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Film Reviews: First Snow, The Last Mimzy, Dead Silence

BOY CULTURE Boy Culture is a film made by people just smart enough to acknowledge that the tropes of modern queer filmmaking have been reduced to cliché, but who themselves lack the courage to push beyond tried-and-true box-office formulas. Early on, lead character X (Derek Magyar) announces, “If you’re smart, you’ve guessed I’m a hustler. If you haven’t, here are two clues: I’m gay, and they’ve made a movie about me.” That glibness defines the script, in which cutesy phrases (“nuclear-reactor family”) and pop-culture references (a trick describes X as being “very Klute”) are used as character-sketching shorthand. X shares his sprawling apartment with grating young queen Joey (Jonathon Trent) and studly black jock Andrew (Darryl Stephens) — a triangle of unrequited love, missed signals and mixed messages complicated by X’s job, Andrew’s family matters and Joey’s horny-wounded-drugged puppy shtick. The performers are attractive and competent; the actors color right up to the lines of their characters, but none go beyond that, in large part because director Q. Allan Brocka (who also co-wrote the screenplay) doesn’t demand that they do. Upsides to Boy do exist, chief among them the colorblind casting of Andrew (in the novel that the film is based on, he’s white) and its nonstereotypical depiction of a black man in a largely white queer setting — he’s not a sassy queen or a one-note trick. All told, this is a harmless, well-packaged bit of overfamiliar fluff. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

CLOSE TO HOME With at least the virtue of novelty on its side, Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager’s debut outing as writer-directors may be the first feature to tackle the claustrophobic world of Israeli women soldiers who work out their mandatory military service patrolling the streets and buses of Jerusalem — a job as tedious as it is dangerous in a divided city vulnerable to Palestinian attacks. Nothing if not detailed, Close to Home follows two conscripts still in their teens — one a born conformist, the other an instinctive rebel — as they write up Arab passersby, goof off for falafels, dance with strangers, protect each other from the ire of scary female officers, and go home to Mom and Dad. Though it clearly means to call into question the legitimacy and futility of the soldiers’ work, the movie is awkwardly mounted and formlessly episodic as it meanders from one day to the next, finally losing itself in a forest of coming-of-age clichés. Absent a guiding idea, the neatly inserted bomb that makes these two ambivalent friends grow up and grow together feels more like a squib than an incendiary dramatic device. (Fallbrook; Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

COLOR ME KUBRICK Being John Malkovich reaches new heights of mincing, self-indulgent madness in Color Me Kubrick. That’s no mean feat, but it comes with something of a mean streak here. Malkovich plays Alan Conway, a self-loathing alcoholic weirdo who hustles his way through London’s gay bars, rock clubs and B-list celebrity scenes pretending to be the famously reclusive filmmaker. Based on a true story, this sneering would-be comedy was written by Anthony Frewin, Kubrick’s former personal assistant, and directed by Brian Cook, one of his assistant directors and co-producers. They may have known the man, but they’ve got a flimsy grasp on his doppelgänger. Conway’s fraudulent picaresque would seem the ideal vehicle for satirizing celebrity obsession, punking the Kubrick mystique and rooting into the theatrics of identity. Malkovich musters a brand-new accent (always ridiculous) and body language (always virtuoso) for each new mark — an impressive, if unexamined, act of invention. It’s hard to believe that Conway bamboozled half of London by simply announcing his name, and regrettable that the filmmakers premise their picture on such improbable gullibility. The real Conway was assuredly slier than his biopic incarnation; he ought to have been played by Sacha Baron Cohen. (Nuart) (Nathan Lee)

DEAD SILENCE Terror takes a drink of water and talks simultaneously as the makers of Saw bring you the ultimate in ventriloquist horror! Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell announce they’re kickin’ it old-school right from the James Whale–era Universal logo: The movie is a throwback to old-dark-house chillers with the merest splash of gore, as a grieving widower (Ryan Kwanten) traces his wife’s grisly demise back to his hometown, which consists of a spooky mansion, empty streets, an eerie motel, a funeral home and, oh yeah, that creepy old theater once run by the evil ventriloquist with the 101 lifelike dummies. Dolls are innately unnerving, but the movie’s semi-menacing Charlie McCarthys never live up to their potential; the same is true of the filmmakers’ two clever William Castle–style gimmicks — a visual scheme leached of its color except for lurid reds, and a soundtrack that mutes the ambient noise whenever mayhem lurks. As creaky nonsense goes, though, this is chock-full of corny goodness down to its hilarious sense-shredding “twist,” which the movie reveals like a magician proudly unveiling a dead rabbit. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

