Film Reviews: Rails & Ties, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

BELLA The People’s Choice Award winner at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival is already getting some buzz among Catholics and pro-lifers in the blogosphere who’ve pinned it as the crossover anti-abortion hit they’ve been waiting for. Sorry to break it to you guys, but... no. Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde has so little control of tone or nuance that even the most tragic and serious moments here come off as melodramatic jokes. (During the screening I attended, nearly the entire theater burst out laughing at the violent death of a child.) The main character, Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), a Jesus-haired hottie with sad eyes and a sad secret weighing on his mind, works as a (preternaturally talented yet modest) chef in his brother’s New York restaurant. When a co-worker, the streetwise Nina (Tammy Blanchard), is fired for her chronic lateness (guess what: she’s actually pregnant), Jose takes her out for a day at the beach and tries to dissuade her from getting an abortion. Does she? If you can’t tell by now how this movie ends, I won’t spoil it, except to say that it manages to be utterly predictable without making any sense at all. (Burbank Town Center 8; South Bay Galleria 16; Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Julia Wallace)

BLACK IRISH Has there been an Irish family on the big screen that didn’t come complete with a failed, drunken father; a saintly, long-suffering mother; and a handful of children running the gamut from dutiful and idealistic to troubled and dangerous? Writer-director Brad Gann and his finely tuned cast try their best to eschew those ethnic clichés, but Black Irish is still too wrapped up in them to escape clean. Cole McKay (Michael Angarano), a sweet-natured Catholic teen torn between the seminary, girls and baseball, lives in working-class Boston with — wouldn’t you know it? — his withdrawn, alcoholic father (Brendan Gleeson), unhappy mother (Melissa Leo), bad-apple brother (Tom Guiry) and pregnant, unwed sister (Emily VanCamp). In his directorial debut, Gann (who wrote the Mark Wahlberg sports movie Invincible) creates some emotionally affecting scenes, but Black Irish can’t seem to go anywhere dramatically without brushing up against the hardscrabble nostalgia of Angela’s Ashes and In America, or the macho code of ethics that permeates Scorsese’s mob movies. (Adding to the general feeling of déjà vu, Angarano looks a lot like Shia LaBeouf, while Guiry apes Sean Penn when his character turns violent.) The movie is by no means terrible — it’s too sincere and thoughtful to be immediately dismissed. But it is terribly frustrating viewing: so much time and creative energy spent making a movie that, in one form or another, the audience has already seen. (Fairfax) (Tim Grierson)

THE COMEBACKS One of’s definitions of “comeback” is “a clever or effective retort; rejoinder; riposte.” Perhaps, then, the moviegoing audience ought to file some sort of lawsuit, as The Comebacks displays nothing remotely clever or effective; rather, it will make you question whether in fact you ever found David Koechner funny in all those Will Ferrell comedies, since he generates exactly zero laughs as the loser coach of an underdog football team in this alleged satire of inspirational sports movies. Simply put, if you can’t do better than 1989’s Major League, don’t bother. Though this sophomore effort from director Tom Brady (of The Hot Chick, a masterpiece of sophistication in comparison) isn’t as obnoxiously awful as, say, Epic Movie, it’s simply not funny in the least. (If you’re going to parody such disasters as the mentally-handicapped-Cuba-Gooding film Radio, it might be prudent to generate more laughs than the unintentional ones delivered by the original.) Brady’s sole decent idea is the casting of Carl Weathers as an evil coach, but much like the narrative, it goes nowhere. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

DAN IN REAL LIFE has this much going for it: It is not the worst Steve Carell film of 2007. That honor, of course, goes to Evan Almighty, which even the Lord walked out of during the second reel. Fact is, Dan isn’t really much of a film at all — it’s more like a montage of other movies, with Carell serving as the host of what could pass for a prime-time AFI special. One could fill this entire space with the titles of films from which writer-director Peter Hedges nicks his story, but for the sake of expediency, we’ll narrow it down to a desert-island handful: Home for the Holidays, The Family Stone, Sleepless in Seattle, What About Bob? and Hedges’ own excellent Thanksgiving-dinner-flavored Pieces of April. Then add to this cinematic stew your own cast — Carell as the widower with three young girls, Dane Cook as the brother, Juliette Binoche as the brother’s girlfriend, Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney as the parents, Emily Blunt as the blind date, and assorted other familiar faces posing as family members gathered in an idyllic oceanside spot — and the dots connect themselves. The charitable might view Dan as a sort of spiritual sequel to The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Dan’s the little man Andy might have become had his One True Love abandoned him with three children to whom he can’t connect, because every time he looks at them he sees the remnants of his former life. Or it could just be that the movie steals from that line in Virgin about Carell looking kinda like Luke Wilson, since here Carell is, after all, playing the Luke Wilson role from The Family Stone. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


