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Film Reviews: War, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Closing Escrow, The Last Legion

BLOOD AND TEARS: THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT Unless you’ve thrown up your hands and butted out of all news of the Middle East debacle, nothing in this methodical, unimaginative documentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict will surprise, edify or, God forbid, outrage you. In fact, I’m not sure what Blood and Tears is doing in theaters at all, let alone released by the innovative distributor THINKfilm. TV newsmagazine honcho Isidore Rosmarin decks out his 73-minute potted history of embattled neighbors with strikingly similar national aspirations and sense of victimhood in slick 60 Minutes garb, complete with rolling explanatory intertitles, familiar newsreel footage of rock-throwing teenagers and intransigent settlers, the usual prominent talking heads (Shimon Peres, Saeb Erekat, Alan Dershowitz) from “both sides,” and a chipper regional disco-pop score (by Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother Erran) that manages to come off both bland and bizarre. There’s no doubting Rosmarin’s passion for his subject or his admirable commitment to the moderate voice. But Blood and Tears fails to transcend the usual buzzwords about the “rise of extremism” and “the clash of civilizations.” The most striking articulation of the stalemated mess that is Arab-Israeli relations is left to Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, who, in palpable sorrow and anger, refers to both Palestinian suicide bombing and Israeli use of Apache helicopters for targeted assassination as war crimes. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)


CLOSING ESCROW One of the pleasures of home hunting is not knowing what you might see once you walk through the front door of an open house. With Closing Escrow, a mockumentary about three couples’ search for their dream dwelling, the biggest problem is that within minutes you know precisely what you’re in for — and it’s an eyesore. Written, directed and edited by Armen Kaprelian and Kent Llewellyn, the film follows an upwardly mobile African-American pair (Cedric Yarbrough and April Barnett), a tight-knit Jewish couple (Rob Brownstein and Colleen Crabtree) and a vaguely loopy twosome (Andrew Friedman and Patty Wortham) as their respective realtors drag them across Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl. Kaprelian previously worked as a producer on House Hunters, the popular HGTV program that features real-life couples choosing between three potential new homes, and Closing Escrow mimics the network’s interior-porn shots that linger quiveringly over every spectacular fireplace and built-in bookcase, although, noticeably, the film never bothers to satirize these shots’ gaudy materialistic reverence. Our unhealthy fascination with real estate is ripe material for a biting commentary on Americans’ zest to both reinvent ourselves and measure up with our peers, but Closing Escrow can’t even execute the bare-bones requirements of mediocre mockumentaries as its unbelievably quirky characters’ not-funny behavior is punctuated with awkward silences and El Lay clichés. There are occasionally mildly trenchant observations made about social status and racism, but overall this fixer-upper has very little curb appeal. (Fairfax) (Tim Grierson)


DEDICATION Inland Empire’s Justin Theroux pops his directorial cherry with this obnoxious Sundance throwaway, a by-the-numbers romantic comedy that mistakenly believes it’s either too quirky or too irreverent to be a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Billy Crudup is Henry, an obsessive-compulsive, misanthropic writer of children’s stories who can only forestall his oppressive anxieties by piling heavy books on his chest. (How quirky!) When Henry’s illustrating partner and longtime bud (Tom Wilkinson) croaks after their porno-inspired Marty the Beaver becomes a best-seller (how irreverent!), up-and-coming illustrator Lucy (Mandy Moore) is forced upon him to finish a second Marty tale in time for Christmas. Henry hates Lucy, has no qualms about telling her so, yet after stargazing, the two play out the genre formula (i.e., boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, roll credits). Theroux hasn’t quite developed a style beyond going buck wild with flash cuts and musical interludes. The real villain, however, is screenwriter David Bromberg, whose choice to bring Wilkinson back as Crudup’s conscience is almost as cringe-worthy as our antihero’s speech to Lucy about his neuroses; when Henry says he can’t throw away a towel because he’s afraid it might have feelings, even Miranda July would want to throttle him. (Sunset 5; The Landmark) (Aaron Hillis)