 

FIRST SNOW Held aloft by great acting and pretty good writing by director Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, this neo-Hitchcockian indie thriller lacks only something new and interesting to say about the interplay of destiny and free will. Guy Pearce, doubtless cast for his ambiguous performance in Memento and his sharp little nose, cunningly blends repellent and endearing as Jimmy, a cocksure salesman in a terrible suit with plans to get rich quick as a supplier of restored jukeboxes to bars and restaurants. A true American, Jimmy is so convinced that he’s a master of his own destiny that he becomes undone when the prophecies of a New Mexico roadside psychic (J.K. Simmons) start coming true. Obsessed with something awful that the psychic won’t tell him, Jimmy spirals into reactive paranoia, exacerbating already-compromised loyalties to his live-in girlfriend (Piper Perabo), his friend and partner (the excellent William Fichtner), and his employee (Rick Gonzalez). Shot by Eric Alan Edwards, First Snow has a fine sense of place and a small but terrific turn by veteran actress Jackie Burroughs as the mother of an ominous figure from Jimmy’s past. But other than some instant messaging about living well as the best revenge on the certainty of death, it doesn’t have much on its mind. And in the last half hour, the movie becomes lost in a thicket of signs and portents, before leading us where we always knew it would go. (Sunset 5, NuWilshire) (Ella Taylor)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES II War movie, horror movie — the difference is negligible in this grim sequel to last year’s hit remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 mutant thriller. After a grisly childbirth and some gory killings, the real action starts with a group of gung-ho National Guardsmen blasting their way through Kandahar. It proves to be a training exercise in the Southwestern desert, thank God, but the troops are being watched by a real menace: the man-eating spawn of 1950s nuclear testing, who have learned a few things about strategery as they lure the soldiers into a killing ground of rocky hiding places and booby-trapped tunnels. Yes, the most assured fighting men are the first to go; yes, the company peacenik (Michael McMillian) will undergo a Straw Dogs conversion to lethal force. Directed by Martin Weisz from a script by Craven and his son Jonathan, the movie has already bummed out the fanboys with its paucity of cool kills — this despite a genuinely unnerving who’s-out-there use of shallow focus and a mortality rate in the high double digits. But for anyone other than hardcore gore-hounds, this flipbook of deliberately invoked global-unrest horrors, from friendly-fire killings to rape as a breeding weapon, is effectively mean and unrelenting — and pretty far from fun. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley) (Citywide)

IN THE PIT The second deck of the Periférico Freeway wends its way through 17 kilometers of Mexico City sprawl, lifting untold tons of steel and concrete over an unknown number of graves. The men and women who slaved on this vast urban-renewal project are the ostensible subject of In the Pit, a documentary haunted by the ghosts of those who died in its construction — and cursed by mixed-up priorities. Filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo finds an endless number of ready-made spectacles for the delectation of his high-def video camera: ant-size men toiling in gaping dirt holes, cataracts of traffic roaring through the night, immense platforms hoisted in place. Lovely to look at, In The Pit is energized by an impulse to abstraction; the strongest images aspire to something like the harrowing lyricism of Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog’s operatic docu-poem on the burning oil fields of Kuwait. Against the grain of his industrial enthrallments, Rulfo attempts the human-interest angle — to very little interest. Of filthy, gentle Isabel; dreamy, poetic Natividad; affable, stoic Pedro; handsome, optimistic Vicencio; and shit-talking, wife-beating José we learn scarcely more than may be reduced to a pair of adjectives. In the Pit’s empathy feels strictly skin-deep, its insight even shallower. The movie climaxes in a wondrous helicopter shot traveling a great length of the Periférico. You’d marvel at the labor entailed were marvelous videography not so clearly the point. (Grande 4-Plex) (Nathan Lee)

