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Film Reviews: King of California, Mr. Woodcock, Shadow Company

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE  See film feature

GO BLAME IT ON FIDEL While her friends play cops and robbers, broodingly precocious 9-year-old Anna (Nina Kervel) is asked by younger brother François to play “Allende and Franco,” the late Chilean president and notorious socialist being the “good guy.” Adapted from an Italian novel by Domitilla Calamai, this delightful debut feature from Julie Gavras (daughter of filmmaker Costa-Gavras) observes a comfy bourgeois couple (Julie Depardieu and Stefano Accorsi) in early-1970s Paris and their abrupt ideological awakening to Communist militancy through daughter Anna’s curious, opinionated, innocently conservative viewpoint. Unforced in its tenderness and wit, the film lightly addresses the era’s incendiary revolutions through the girl’s developing filters without oversimplifying the complex politics. Gavras’ style is already as assured as her father’s, and her ability to balance the audience’s understanding of grown-up beliefs with that of a rapidly maturing girl is deft. However, the real treasure here is newcomer Kervel, a child superstar in the making. Watch her expressions change as she’s taught about abortion; to someone who still refers to genitals as either “dickies” or “duckies,” hers is a realization made all the more mind-blowing through subtlety. (Royal) (Aaron Hillis)

THE BRAVE ONE See film feature and interview with Jodie Foster

THE DEAD ONE After young orphan Diego and his fellow immigrants are double-crossed by the coyotes bringing them from Mexico to the U.S., who abandon them in the desert, Diego is singled out by a mysterious old Indian who speaks to him in an ancient dialect and scars him with a knife, marking the boy as “the chosen one.” Flash forward several years and the adult Diego (Wilmer Valderrama) suffers unexplainable blackouts that baffle him, his buxom girlfriend (niece of a dogmatic priest) and his white hipster best friend. Those blackouts come to make sense after Diego is killed in a car crash during a Day of the Dead celebration and it’s revealed that still-pissed Aztec gods have chosen him to avenge the decimation of their people and religion. Dead One never generates either the fear or just tension that it intends with its portentous music, religious iconography and meant-to-be-creepy voice-overs. The direction has no rhythm or build; the script’s inane dialogue devolves into action-hero quips and one-liners. And while the supporting cast is largely fine, Valderrama’s laughable emoting and posturing are straight from the William Shatner school of acting. Worse, however, is the depiction of Aztec beliefs as something between Saturday-morning-­serial camp and Mel Gibson–style cartoonish villainy. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ernest Hardy)

DECEMBER BOYS If Daniel Radcliffe is hoping for an acting life after Harry Potter, he might want to be choosier than this cloying little Australian number about four outback orphan pals with horrid names like Maps and Misty, whose anxieties about outgrowing their chances for adoption bubble over during a summer vacation on the picturesque coast. There, a more colorful life awaits the lads (one of whom, now grown old, supplies the jovial voice-over, along with a score made of pure syrup) in the form of a photogenic circus: a blond teenage siren, a big fish called Henry, and a fortuitously childless couple who can adopt only one of the boys. Dilemma! Hampered by a silly gait that recalls Steve Carell’s daft lope in Little Miss Sunshine and an emotional range that runs from abject to abject, Radcliffe gives by far the movie’s weakest performance, as the depressive Maps. But what’s most alienating about this alternately mawkish and ingratiating dramedy, directed by Rod Hardy from a script by Marc Rosenberg, is the cheap shots it casually fires at institutional Catholicism while throwing its weight behind wacky visions of the Virgin Mary. It’s enough to make anyone run for the priesthood, and somebody does. (AMC Century City; The Grove) (Ella Taylor)

