That howl you are hearing is the sound of high-powered air conditioners whirring through the empty rows of the handful of cinemas giving brief shelter to Wind Chill, an orphan movie abandoned so quietly by Sony Pictures that the studio didn’t even bother to arrange the customary opening-day “courtesy” critics’ screening. But what did you expect from a spare, existential fright flick based in part on the Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence — even one that counts Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney among its executive producers? Directed by longtime Soderbergh AD Gregory Jacobs from a script credited to Steven Katz (Shadow of the Vampire) and Joe Gangemi, the movie stars The Devil Wears Prada’s Emily Blunt as an East Coast coed who agrees to car pool home for Christmas with a guy (A History of Violence’s Ashton Holmes) from her philosophy seminar who harbors a secret crush on her. En route to Delaware, they take the de rigueur ill-advised short cut and crash into a snowbank on one of those lonely stretches of highway where cell phone signals fear to tread. Before long, they realize that the sub-zero temperatures aren’t the only thing they’ll have to survive through the night, though Wind Chill is far too high-minded to subject its characters to the psycho killers and other torture-porn accessories that have become the staples of the modern horror picture. Jacobs and his writers are notably more interested in creepy atmosphere — and in contemplating the order of the universe — than in jump-in-your-seat jolts. But well before day breaks, it’s the movie’s plot (which would have made for an outstanding Outer Limits episode) that has come to seem stuck in an endless loop. (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)

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