THE LAST MIMZY For a movie directed by a big-cheese distributor (New Line’s Bob Shaye, from a script by Bruce Joel Rubin and New Line executive Toby Emmerich), this adaptation of a popular 1943 time-travel tale by Lewis Padgett is a capable, if modest, charmer. And for a sci-fi kiddie pic, it’s unusually sparing with the special effects, which in this case rarely get in the way of the human factor. As with most movies that fly below the R-rated radar these days, an environmental message is tucked into the action, in this case beamed from a polluted future to two Seattle-area siblings (Noah Wilder and the singularly poised tot Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) via a mysterious stuffed bunny with strong ties to Lewis Carroll, and a raft of CGI-generated goodies that turn the pair into precocious geniuses. Their gifts end up blacking out most of the Pacific North, which leads to a nasty brush with the Patriot Act, by way of which the children’s absentee father (Timothy Hutton) gets a useful lesson in family values. The ubiquitous conceit that kids — who, if anything, are more distracted by technology than their elders these days — still know best what matters in life is a fanciful notion. But as nostalgia goes, it’s sweeter than apple pie. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

 

PICK OFFSIDE Jafar Panahi is a paradoxical populist. He makes crowd-pleasing art movies and is a virtuoso director of (non) actors, but this most widely seen of Iranian filmmakers is also the most frequently banned. Panahi specializes in tumultuous activity in tight spaces: Offside opens on one packed minibus and ends on another. The first hurtles toward Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, where Iran is to play a World Cup match against Bahrain; the second, a police van, swerves through streets clogged with chanting hordes in the game’s aftermath. Iranian women are not permitted to attend sports events and, before the soccer match begins, another game is afoot. “They’re pros, they know how to get in,” one boy tells his buddy of the women dressed in drag on a passing bus. The lone girl on their bus is, however, an obvious novice. After paying an inflated price for a scalped ticket, she’s approached by a guard, instinctively flinches, and winds up in a holding pen on the stadium’s upper level along with a half-dozen other girls who are not only more street smart than their guards but more soccer smart. Part sports-inspirational, part women’s prison film, Offside confounds expectations regarding genre as well as gender. The battle of the sexes is ultimately subsumed in nationalism, and the penitentiary walls cannot hold. The lengthy crowd scenes that end this dodgy, dexterous performance intimate a universal liberation. (Music Hall; Town Center 5)  (J. Hoberman) See film feature.

MEMORY The easiest way to summarize the pulpy, cable-movie ludicrousness of Memory is to mention that it stars Billy Zane. Ironic and slightly aloof, Zane approaches each new role with a deceptive, steel-jawed sincerity that barely conceals an apologetic loopiness, as if he were cluing the audience in on his embarrassment at the latest bunk he’s signed up for. In director Bennett Davlin’s pseudo-spooky thriller, Zane plays a doctor who, after being exposed to a strange powder while in Brazil, starts experiencing the memories of a ’70s child-killer who remains at large. Can he catch the murderer? Is he actually just losing his mind? And is that Zane’s real hair? From its Philip Glass–biting score to a C-level cast that includes Dennis Hopper and Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer, Memory itself feels cobbled together from the foggy recollections of other psychological whodunits. But while the mystery doesn’t engage, Davlin (perhaps inspired by Zane’s goofy-intense performance) keeps you off guard with his film’s weird rhythms, bouncing from family drama to romance to macabre mood piece without much warning. Adapting his own novel, Davlin seems blessedly unaware of how silly his story is, attacking it with such escalating melodramatic fervor that Memory rises from the disastrously campy to the bizarrely hypnotic. How he and Zane manage to make such dreck almost tolerable is the real mystery here. (Monica 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)

PRIDE The feature debut from South African director Sunu Gonera is straight from the sports-film playbook — the one in which an underdog team coached by an obstinate overachiever overcomes obstacles to take home the gold. It’s Hoosiers in a swimming pool — well, Glory Road, anyway, given that this is about a group of black swimmers competing against all-white teams who wouldn’t toss the brothers a life preserver if they were drowning in the deep end. Like most sports pics, Pride is based on a true-life tale, that of former college swimmer Jim Ellis (played here by Terrence Howard), who, in the 1970s, resuscitates a Philly rec center by filling the pool with water and some neighborhood kids with hope. If everything about the movie is overly familiar, at least Gonera and his writers get the details right: The pool sequences capture the isolation of the competitive swimmer who crawls for miles in lonely, aching silence. Howard, playing Ellis with equal measures of desperation and determination, is terrific — when is he not? Better still is Bernie Mac as the rec center’s janitor, who’s suspicious of Ellis’ motives, until at last he too dives in. If nothing else, Pride has the best sports-film soundtrack ever — Philly funk and soul, ’70s style. And hell, that’ll get ya wet. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