PICK DEEP WATER See film feature


THE HOTTEST STATE After the deathly dull, faux-hipster muddle that was Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, Chelsea Walls, expectations weren’t exactly high for the scruffy, pretentious, boho actor’s adaptation of his own 1997 novel — about a scruffy, pretentious, boho actor and too-intense Romeo named William (Mark Webber). But in chronicling the manic euphoria of this 20-year-old’s first love and, subsequently, the neurotic despair of his first breakup with aspiring singer-songwriter Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Hawke quite capably taps into the bittersweet complexities of young, love-struck idiocy (otherwise known as the agonizing path that leads to the romantic realization that boys are dumb, girls are insane, sex isn’t everything, and self-destructive obsession is tough to kick). The two meet in a Williamsburg bar, become inseparable even after she clamps her chastity belt shut, and finally consummate in a sticky, weeklong Mexican tryst. After an acting gig keeps him away for a month, Sara passively decides that she’s not into boyfriends, and William reacts accordingly: He stalks her. It’s achingly sincere, which isn’t to say that Hawke’s Tennessee Williams–quoting, overwrought script isn’t as purple as Prince’s rain and littered with dramatic shortcuts (both lovers have daddy issues). Give the guy some credit, though: When you hit rock bottom with your first feature, the only way to go is up. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)


ILLEGAL TENDER An overly serious drama/colossal hoot from the director of the dope-peddlin’ Empire (Franc. Reyes — and, yes, the period’s on purpose), this exploitation pic is straight outta 1975. “You want some of this, motherfuckers!” shouts Wanda De Jesus as the pistol-packin’ mama trying to keep her two sons safe from the smalltime Puerto Rican drug lord whose minions arrive on her suburban Connecticut doorstep to reclaim a 20-year-old debt. Staged with a straight face as a story about a son (Rick Gonzalez, better known as Old School’s Spanish) paying for the sins of his dead drug-dealing dad (Manny Perez), Illegal Tender is producer John Singleton’s attempt to remake the blaxploitation film in Caribbean shades. Only the fun comes too late; before De Jesus storms out of the house with her guns blazing, the movie’s a little too somber, as if it were worried about showing its hand too soon. By the time we get to the scene in which a mother opens a safe full of pistols and tells her little boy to grab one — only to be followed by a scene in which the innocent-bystander girlfriend wields two kitchen knives beneath a basement staircase — we’re too bored to have fun. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


IN A DAY Writer-director Evan Richards’ British film In a Day is a cinematic hybrid of that star-making Hollywood cash cow Pretty Woman and the subgenre of romantic comedies that could be labeled Brit chick flicks (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones). When struggling musician Ashley (Lorraine Pilkington) suffers a minor assault after turning down the proposition of a stranger in the street, Michael (Finlay Robertson), a frequent customer of the sandwich shop where she works, turns up and sets about turning a shitty day into a money-driven magical one. A shopping spree (complete with montage), fancy meals and a makeover in a trendy salon are all on the menu. But this latter-day Prince Charming has a (not-hard-to-figure-out) secret up his sleeve, and its revelation threatens to sabotage his best-laid plans. In a Day isn’t particularly ambitious, largely content to retread familiar territory that it further defangs: Ashley gets all the Cinderella perks that Julia Roberts’ streetwalker received, but without Ashley’s actually being a whore; the secondary characters that usually add bite to British romantic comedies are, here, brittle and annoying. And the fancy shops and restaurants feel like freshly painted sets rather than dens of opulence. But the acting is fine enough to slowly pull the viewer in, making you care just a bit how it all turns out. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)


THE LAST LEGION Set long, long ago in a distant land — the screen says “Rome, 460 A.D.,” but my guess is sometime between the soup course and the entrée at Medieval Times — this pervasively second-rate sword-and-sorcery saga is moldy Cheddar from handle to sandal. The ingredients are here for ripest Europudding: Colin Firth as a rugged Roman commander protecting the boy Emperor Romulus (Thomas Sangster); Ben Kingsley never quite surrendering his dignity as a crafty magician; Peter Mullan as a hotheaded Yosemite Sam of a Germanic conqueror, Scottish burr and all — and that’s even before the mysterious chain-mailed Byzantine swashbuckler turns out to be Aishwarya Rai, emerging from the surf in all her wet-sari glory. But even though director Doug Lefler is a Xena/Hercules veteran, and the script calls for beefy heroics as square as Bruce Campbell’s jaw, the movie has neither the light touch nor the visionary intensity that would energize the florid retro melodrama (exemplified by such sub-Senecan nuggets as “If I see you again in Rome, it will be at the point of my sword”). Worse, the action in Lefler’s clumsy action sequences is as camera shy as Bigfoot: His axes-and-elbows fights are a spilled suitcase of just-missed-it shots, taken at the precise instant something exciting escaped the frame. A.D., in this case, must stand for “ass-dragging.” (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)