DARKON There’s a particularly funny episode of The X-Files in which a nerdling hacker boasts in an on-camera interview: “I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons & Dragons and not learn a little something about courage,” which could easily have been in a deleted scene from Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s clever, lo-fi dorkumentary about fantasy role players in Baltimore who dress up in makeshift costumes and wage elaborate territorial battles in suburban fields. We meet stay-at-home dad Skip (ahem, “Bannor of Laconia”) — son of a tabletop-war-games distributor, go figure — who duct-tapes together his shield in preparation for usurping glory from archnemesis Kenyon (“Keldar of Mordom”). Sweet-natured, overweight Daniel (“Triv Gorgo”) can’t meet girls but finds solace in ducking foam broadswords, as does single mom and ex-stripper Becky (“Queen Nemesis”). Empowered as they are, it’s hard to take this motley crew seriously when they spit medieval maxims with soccer goals in the background, but the filmmakers approach their subjects with humanity. There are downright depressing moments too, as when Skip has trouble separating friendship from field loyalty, or when one player says that he still feels real-world bullied in this imaginary kingdom. (Grande 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)

DESERT BAYOU In documenting the post-Katrina lives of several members of New Orleans’ enormous black-evacuee population, Alex LeMay’s Desert Bayou makes a fitting sequel to Spike Lee’s opus When the Levees Broke. The film opens by reprising the indelible and shameful tableaux of horrors that unspooled in the days following the storm, but then quickly moves on to depict the plight of several African-American evacuees. Relief at rescue immediately turns to disbelief. Rushed to the airport by FEMA, the delirious group discovers, only as the plane is taking off, that they are bound for Salt Lake City. (As one survivor puts it: “That’s when everyone lost it.”) Upon arrival in the snow-white bastion of Mormonism, black folks who have just had their lives torn asunder are shuttled off to a military barracks and subjected to criminal-background checks. LeMay deftly follows the lives of two men, Clifford and Curtis, as they and their families struggle to maintain a spirited belief in a better day. Their stories reverberate as a poignant indictment of a social disaster that began long before New Orleans’ poor, black and elderly citizens were abandoned to die in the Superdome. (Sunset 5) (Lisa Katzman)

56 DROPS OF BLOOD Attila Bokor’s 56 Drops of Blood is so high-concept you might get vertigo. It’s a rock-opera update of Romeo and Juliet set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution. Its R & J manqués are a dashing Hungarian youth (Tamás Palcsó) and the daughter of a Russian officer (Monika Veres), but most of the heavy dramatic lifting is done by the Friar Laurence surrogate (veteran stage actor Attila Kaszás). As the film opens, he’s in some sort of brightly lit limbo, politely debating with his conscience (Robert Alfoldi); their exchanges are interspersed with what appears to be footage of a live stage performance, with audience members dimly visible behind the action. Putting a pop gloss on history is always a dicey proposition, but 56 Drops feels like a sincere attempt to get a younger generation of Hungarians to engage with their homeland’s tragic past. Sincerity has its limits, however. Drama-club kids might be charmed by the crescendo-heavy songs, soap-opera attractive leads and the enduring mechanics of the central star-crossed romance, but grown-ups will likely bristle at the blustery dramatics and extravagantly tacky, Les Miz–ish staging. Not helping matters is the fact that the dialogue has been dubbed into English for an American release, creating a disconnect with the Hungarian-language musical numbers and badly undermining the performances. (Sunset 5) (Adam Nayman)