REIGN OVER ME See film feature

SHOOTER See film feature

TMNT There may be no finer phrase in the English language than “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” but given how kids these days are super into that whole Internet thing, the latest adventures of the crime-fighting, sewer-dwelling, slang-dropping pop-culture phenomenon is called simply TMNT. Unlikely to achieve BFF status with the MMORPG set, this CGI feature is light on the LOL factor, heavy on the ADD action scenes, and, like, TOOIFM (Totally Out of Its Freakin’ Mind). To wit: 3,000 years ago, a power-mad warrior opened a nasty magic portal that granted him immortality, turned his four brothers into stone and unleashed 13 monsters upon his foes. Cut to the present, where the immortal warrior turned melancholy industrialist (voiced by Patrick Stewart) has rounded up his rocky brethren and enlisted Karai (Ziyi Zhang) and her ninja Foot Clan to capture the monsters, thereby reversing the curse. Meanwhile, the color-coordinated turtle dudes reunite to foil the plot. Oodles of madcap digi-fu ensue, along with some halfhearted life lessons for the heroes in a half shell. Writer-director Kevin Munroe parties like it’s 1989, grooving on the Xtreme sports set pieces and vintage slang to generally cowa-busted effect. (Citywide) (Nathan Lee)

WHAT LOVE IS Actor-writer-director Mars Callahan’s diarrheal 10-character rant about modern relationships sounds like it was researched by eavesdropping on the restroom chatter at a high school prom. Tom Riley (Cuba Gooding Jr.) comes home on Valentine’s Day to find his three-year relationship over. Enter his four best friends, who try to cheer him up with a seemingly endless bull session, followed by the arrival of five hot chicks who stop by (inexplicably) to talk about blowjobs. Shooting with four cameras on a single set, Callahan attempts to break his script’s stagy monotony by applying Guy Ritchie–style editing to tired “Isn’t it crazy how girls/guys don’t understand each other?” speeches. (In another artful touch, the obligatory black female character introduces each dating cliché with “Just like my mama always said . . .”) The level of insight in this romantic comedy’s dialogue makes the oeuvre of Ed Burns look like Racine. Callahan’s previous effort, Poolhall Junkies, was also laughably bad, but at least it featured billiards and Christopher Walken; What Love Is contains lots of talk about balls, but little else. Take Mars Callahan out of the pool hall, and what you’re left with is just plain junk. (Beverly Center 13; Regent Showcase) (James C. Taylor)

WITHDRAWAL FROM GAZA Joel Blasberg and Oreet Rees’ documentary about the enforced Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 treads some of the same ground, with some of the same footage, as the accounts of many others who rushed to the scene to record this unprecedented moment in the troubled history of the Middle East. But Withdrawal From Gaza lacks both the nuance and the muscle of Yoav Shamir’s excellent 2005 5 Days, which probes far deeper into the relationship between settlers and the soldiers who came, on the orders of supersettler Ariel Sharon, to remove them. Withdrawal From Gaza projects an evenhanded impartiality, but as the action unfolds, it becomes clear that the filmmakers’ goal is to reverse what they see as a false image of the mostly religious settlers of Gush Katif as wild-eyed fanatics. As a result, out goes the baby with the bath water. Like Shamir, Blasberg and Rees show a not-unfounded sympathy for the settlers’ grief over the loss of their well-developed and beautiful villages. But the movie, glossing over pockets of violent resistance, is carefully skewed toward likable, reasonable evacuees and littered with shots of weeping soldiers who find their mission unbearable. At the end, we are pointedly told that today the Israeli army has returned to that area — a simplification that both overwhelms and diminishes the Israeli governor of Gaza’s argument that the solution for both Israelis and Palestinians is not aggressive occupation, but aggressive investment in a broken city. (Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)


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