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Film Reviews: The Reaping, Are We Done Yet? and More

ARE WE DONE YET? One year (in movie time) on from the action of 2005’s Are We There Yet?, sports-memorabilia salesman Nick Persons (Ice Cube) has sold his business, launched a magazine, and moved his new bride (Nia Long) and two pouty, foul-tempered stepkids into his cramped Portland apartment. Whereupon the discovery of a bun in Mom’s oven prompts a relocation to the bucolic countryside and a too-good-to-be-true fixer-upper that quickly proves to be exactly that. Fans of the first film can rest assured that a change in the director’s chair — Dr. Dolittle 2 auteur Steve Carr taking over for the presumably indisposed Brian Levant — has done little to curb the overall tone of slapstick desperation, as the game-faced Mr. Cube does battle with the forces of nature, power tools, a raft of risible ethnic caricatures (obese Hawaiian dry-rot experts, cut-rate Eastern European electricians) and a freakish realtor/contractor/midwife (John C. McGinley, channeling his inner Christopher Walken) who was presumably meant to be more funny than frightening. Reportedly, this is all a remake of the popular 1948 Cary Grant comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, though I’ll be damned if I can remember the scene where Grant chased a CGI raccoon across his roof and crashed through to the porch below, only to look up and see the little bugger waving back at him tittering, “Ha-ha, sucker!” (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


BLACK BOOK See film feature  (Showtimes)


FIGHTING WORDS Proving that no interesting subsection of human beings is safe from the Rocky/Karate Kid triumph-against-the-odds model of inspirational filmmaking, writer-director E. Paul Edwards plunders the live-wire unpredictability of slam poetry to concoct an entirely unsurprising underdog love story. Jake (Jeff Stearns), a talented but undisciplined spoken-word poet, meets Marni (Tara D’Agostino), a book publisher who thinks he has potential. But once her tutelage carries over into a sexual relationship, plot contrivances emerge: Marni is HIV-positive. Jake and Marni hesitantly move forward romantically as Jake prepares to enter a prestigious slam-poetry contest where his chief competition will be David (C. Thomas Howell), an esteemed, arrogant poet who used to date Marni. For a little while, Fighting Words is a modest, agreeable character piece, illuminating those who ply their trade in an under-appreciated, intensely personal art form. But with maniacal insistence, Edwards soon steers his quirky tale toward conventional waters, crashing into a barrage of completely typical narrative beats that most certainly involves training montages, a big showdown between the two men in an 8 Mile–style finale, and a prolonged, manipulative game of “Will she die?” as Marni’s health grows progressively worse. As the story lumbers along on its predetermined course, Edwards breaks between scenes to show actual poets performing their slams to the camera. They aren’t all terrific, but at least their rush of shocking sexual frankness and painfully intimate vulnerability feels like it came from the heart and not from a Syd Field manual. (Beverly Center 13) (Tim Grierson)


FIREHOUSE DOG Not quite disturbingly forlorn, but forlorn (and overly literal) just the same, this latest entry in the doggy-acrobat subgenre of canine comedies has but one joke, and it comes early: In the Idol age, celebrity culture has gone to the dogs — literally. Pampered terrier Rexxx, star of Jurassic Bark, et al., commands his own on-set trailer (not to mention the bitches), but falls from the top — again, literally — when a failed skydiving stunt lands him in rotten tomatoes (literally!). Then (ho-hum) Shane (Josh Hutcherson), a 12-year-old vid-gamer and skate kid whose unmarried dad (Bruce Greenwood) is a fire-department captain, stumbles upon the “mutt from hell” with his terrible “mouth fart” and watches, flabbergasted, as the mongrel shows an amazing aptitude for hyperobsessive housecleaning and rescuing people from burning buildings. (The cut-rate fire F/X appear imported from Shane’s trusty PSP.) “Bad to the Bone” gets spun, and Rexxx eventually makes his way down the fire pole, but the movie never goes off leash. Indeed, my 4-year-old, a far more forgiving dog-film lover than Dad, mustered not a single laugh. Page 2 of the press kit tellingly attributes the dour screenplay to a “dog movie mandate,” presumably by Fox. Woo-hoo! Let’s hear it for family entertainment! (Citywide) (Rob Nelson)


GO GRINDHOUSE See film feature (Showtimes)


THE HOAX See film feature  (Showtimes)


GO OPERATION HOMECOMING Though it exists neither to boost nor defy the war in Iraq, Operation Homecoming is not without political objective. Drawing its inspiration from a project by the National Endowment for the Arts, this unique documentary experience is predicated on the notion that we have underestimated the intellect of our troops. Director Richard E. Robbins interviews men and women of the armed forces, intercutting their recollections of combat with arresting visualizations of their personal literature. A three-dimensional comic elucidates an Army specialist’s kill-zone panic; a collage of animated photographs slowly breaks down an officer’s profound compassion for an old man who loses his son during a car bombing; and a staff sergeant’s primer on his surroundings is transformed into a sarcastic lampoon of The Living Desert and other Disney manuals of cultural traditions. Every vignette follows its own aesthetic, and though each one risks a certain degree of decadence, the firsthand contributions of memoirs, letters, poetry and fiction from which the scenes are constructed maintain a sense of legitimacy. These stories of heartache, confusion and anger combine to form a gallery of art that illuminates the conundrums of warfare and testifies to the philosophical instincts of the American soldier. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ed Gonzalez)