DRAGON WARS This one’s for connoisseurs of the “totally preposterous crap” school of fantasy cinema. You know who you are: You have all the Warlock sequels on Laserdisc, the complete Leprechaun series on DVD, and go see Uwe Boll movies on opening weekend. In Dragon Wars, you’ll totally dig the semi-competent creature effects and homage to The Phantom Menace, of all things; and you’ll love writer-director Shim Hyung-rae’s insanely convoluted plot about how every 500 years, a girl is born who, at the age of 20, will grow a kind of giant glass energy ball inside of her, which must then be cut out—killing the girl—and offered as a sacrifice to either the “good” Imoogi or the evil Buraka, two giant serpents who will transform into dragons if they eat said magic ball. To explain all this, we have Robert Forster as the reincarnation of an ancient Korean warlord, and some truly fashion- and acting-impaired leads in Amanda Brooks and Jason Behr. The latter plays a reporter who rather hilariously leaves his black friend behind to get killed in almost every perilous situation. Funnier when it tries to be serious than when it goes for the gag, Dragon Wars is a definite wait-for-cable-and-invite-drunken-buddies-over flick. If that’s your thing. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

EASTERN PROMISES See film feature and interview with David Cronenberg

FIERCE PEOPLE See film feature

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH See film feature

IRA & ABBY Directed by Robert Cary, writer-producer Jennifer Westfeldt’s follow-up to her surprise hit Kissing Jessica Stein centers on Ira (Chris Messina), a neurotic New York Jew who enters into an on-and-off relationship with Abby (Westfeldt), a loopy, free-spirited shiksa. (Um, yeah — Annie Hall called, and it wants its plot back.) The overall effect is that of an aging vaudevillian making a goodhearted but embarrassing attempt to entertain us with stock characters and stock jokes and stock shtick. Westfeldt based the character of Abby on herself, which might explain why she’s a flawless, practically Christ-like figure, persecuted by Ira’s anxieties and worshipped by doormen and cabdrivers. If this seems unrealistic, it’s even harder to imagine how a jobless grad student could afford the cavernous Upper West Side apartment that Ira inhabits. Ira and Abby is strongly invested in an idea of itself as a “New York movie,” but its self-professed love for the city is a sham. Why not celebrate New York as it really is, dour cabbies, tiny apartments, and all? (Sunset 5; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Julia Wallace)

GO I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH Sitcoms about nothing, mumblecore movies — is the thematic three-act structure really dead, and if so, should we say good riddance? Either way, if you’re into the formless baring of the innermost self, you could do a lot worse than Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin’s sweetly tender peregrination, based on his one-man show on being a fat, gig-less and lonely actor in search of someone to love. Jeff — or is it “Jeff”? — drifts around Chicago playing straight man to an unlimited supply of neurotics and lunatics, most of them played by Curb and Second City buddies like Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris and David Pasquesi. Sarah Silverman — no stranger herself to the aimless life — plays a crimson-bra’d nut job and love interest with a cruel streak you’ll have no trouble recognizing from her own body of work. There’s nothing new about Garlin’s observation that life is governed by absurdities and non sequiturs, but what sets this movie apart from the pack is that it’s ruefully self-aware rather than self-conscious. I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With may be one of the wisest studies of urban loneliness since Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (which figures in the movie as a remake starring boy-band alum Aaron Carter), as well as the least condescending to little old Jewish mothers, who drive the story more than you’d think. (Fallbrook; Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor) 

KING OF CALIFORNIA Michael Douglas is a mental patient on the loose, out to liberate Spanish gold buried beneath a Costco — or maybe a Petco, or perhaps that Applebee’s over yonder. Bushy-bearded, wild-eyed and dressed like an art-directed hobo, Douglas looks like he’s working on a Wonder Boys sequel; if only. Instead, we’re merely off to Crazytown, with Evan Rachel Wood along for the bumpy ride as Douglas’ poor, put-upon daughter, who finds her solitary, humdrum existence — nights working at McDonald’s, days wandering the empty house — ruined by the return of her nutty pops, who somehow persuades the pragmatic teen to go on late-night and roadside scavenger hunts armed with only a metal detector, some old journals and a gardener’s shovel. Hard to tell what’s more annoying in this empty character study of eccentrics and the suckers who love them: the braying, blurting soundtrack or Douglas himself, who can’t find his way into a man tortured by dull demons. As for Wood, there’s but one saving grace: At least she doesn’t have to sing Beatles songs, as she’s forced to do in Across the Universe. That automatically renders King of California her best bad film of 2007, hands down. (ArcLight; The Landmark; Monica 4-Plex) (Robert Wilonsky)

