Film Reviews: Lucky You, Waitress, Rock the Bells

AMERICANIZING SHELLEY A romantic comedy set in the world of Hollywood agents and wannabe actors, Americanizing Shelley isn’t original, or the least bit believable, but it’s so lovingly made that one’s usual resistance to such clichés falls away. Square-jawed Brad Raider plays Rob Shorwell, a small-town guy interning at a small L.A. talent agency who lacks the killer instinct, but whose boss (the ever-reliable, ever-generous Beau Bridges) says he’ll make Rob an agent if he can turn recent Indian émigré Shalini (Namrata Singh Gujral, who also wrote the script) into a tabloid starlet. It’s a silly premise, built around all-too-familiar musings about a shallow L.A., but director Lorraine Senna keeps things moving along, even managing to make the requisite shopping-for-sexy-clothes montage feel fresh. That vigor comes chiefly from watching the gorgeous Shalini transform into a city girl, a process that never feels rushed or false. When Shalini’s family arrives from India, and Rob dons traditional garb and pretends to be her Indian fiancé, this minor but sweet movie reveals its reason for being — to bring a bit of Bollywood warmth and cheer to image-starved Indian-American audiences. (AMC 30 at the Block) (Chuck Wilson)

AWAY FROM HER See film feature

CIVIC DUTY Playing a creep even colder than the stiffs he tended on Six Feet Under, Peter Krause makes a bid to become the poster child of post-9/11 paranoia in director Jeff Renfroe’s 94-minute stay in cinematic Gitmo. In this Rumsfeld-era reworking of the Michael Douglas angry-white-guy clunker Falling Down, Krause plays a recently canned accountant who finds a new concern to pass the time: the semi-suspicious activities of “the Middle Eastern guy” (Khaled Abol Naga) who just moved in across the apartment complex. Unable to convince either his wife (the appealing Kari Matchett) or a dour FBI agent (Richard Schiff, slyly underplaying), he starts to run out of patience — and then remembers the handgun in his drawer. Expected ironies about homeland security, racial profiling and fears of the Other land like a rain of anvils, and director Renfroe matches Krause’s worked-up performance with a jiggly, flashy approximation of off-brand Tony Scott. (Selected theaters) (Jim Ridley)

INLAWS & OUTLAWS After interviewing a gaggle of quirky Seattle couples, director Drew Emery has assembled a superficial portrait of middle-class romance in America. Inlaws & Outlaws is ostensibly a documentary about gay and lesbian unions, but Emery pads its length with a few token straight folks, not to mention corny “out of the mouths of babes” sequences in which kids share their innocent ideas about marriage. The result is a bland oral history that’s uninterested in investigating the complex emotional and political ramifications of same-sex partnerships — to say nothing about the universal concept of love. Instead, the movie’s real goal is to win easy smiles from viewers — aww, she likes French-cut string beans, but her partner likes the square-cut kind, how cute. A teary montage set to a cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” is so shamelessly manipulative, it becomes camp within the song’s first notes. If you liked the nostalgic, direct-address vignettes that peppered When Harry Met Sally, Inlaws & Outlaws provides a full serving of them. Its 104 minutes of lukewarm-’n’-fuzzy comfort food will no doubt satisfy some, but those looking for deeper insight into our nation’s peculiar mating rituals will feel left out. (Sunset 5) (James C. Taylor)

THE INVISIBLE Director David S. Goyer has made a fortune milking the brooding-loner shtick for all it’s 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)

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 crew mates “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)