PICK FINISHING THE GAME Writer-director Justin Lin’s mockumentary Finishing the Game imagines Hollywood’s frantic search to find an Asian actor to replace Bruce Lee after he died while making his last film, Game of Death. But Lee wasn’t just a huge movie star; he was the embodiment of cultures clashing and merging, of old stereotypes being upended and new ones being fashioned. Lin’s film, fittingly, is all over the map thematically, tackling Asian male sexuality, the myriad identities that exist under the heading “Asian,” and the power of the media to shape and distort minority identities. A lot of the humor is obvious and old hat (sight gags on ‘70s hairstyles and fashion), while the clips from faux films-within-the film are easy, giggle-inducing puns and parodies targeted at fanboys. But as Lin follows the hapless white director trying to finish Lee’s film (a scene between the male director and his female casting agent about which actor they’d rather fuck works on so many more levels than the literal, adolescent-humor one) and the assorted guys who are desperate (or not) to be the next Lee, the film moves at a brisk pace. Bits that don’t quite pay off are quickly followed by those that do. There’s nothing new in the movie’s sociocultural insights, especially for those of us already interested in how identity is shaped by pop culture, but the breezy tone and obvious fun being had by the cast make Finishing the Game a slight, low-key cool cinematic essay on identity politics. (Nuart) (Ernest Hardy)

IF I DIDN’T CARE A summer movie for those who parse “summer” as a verb, filmmaker bros Benjamin and Orson Cummings’ modern noir-thriller suitably sets its stage within a community of believable backstabbers and worse: the upper crusties of the Hamptons. Bored all week while his wife, Janice (Noelle Beck), makes the ducats as a Manhattan lawyer, trophy husband Davis (Hal Hartley veteran Bill Sage) gets a little something going on the side with real estate vixen Hadley (Susan Misner). You’d be half an idiot not to predict their affair and wife-killing plot, all concocted under the smarter-than-he-looks scrutiny of grizzled Long Island police investigator Linus (Roy Scheider, invoking all but Columbo’s voice). Still, the characterizations and tropes in the film’s first half are mighty convincing, as if everyday drama held eerie parallels to some oneiric, bigger-than-life ’40s classic, and the lensing is clean and scenic. But with their unrelenting, nostalgic clutch on old-school noir rules (a girl and a gun, plan goes awry, an easily spotted MacGuffin), the Cummings boys paint themselves into the proverbial corner with a cop-out ex machina ending — at which point there is no longer a need for the title’s “If.” (Grande 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)

JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS Jonathan Demme, who directed Tom Hanks to an Oscar as the AIDS-afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia, may be the most well-meaning filmmaker in Hollywood; Jimmy Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development,” is certainly the most well-meaning ex-president in recent American history. And so Demme’s documentary portrait has no lack of good intentions. At over two hours, they’re nearly suffocating. Basically a vérité-style infomercial that follows Carter during a late-2006 book tour to promote his critique of Israel’s West Bank occupation, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains provides perfunctory background on its subject’s piety and Georgia roots, then plunges along with him into the media maelstrom. Carter fences with Charlie Rose, educates Larry King and signs a vast quantity of books. He’s scarcely the first to characterize the separation that exists in Israel’s occupied territories as apartheid — the Israeli left has called it that for years. But waving the term like a red cape before the American public, Carter has been notably disingenuous in exploiting it. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid actually gives the implied analogy between Israel and white-supremacist South Africa short shrift, as does the film. The conditions of the occupation go largely unexplored. (Sunset 5; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (J. Hoberman)

  KING CORN Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis can trace their roots back to a couple of patches of Iowa soil their respective great-grandpappies used to own, and one day both guys figured, hey, what better way to see where they’d come from than to retrace their relatives’ muddy footsteps in the cornfields. What Cheney and Ellis found wasn’t the family tree, but its cornstalk — which reaches into everything most Americans eat and drink, for better or worse (the worse part, usually). Directed by Aaron Wolf, this is a twofold journey: the story of how two college buddies learned about their agricultural heritage, and the tale of how kernels of corn have invidiously worked their way into America’s diet — through the cows who’re literally overdosing on the stuff (that is one nasty sequence) and the soft drinks sweetened with a syrup the men find impossible to manufacture in a kitchen without damned near blowing up the house. A worthy companion piece to Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation (more the book than the movie), King Corn will put you off corn for a long, long time; that Coke can’ll start looking like a hand grenade after a while; and, really, forget that burger for now. But this is as much a thoughtful meditation on the plight of the American farmer as it is a rant against our expanding waistlines; amazing how something so small as a kernel of corn wound up as dangerous as it is delicious. (Music Hall) (Robert Wilonsky)