MILAREPA: MAGICIAN, MURDERER, SAINT How many Buddhist monks does it take to film a historical revenge ­thriller? More than 50, if the credits of Neten Chokling’s debut feature are to be believed. The Bhutanese director also moonlights as the spiritual head of a monastery, which may explain why this simple fable about an 11th-century yogi unfolds at an ­achingly slow, often meditative pace. There’s one chase scene (on miniature horseback) and an action set piece (where Milarepa’s greedy relatives die in a CGI avalanche), but mostly Chokling favors long, fixed camera shots — occasionally interrupted with dialogue (in Tibetan) like: “Enemies are never ­ending.” “No, your enemies arise from your mind.” The legend of Milarepa — an exiled heir who sought revenge before finding dharma — engages on a narrative level; however, Chokling’s direction fails to give the story any period texture or visceral emotion. While it may be of interest mainly to practicing Buddhists (the Dalai Lama is blurbed on the upcoming DVD cover), Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint is note­worthy for its stunning Himalayan panoramas (filmed on location in northern India) — not to mention the most giggle-inducing title for a dramatic work since John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (Nuart) (James C. Taylor)

MOVING MCALLISTER Because he wears Clark Kent glasses without irony and checks his watch obsessively, we know he’s a tightly wound workaholic who needs to stop and smell the roses. Because she’s totally flaky, constantly cradles a miniature pet pig and is a knockout, we know she’s just the sort of free spirit who can loosen him up. If these characters sound like utter clichés, tough luck: You’re stuck with ’em in a beaten-up rental truck for 93 excruciating minutes as law intern Rick (screenwriter Ben Gourley) helps move aspiring actress Michelle (Mila Kunis) from Georgia to Los Angeles as a favor to her uncle Maxwell (Rutger Hauer), Rick’s big boss at the firm. Directed with bland competency by Andrew Black, Moving McAllister is a perfect storm of low-budget indie conventionality: a witless road comedy suffused with tons of phony Americana and forced romance featuring sheltered young white people whose minuscule worries about jobs and relationships are as inconsequential as the film’s negligible worldview. (If all that wasn’t enough, Jon Heder shows up in an extended cameo as a “zany” hippie.) Lacking so much as one interesting creative flourish, Moving McAllister may inspire your inner-development exec to scream out script notes in the hope that somehow, maybe, the characters will hear you and give them a try. Regardless of how you survive this ordeal, here’s a guarantee: You will never be happier to see Los Angeles as you will at the end of this picture. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)

MR. WOODCOCK Bad Santa gets worse every time he trots out the same mean routine; does anyone at this late date recall a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton in which he doesn’t yell at retarded kids and bark at their stupid parents? After coaching The Bad News Bears to ruin and flunking out of the half-witted School for Scoundrels, Thornton’s now forcing kids to take a lap while pelting them with basketballs in Mr. Woodcock. Among Mr. Woodcock’s poor pupils is a chunky lad who grows into a self-help guru (Seann William Scott) who looks a lot like Stifler from American Pie, and returns home in best-selling triumph only to discover his mom (Susan Sarandon, poor gal) has shacked up with Woodcock. In a single instant, the self-help guru is self-helpless in the same house as his childhood tormentor, with whom he wars till the final few scenes, in which all’s well that ends well — and if you think that’s a spoiler, you’ve clearly never been to a movie. Amy Poehler ekes out a smirk or two as a boozy-broad publicist trying to keep her paycheck in check, but even the best gags feel like leftovers, again. In other words, Woodcock’s a strictly flaccid family affair. Bet you saw that coming too. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