LUCKY YOU Curtis Hanson’s drama, set against the world of high-stakes competitive poker tournaments, has been batted around the Warner Bros. release schedule so many times now (it was originally set to open in September of last year) that many had begun to wonder if perhaps the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential director had merely played a bad hand this time out. As it happens, Lucky You is probably the best American movie to receive such unceremonious treatment by a distributor since Carroll Ballard’s Duma back in 2005. Despite having directed Eminem in 8 Mile, Hanson is at heart an unapologetically old-fashioned guy committed to making the sort of pictures “they” supposedly don’t make anymore — you know, the ones where character and dialogue trump heavy plotting and flashy special effects, and where a lovable loser is always preferable to a charismatic go-getter. Put another way, he makes movies for adults in an industry that has surrendered itself to hormonal adolescents. Notwithstanding the presence of box-office sweetheart Drew Barrymore in the cast, Lucky You seems even more of a cinematic throwback than was L.A. Confidential — a wise, lived-in three-hander with nothing much to claim for itself except a pair of pocket-ace performances and the kind of silver-tongued fast-talk (courtesy of Hanson and co-writer Eric Roth) that hasn’t been much heard in these parts since Billy Wilder and Ben Hecht hung up their hats. The story is drawn along classical lines — a down-on-his-luck pro poker player (Eric Bana), forever in the shadow of his two-time world-champion dad (Robert Duvall), takes one last stab at the World Series — but the parallels Lucky You sees between the game of cards and the game of life are thoughtful and true without seeming forced, as is the way Hanson (a Reno native) films Las Vegas in all its glittering, old-new desperation. Always good with actors, Hanson brings out a beaten-down charm in Bana that works nicely against the hotheaded authority the actor shows in the gambling scenes, while Duvall is, like the veteran card shark he plays, a master of subtle gestures. The low card here is Barrymore, somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into this boys’ club to provide some romantic relief. It’s the one place where Hanson’s retro vibe gets the better of him: Cast as an aspiring chanteuse newly arrived from Bakersfield, Barrymore plays the part with such aw-shucks naiveté, you’d think Bakersfield was still a genuine tumbleweed town. She’s not terrible, but the movie never quite figures out what to do with her, and the scenes between her and Bana lack zest. Like the hard-boiled quickies of Don Siegel and Sam Fuller that Hanson grew up so enamored of, Lucky You is ultimately a story of honor among men in which everything else is fully expendable. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

 PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (COEURS) Coming from Alain Resnais, a director who made some of the most challenging and form-breaking films of the Nouvelle Vague era, this quasi-farcical fugue on loneliness and the difficulty of forging new loves late in life seems, on the surface, quaint in its mixing of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design. But Resnais’ mastery shows how avant-garde the movie equivalent of a well-made play can be. In his exquisite adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play, six characters, either nearing or passing middle age, combine and recombine into couples, seeking the warmth of human connection as a glorious fake snowfall blankets Paris. The six leads — André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, Isabelle Carré, Laura Morante and Lambert Wilson — form a flawless ensemble, and the effervescence of Resnais’ direction disguises its formal rigor: the horizontal stripes that recur from set to set, subdividing apartments into compartments and walling off characters; the blocking that equates physical barriers with mental minefields. Ravishingly photographed by Eric Gautier, the film resembles a Vincente Minnelli musical with the songs elided, leaving only the persistent ache of unexpressed desires — and a viewer’s extraordinary pleasure. For the full review, click here. (Music Hall; Playhouse 7) (Jim Ridley)

ROCK THE BELLS Casey Suchan and Dennis Henry Hennelly’s documentary on California music promoter Chang Weisberg’s Herculean efforts to reunite the entire Wu Tang Clan for the 2004 edition of the titular music festival starts a little slowly. Its initial focus on the minutiae of Weisberg’s daily business operations is very dry, but it lays the foundation for a great payoff: the nail-biting question of whether Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who lands in L.A. from New York and immediately goes to score drugs) will show up for the gig. Rock the Bells itself is a fairly by-the-numbers concert documentary, with talking heads, performance footage, behind-the-scenes drama, repeat. (Music-licensing issues likely kept music by the big-name artists from being included.) But in a film that quickly reveals itself to be a love letter to Wu, some of the best moments have nothing to do with that legendary hip-hop collective: Sage Francis taunting the unruly, increasingly tense crowd with his cerebral, political performance-art hip-hop; Redman playfully admonishing his young son to be good and then giving the boy a kiss when the paternal command wounds. (“He’s so sensitive,” says Red, who clearly adores his child.) And Supernatural’s concert freestyle is just mind-blowing. So, does ODB show up? He does, but Suchan and Hennelly give his appearance added poignancy by detailing his back story in such a way that his bizarrely detached onstage demeanor resonates with meaning far beyond the sigh of relief issued over his fulfilled obligation. It ends Rock the Bells on a high note, but in a minor chord of sadness. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ernest Hardy)