  MR. UNTOUCHABLE Interspersed with quotes from Machiavelli, blaxploitation anthems, non sequitur B-roll footage of New York City in the ’70s, and the occasional black-and-white dramatization, Mr. Untouchable is a fascinating, first-person account of drug kingpin and ruthless gangster Nicky Barnes, whose outrageous story of rise, rule, rage and revenge requires no such stylistic filler. Called everything from the Al Capone of Harlem to the titular moniker — with which he was christened in a New York Times Magazine cover story that led, some argue, to his downfall — Barnes (who is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the upcoming true-crime opus American Gangster) has been a member of the witness-protection program since 1998, after giving up every one of the henchmen (and henchwomen) in his multimillion-dollar heroin empire. Shown either in master-of-the-universe silhouette or from the (expensively cuff-linked) wrists down, Barnes tells his story alongside an impressive number of the players, from the former “council” members that he helped put in jail to the reporters, DEA informants, police officers and prosecutors who put him there first. Also on hand is Barnes’ defense attorney of yore, David “Mighty Whitey” Breitbart, whose attitude encapsulates the uneasy balance that this film strikes between telling the straight story and glorifying a stone-cold snake in the grass. (AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw; Rolling Hills 20) (Michelle Orange)

MUSIC WITHIN There’s no disputing the sincerity with which Steve Sawalich tells the true-life tale of Richard Pimentel, the man more or less behind the Americans With Disabilities Act. His is, without question, a story worth telling: Cocky kid thinks he’ll make a great motivational speaker, professor tells him he’s “full of shit” and needs to go live a little, kid goes to Vietnam and nearly dies a lot, then returns home all but deaf — the whole world sounds like it’s underwater and populated by a billion whistles being blown at once. And Ron Livingston, deadpan batshit in Office Space and stoically heroic in Band of Brothers, is the perfect dude for the role; you want to believe in him. But a little earnestness goes a long way, and Music Within has a little too much of it, down to the casting of Michael Sheen as the wheelchair-bound savant with cerebral palsy who acts as Richard’s muse and conscience. Sheen, like the movie itself, is trying too hard to inspire when the story doesn’t need the help. (Mann Chinese 6; AMC Century City; Playhouse 7) (Robert Wilonsky)

O JERUSALEM Retooling Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s sprawling 1972 docu-novel about the birth of Israel around a sorely tested friendship between a Jew (J.J. Feild) and an Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), this adorably clumsy melodrama has going for it a conciliatory spirit intended to warm the liberal heart. That’s also a weakness, with director Elie Chouraqui and co-writer Didier Lepecheur falling prey to a fatal evenhandedness that reduces a complex battle for the loveliest, most fought-over city in the world to a pile of heroic clichés. Though no one actually breaks into song, the cheesy battle scenes and even cheesier yet romantic back story will have you waiting in vain for a musical. Politics pops its head in here and there, but it’s hard to stay focused when Ian Holm, as Ben Gurion, keeps rushing around in electrocuted hair extensions, declaiming history. Imagine watching Otto Preminger’s equally silly 1960 Exodus now, and you’ll have O Jerusalem, minus Paul Newman’s blue-eyed wink. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)


RAILS & TIES No doubt about it, Alison Eastwood has picked up a thing or two from her old man. Her debut feature is slow, deliberate, assured, and shot with a graceful feel for place — none of which is enough to overcome the creaky themes that tie this hackneyed domestic drama together with fearsome symmetry. A child in need of parents, parents in need of a child — what else is necessary to complicate the passage from A to B to redemption but suicide, cancer and a difficult marriage? The acting is great, though it may be time for Kevin Bacon — playing a train conductor faced with a difficult decision about the car parked in a fast-approaching crossing — to take a break from the man-of-few-words thing. Marcia Gay Harden is much too good for her role here as the afflicted wife who “doesn’t want to relax, I want to live.” (Clichés by screenwriter Micky Levy, who cobbled them together after a train journey of her own.) Newcomer Miles Heizer is excellent as the forlorn lad, but there’s no saving this mawkish tale — whose best feature is its sense of railway life, and whose worst is its reduction of life’s common hurts and losses to puppetry. (ArcLight) (Ella Taylor)