{mosimage}PICK GO SHADOW COMPANY Years from now, we’ll be able to trace the rise of the 21st-century mercenary back to the war in Iraq. This, assuming that years from now the war is actually over. For the subjects of director Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s fascinating, evenhanded documentary Shadow Company, about the big business of guns for hire, perpetual war is not necessarily a bad thing. There are 20,000 “private military contractors” — the current preferred euphemism — in Iraq, a fact that came to shocking light in 2004, when four of them were killed and mutilated by angry mobs in Fallujah. Who these men are and why they take such historically disreputable and dangerous (though highly paid) gigs is one of the bigger questions on Bicanic and Bourque’s agenda. Interviews with mercenaries, some of them seemingly quite nice guys, and flourishes of style — comic-book illustrations, video-game scenes and news footage swirled together in an Oliver Stone–esque mélange — give a flavor of the personalities involved. Academics and security experts fill in the historical and political context. As the nation-state wanes in the age of globalization, the mercenary of the Middle Ages has returned, backed this time by corporate managers, lobbyists and billions of dollars. The film suggests that this may not be such a disaster when private force is applied within constraints. Unfortunately, in the Wild West horror show that is Iraq, no one’s sure if there are any rules at all. (Grande 4-Plex) (Paul Malcolm)

SILK Based on a novel by the Italian author Alessandro Baricco that I will assume was more coherent than this mess of an adaptation, François Girard’s Silk stars Michael Pitt as Herve, a confused-looking French silkworm trader sent on a mission to Japan by his boss, Baldabiou (Alfred Molina, trying his best). There, Herve becomes infatuated with a concubine (Sei Ashina), despite the fact that they only see each other about twice and never exchange a word. Meanwhile, waiting for Herve at home is his fetching wife, Helene (Keira Knightley, who isn’t given much to do but bat her eyelashes and loll around in a field of lilies). Silk isn’t just bad: It’s utterly mad. It stutters and hiccups from scene to scene, from country to country, but never once does it make narrative or emotional sense. The scenes in France are a series of goopy, sentimental tableaux worthy of Bouguereau. The scenes in Japan are full of lush, white mists and little else. Girard (The Red Violin) is not only uncritically preoccupied with that nation’s Otherness — the mystic Orient — but also with the female body. The camera treats Helene and her Japanese counterpart as pretty knickknacks, silent vessels for Herve’s uninspiring, aimless lust. (Selected theaters) (Julia Wallace)

VANAJA The highfalutin inspiration for Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Columbia thesis project was a child’s scream from Sophie’s Choice, but what began as a rudimentary portrayal of parent-child separation took on sociological import as the director zeroed in on the harsh realities of India’s caste system. Pity so little of this heft registers past the graceless fog of the movie’s stilted thesping, overreaching directorial ambition and unintentional comic pacing. Spunky young Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya) ingratiates herself into the home of a local landlady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), in the hope of learning traditional Kuchipudi dance. Soon enough, Rama Devi’s son rapes and impregnates the 14-year-old Vanaja, but the story’s professed seriousness is squandered once the girl’s face is framed for the umpteenth time next to a man’s insinuating crotch. More or less superfluous, Bhukya’s impeccable dancing skills at least offer a reprieve from the story’s amateur show of social inquiry. (Music Hall; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (Ed Gonzalez)

WHAT’S UP, SCARLET? Tough, no-nonsense L.A. matchmaker Scarlet (Susan Priver) can spark a love connection for everyone but herself — a fact that her overbearing mother, Ruth (Sally Kirkland), never lets her forget. After what’s meant to be a cutesy, car-crash meeting with ditsy foreign actress Sabrina (Musetta Vander), Scarlet finds herself slowly stepping off the disappointing path of hetero hookups and considering the possibility of Sapphic romance. Billed as a screwball comedy, Scarlet isn’t. Dialogue that should sparkle and breeze is leaden and witless, and the characters’ assorted personality types are heavy-handedly underscored. (Before meeting Sabrina, Scarlet dresses exclusively in dark, severe business suits.) The script (by Priver and Anthony Caldarella) and direction (by Caldarella) are lazy to the point of ineptitude. The film misses the whole point of classic screwball romances, where the joy for the audience is watching the ways that assorted obstacles are overcome. In What’s Up, Scarlet?, seemingly insurmountable conflicts are no sooner presented than resolved. At least some of the film’s crippling flaws could be forgiven if there were chemistry between the leads. There is none. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

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