SPIDER-MAN 3 See film feature

TA RA RUM PUM This marks the third summer that Bollywood’s top commercial banner, Yash Raj, has released a light summer entertainment starring the effortlessly charming and believable leading man Saif Ali Khan (Eklavya). 2004’s Hum Tum was followed by 2005’s Salaam Namaste; now, in Ta Ra Rum Pum, Khan plays a newly married Indian-American stock-car driver, R.V. Singh, whose true-blue spouse, Shoma (Rani Mukerjee), coddles him through a crippling bout of “racer’s block,” following the photogenic trauma of a pinwheeling flameout. Already, there are signs that this eager-to-please franchise is congealing into a formula. (All three films were written by Siddarth Anand, who directed the last two.) Along with Khan and a glamorous leading lady, comedian Jaaved Jaffrey is emerging as the third crucial element — the comic-relief clown who brought his ham-bone Crocodile Dundee impression to the Australian locales of Salaam Namaste is here elevated to best-friend/sidekick status as Harry, the ebullient pit boss who first spots R.V.’s need for speed. (It isn’t a good sign that R.V. and Harry meet cuter than R.V. and Shoma.) TRRP is not a slapdash piece of work: The often-thrilling driving sequences, which come complete with the requisite super-slo-mo crashes, are well up to world-class production standards. The child actors who play R.V.’s kids, and the alert-looking Irish setter who plays his dog, are even more aah-inspiring than is necessary. And one has no objection to looking at Rani Mukerjee dancing in a miniskirt, in a high-energy Rent-inspired number staged in a studio-built Manhattan back alley. But the film is so single-mindedly determined to be light and comfortable, to not raise a sweat, that it forgoes even the mildest surprises. The only things that get heavy here are the viewer’s eyelids. (Naz 8; Socal Laguna Hills Mall) (David Chute)

WAITRESS Impossible though it is to watch Adrienne Shelly’s posthumously released comedy without thinking of the actress-writer-director’s gruesome murder last November, it’s unclear what kind of notices Waitress would have received had she not died such an appalling death. The answer is that, in the long run, Shelly will probably be remembered more as Hal Hartley’s beautiful muse in Trust and The Unbelievable Truth than as the filmmaker who, while pregnant with her daughter, dreamed up this amiable confection about maternal ambivalence and female liberation. Shelly, who previously directed Suddenly Manhattan and I’ll Take You There, has the kind of seraphic face — part baby, part siren — that you can’t imagine turning 40. Yet here she is, unselfishly sidelined, along with a game Cheryl Hines, as a dim-bulb waitress sidekick to main attraction Keri Russell, who stars as a reluctantly pregnant pie maker wavering between an abusive husband (a very good Jeremy Sisto) and her married gynecologist (Nathan Fillion), while taking sage counsel from a grumpy old geezer with soft innards (played by none other than Andy Griffith). Washed in a honeyed 1950s glow, Waitress has a mildly puckish way with outlandish baked goods and pert dialogue, but the movie is memorable largely for the contrast between its innocent sweetness and the savagery of its maker’s premature death. (ArcLight; Monica 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

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 A.D. 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 carpool 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 shortcut 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 subzero 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)

GO PICK ZOO See film feature.


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