SARAH LANDON AND THE PARANORMAL HOUR An attempt to launch a Goosebumps-style tween-horror franchise on a Happy Meal budget, this joint effort of the Comrie clan — writer-director Lisa, co-author John, and actors Brian, Dan and Rick — probably should have been saved for Movie Night at the next family reunion. For about 20 minutes, this digressive ghost tale about a visiting teen (Rissa Walters) who stumbles onto a small-town curse involving two brothers and a long-dead sports hero has an innocuous homemade charm: It’s as not-unpleasantly amateurish as the regional genre movies that four-walled rural theaters in the days before video. But do-nothing Sarah may be the dullest, most featureless and inactive protagonist in recent movies — great news for those Scooby-Doo die-hards who never got enough Freddy. As musty fake scares (yikes! a shrieking cat!) yield to unintended laughs and nail-chewing impatience, that hour starts to feel like a fortnight in a funeral-home foyer. (Galleria at South Bay 16) (Jim Ridley)

SAW IV In keeping with the series’ preference for the literal over the mythic, Saw IV offers no miraculous, Michael Myers-style resurrection for torture artiste John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell), who went out with a bang at the end of Saw III and makes his first appearance here as the toe-tagged specimen in an autopsy scene so gruesomely detailed it could be used as a med-school primer. But if Jigsaw is gone, he’s hardly forgotten: Soon, someone is up to Kramer’s old tricks, which this time means subjecting SWAT team commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent, a series regular since Saw II, which may make him the longest-surviving black character in horror-movie history) to the obligatory gauntlet of damned-if-you-do/don’t puzzle boxes and Old Testament moralizing. But like the movie’s mysterious Jigsaw doppelganger, Saw IV is itself a poor substitute for the original (or even the first two sequels), from the ho-hum deathtraps that seem designed by Rube Goldberg’s less prodigal younger brother to the “twist” ending surprising only in its Agatha Christie obviousness. Much more gripping are the handful of flashback scenes that bring Kramer (and, in turn, the excellent Bell) back from the grave and offer new insight into the making of the movies’ most insidiously appealing quasi-madman since Hannibal Lecter. May I propose a full-tilt prequel: Jigsaw Rising? (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

SLIPSTREAM A leading man (Christian Slater) literally overacts to death on the Mojave Desert set of a murder mystery. And that spiritual Native American fella nearby? He’s wandered in from a stretch of Oliver Stone’s psychotropic sands, where Jim Morrison tripped on peyote and Natural Born Killers marked a high point in self-indulgence. Amazingly, Sir Anthony Hopkins has raised the bar to batshit insanity with this maddening passion project, which he wrote, directed, scored, and stars in with as much slack-jawed discombobulation as he’s likely to inspire in his audience. The synopsis suggests a Charlie Kaufman meta-riff on show biz: While screenwriter Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins) bangs out said murder mystery, his characters start popping up in daily life, actors play themselves, dreams and reality bend space and time, blah, blah, it’s all in the mind. But who would have guessed that Hopkins’ brain was such an impenetrable inland empire? Not just nonlinear, Slipstream is a non-Euclidean freak-out of repeating sequences, excruciatingly long dissolves, superimposed Hitler footage, Dolly Parton look-alikes, ridiculous zooms, “We’ve lost the plot!” epileptic flashes, horizontal frame flips, now please let me off I’m going to be sick! Hopkins claims it’s a comedy, and perhaps John Turturro’s live-action cartoon of a mogul producer suggests so, but what does it all mean? That art can be just as shallow as Hollywood? (Regent Showcase; Monica 4-Plex; One Colorado) (Aaron Hillis)


  TOTAL DENIALTotal Denial is, to put it lightly, a niche film. Directed, produced and edited by the Bulgarian journalist Milena Kaneva, it tells the story of human-rights abuses committed by the Burmese military on behalf of Unocal, an American oil company laying a pipeline there. Kaneva was obviously shooting on a budget: Some of the camerawork is messy and slapdash, and the narrative can be confusing — I didn’t realize just who was killing whom until nearly an hour had gone by. Still, Total Denial is intelligent and brimming with what can only be called heart. A great deal of this is due to its protagonist, the charismatic human-rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa, who has spent the past 10 years hiding from the Burmese military regime (lately much in the news for its violence against the country’s Buddhist monks) and documenting the stories of villagers whose lives have been disrupted by the oil pipeline. Wa and his wife eventually filed suit against Unocal in California, under the provisions of an obscure 1789 law. The film moves back and forth between jumpy National Geographic–style footage of jungle huts and deadpan coverage of the vagaries of the American circuit-court system, which quickly emerges as the more outlandish locale. (Fairfax) (Julia Wallace)

WRISTCUTTERS See film feature.


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