GO THE PRISONER OR: HOW I PLANNED TO KILL TONY BLAIR Anyone who saw the Iraq documentary Gunner Palace, which found Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein embedded in a unit of American soldiers, will remember the scene of a 2003 raid on a Baghdad home and the defiant man claiming to be a journalist, bleary and back-talking even on his knees. The scene ends with the man — Yunis Khatayer Abbas — and his two brothers being carted off for questioning; they were under suspicion of harboring bomb-making materials as part of a conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Tony Blair. (No materials were found in the home.) Eighteen months later, the filmmakers reconnected with Yunis through a reporter who had used him as a “fixer.” They discovered that he was indeed a journalist, and had spent nine months in prison (much of it in Abu Ghraib) before being released with no charges. Tucker and Epperlein had the subject of their next documentary. In only 76 minutes, using intensely reflective, often mordant interviews with Yunis, extensive footage that he collected of the war and his life, still photos, a prison guard’s corroborating statements, and a slick interplay between Yunis and comic-book counterpoints, the filmmakers have crafted a unique and stirring indictment of the Abbas family’s not-uncommon experience, and the travesty of the U.S. detention system. (Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)


THE REAPING Two age-old foes — science and blind faith — tango yet again in this noxious slice of biblical horror about a series of Old Testament plagues being visited upon a Louisiana bayou backwater. Hilary Swank stars as the resident nonbeliever — an ordained minister turned university professor recruited by a rural schoolteacher (David Morrissey) to convince the locals that there’s a perfectly rational explanation (global warming?) for why their once-crystalline lake has turned into a crimson tide pool. In short order, frogs rain from the heavens, cattle drop dead in their tracks, and hideous boils break out on human skin, until Swank starts to wonder if maybe she was wrong to turn her back on the Lord after her husband and daughter were killed on a missionary trip to the Sudan. (Cue overexposed flashbacks of ooga-booga tribesmen.) Two years ago, Paul Schrader’s uneven but compelling Exorcist prequel used the trappings of a genre film to explore complex questions of belief (or lack thereof) in a seemingly godless world. For The Reaping director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Ghost and the Darkness) and producer Joel Silver, post-Katrina Louisiana and war-torn Africa are little more than special effects generated by life instead of CGI wizards, and the only real curse is on anyone unlucky enough to buy a ticket. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)


SACCO AND VANZETTI When I was in college in the late 1960s, it was taken as axiomatic in radical circles that Boston anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were innocent as charged of taking part in a 1920 murder-robbery: I can still sing bits of Joan Baez’s song about the pair. Now there is inconclusive but reasonable doubt, based on a letter that turned up in 2005 from Upton Sinclair, who had heard their disgruntled first lawyer say they were guilty. You’d think this nugget might show up in a new documentary about the case, but Peter Miller, known for his 2001 film about that other beloved song of the left, “The Internationale,” has recast the story into a tale of prejudice against Italian immigrants and the violation of civil rights, as spelled out by Howard Zinn and a raft of other historians with tears in their eyes. Fair enough, as far as it goes: The pair were executed in 1927 without proper trial or adequate proof of their guilt. But Miller’s exhaustive use of archival footage (remarkable enough by itself to make the film worth seeing) to sketch the political climate surrounding workers’ protests at that time completely overwhelms the all too casually dropped but critical observation that Sacco and Vanzetti were known to hang out with letter-bombers, and may have been among them. Which rather takes the martyr’s halo off the two men’s poetically sensitive letters from prison, as solemnly voiced by Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro. (Music Hall; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)


GO THE TV SET Writer-director Jake Kasdan and executive producer Judd Apatow — both veterans of the brilliant but canceled NBC series Freaks and Geeks — know a thing or two about the Sisyphean struggles of doing quality, personal work in the network-television meat market. Their cautionary tale of an Apatow-like writer-producer (David Duchovny) as he runs the humiliating gauntlet known as pilot season won’t exactly surprise anyone familiar with Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture or those myriad other insider portraits of bastardized artistic genius. But Kasdan doesn’t just set out to bite the hand that feeds him. At its best, The TV Set is wry and even laugh-out-loud funny about the messy tangle of art, commerce and family, as talented creative types try to stay true to themselves and put food on the table. The movie is also a treasure-trove of inspired comic personalities, including Justine Bateman (luminous as Duchovny’s very pregnant wife), Sigourney Weaver (as the network president who swallows her prey whole) and relative newcomer Fran Kranz (as the talented but insecure young actor who quickly learns that, in TV, less is rarely more). Whether audiences will want to see this instead of curling up on the sofa with the latest episode of Slut Wars is anybody’s guess. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)


WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN Shot like those old Bruce Weber homoerotic prepubescent ads for Calvin Klein and scored with wind chimes, raindrops and grunts, Cam Archer’s feature about a 13-year-old boy with a crush on a high school wrestler is willfully inscrutable. Only a few words are spoken throughout, and it takes a good 17 minutes before you even learn the name of the lead character, Logan (Malcolm Stumpf, a prettier Wiley Wiggins), which keeps him more an abstraction than someone about whom you can care. An exercise in the artsy and fartsy, Wild Tigers owes as much to Jonathan Caouette’s skittering, self-reflexive doc Tarnation as it does to the early movies of exec producer Gus Van Sant. On the one hand, you want to applaud Archer for making a movie that asks you to feel more than follow; his film is less story than mood music — a sad song about a troubled, needy outsider trying to find his way (which is to say, into the pants of hunky Rodeo, played by Patrick White with all the passion of a model staring into a hand mirror). The best scenes are those between Logan and his pal Joey, an outer-space-obsessed nerdling who makes lists of ways to be cool (“Mohawk, designer shades, subscribe to Vice”) that are genuine, funny and sad. But the film is distancing and off-putting, more a feat of look-at-me-ma derring-do than something resonant, meaningful and just the slightest bit moving. (Sunset 5) (Robert Wilonsky)

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