GO MR. BEAN’S HOLIDAY Unlike the first, over-baked Bean feature, this sequel, directed by Brit-com veteran Steve Bendelack, doesn’t rely on refried versions of Rowan Atkinson’s occasionally interminable TV skits, but rather feels like a complete and coherent film that just happens to star a gibbering loon. When he wins a trip to Paris in a raffle, Mr. Bean initially seems to be the ultimate Ugly Englishman abroad, all cultural cluelessness and unappealing arrogance. But after his antics result in the separation of a young Russian boy (Max Baldry) from his father (Karel Roden), the dippy Bean develops a conscience and sets out to reunite the kid with his dad in Cannes, along the way invoking the likes of Jacques Tati and Pee-wee Herman. It may be a stretch to call this mugging moron sympathetic, but it’s surprising how enjoyable Mr. Bean can be when he’s actually given a hint of humanity. Bean carries a camcorder to Cannes, telegraphing the final joke a bit — but it turns out to be far better than you’d imagine, especially with Willem Dafoe cheesing things up as a pretentious auteur. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)


THE NANNY DIARIES See film feature.


RESURRECTING THE CHAMP See film feature.


PICK RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR See film feature.


SEPTEMBER DAWN One of the American indies least likely to appear at Sundance, September Dawn recounts the grim tale of the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, wherein the men, women and children on a California-bound wagon train of Missouri settlers were slaughtered by irate Mormons. Mountain Meadows’ unresolved controversies include the degree to which Joseph Smith’s successor Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) was involved in planning the atrocity. Although September Dawn suggests that Young lied under oath and let one of his commanders take the fall, it places the blame on a fictional Mormon bishop (steely Jon Voight), who claims to have been informed by a celestial Smith that the gentiles are cursed and soon has his congregation shouting for “blood atonement.” Meanwhile, as the wagon train wends its way through Mormon territory, a certain amount of fraternization transpires, at least among the young people. The bishop’s boy (Trent Ford) locks eyes with a settler girl (Tamara Hope). A pastor’s daughter, she befuddles him by quoting gentle Jesus; he’s the product of a cruel and punitive God whom he hopes to elude by tagging along to California. The schematic script is full of heavy ironies and hackneyed dialogue. And director Chris Cain’s style — let’s call it Americana gravitas — gives September Dawn the ham-fisted lyricism of political ads and pharmaceutical commercials. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)


WAR What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Offering neither the enjoyably preposterous auto-heroics of the Transporter movies nor the lithe, legible athleticism of even second-tier Hong Kong thrillers, the title-card match-up of just-below-A-list-stateside action heroes Jet Li and Jason Statham is pure straight-to-video rope-a-dope. The rip-off starts with the title: the battle, alas, is not between the stars—who have maybe three scenes together—but between rival Triad and Yakuza clans in San Francisco, set at each other’s throats Yojimbo-style by Li’s calculating assassin. Statham plays the lawman who lost his partner to the mysterious pro, which means This Time It’s Personal; to show his anguish, he chews a toothpick and keeps his stubble at regulation height for grieving. The stars don’t face off until the finish, and given director Philip G. Atwell’s overall ineptitude—attention-deficit editing, indifference to acting, lighting that seems to have been purchased cut-rate from a morgue—the big fight is less a Thrilla in Manila than Disarray by the Bay, capped by a wan double-twist that ends exactly where The Departed started. Is this lemon the only joint star vehicle Li and Statham could find? In the immortal words of Edwin Starr: good God, y’all. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)


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