GO AFGHAN STAR
If you think it’s impossible to underestimate the cultural significance of American Idol, go see British filmmaker Havana Marking’s documentary about its Afghani imitator, a smash-hit television show whose musical wannabes run the gamut of Afghanistan’s bruising ethnic divisions. The even more socially and geographically heterogeneous audience votes for the winner by cell phone, which holds out the promise of democracy so long denied the Afghanis by the Taliban. Marking follows the finalists on the last leg of their PR campaigns and captures something sweetly goofy, with an edge of creepy, about their aping of smarmy American self-promotion (kissing babies, etc). It gets a lot creepier as we discover the dangers facing the two female finalists, one of whom has the nerve to wear makeup, let her head scarf slip a little, and venture a timid dance step onstage. The really depressing news is that the vehement knee-jerk opposition to the women’s participation comes not just from the Taliban and the mullahs but also from the young men in jeans and T-shirts, who say they seek a more enlightened world, and who watch the women’s performances all the way through with contempt — and furtive lust — in their eyes. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)
American Cowslip fancies itself a satire on the fallout of the failed American dream, but that’s nothing compared to the failures of idea-starved indie filmmakers. Crippled by agoraphobia, poverty and drug addiction, 30-year-old Ethan (co-writer Ronnie Gene Blevins) faces eviction from his childhood home unless he can win a cash prize in the local Garden of the Year competition. Director Mark David (who also served as cinematographer, co-editor and co-writer, among other duties) sets American Cowslip in an arid California Podunk, which inevitably means that everyone Ethan knows is a quirky idiot, including his Bible-quoting sheriff brother, a middle-aged loon who thinks she’s Barbra Streisand, and a mentally challenged neighbor obsessed with a Rubik’s Cube. Rather than funny ha-ha, this is all meant to be funny sad, but American Cowslip’s clunky pacing, chintzy aesthetics and aggressively juvenile tone vaporize any possible sympathy for the characters. Blevins portrays Ethan as a spoiled, deceitful little maggot whose sad backstory is meant to partly absolve his behavior, but neither he nor David has conceived of their antihero beyond being some tortured metaphor for all the losers forgotten by mainstream society. As for the supporting cast that features Diane Ladd, Rip Torn, Cloris Leachman and Val Kilmer, it’s rare (and unpleasant) to see so many seasoned actors sucking up the stale air of an awkwardly unfunny comedy already gasping for breath. (Fairfax) (Tim Grierson)
THE ANSWER MAN
In his quiet way, Jeff Daniels can coax to vivid life the most cardboard type—which is just as well, given that the rich but reclusive spiritual writer he plays in John Hindman’s pedestrian romantic comedy is not so bad, he’s just drawn that way. Daniels’s Arlen Faber is an acerbic loner whose glib pronouncements have made him a conveniently distant guru to the lonely and disaffected. His smug misanthropy is disrupted when a lovely chiropractor and single mom (Gilmore Girls’ excellent Lauren Graham) and a hapless young drunk (Lou Taylor Pucci) enter his life and—blah, blah—bring home to him the power of mutual rescue. Writer-director Hindman is a stand-up comedian with many Turgenev-size issues on his mind—inadequate fathers and troubled sons, overprotective mothers, the search for belief—whose weight this slight picture can hardly bear. But the laid-back charm of Daniels and Graham’s bumpy courtship gives the movie a much-needed edge of idiosyncrasy. The lovely and talented Kat Dennings (Charlie Bartlett, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno) go completely to waste in kooky-sidekick roles. (E.T.)
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“Yo, Rickie, what word starts with ‘F’ and ends with ‘uck’? Firetruck.” That’s the first line from Deadgirl, which has more fantastically blunt, clunky and downright laughable teen-sex dialogue per minute than anything this side of Larry Clark. Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s film follows J.T. (Noah Segan) and Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) on the day they decide to skip school to pound some beers and break some windows in the local abandoned asylum — where they find a zombie girl leftover (Jenny Spain) strapped down to the table. J.T.’s all about repeated rape and getting his rocks off, but Rickie is sensitive because he wears Converse, so he’s not down. There’s actually something going on in Deadgirl; the initial “teen male sexual libido” automatically equals “sexual violence” formulation goes in a slightly different, more intriguing direction in its last 20 minutes. So if you’re someone who finds that a semi-decent subtext redeems even the shittiest horror film, go to it. Be prepared, however, to hear dialogue like, “She’s our fucking sex slut!” regularly, until everyone is dead or it’s time for a Radiohead-scored montage. No, really. (Nuart)(Vadim Rizov)
This film wasn't screened in advance of our print deadline, but a review will appear here soon.
GO IN THE LOOP
This deliriously foul-mouthed political satire is set sometime between 2002 and the day after tomorrow; hard to say, given that the country with which U.S. and U.K. pols want to go to war is unnamed save for its location in, you know, the Middle East. The prime minister and president, likewise, go unnamed. But several of the British wonks and wankers at the dark heart of this rambunctious catastrophuk first appeared in writer-director Armando Iannucci’s BBC series The Thick of It, which debuted in the thick of Tony Blair’s reign as PM. So Iraq it is — satire from a safe distance. Which doesn’t diminish the impact or dull the point. Doc or mock, the response is the same: You are laughing at idiocy, whether it’s coming from a peace-loving, warmongering general played by Colin Powell or James Gandolfini. All In the Loop is missing is a sieg-heiling Peter Sellers in a wheelchair and James Carville in the war room. Zooming back and forth between London and D.C., In the Loop hasn’t any real plot — it plays like a rather brilliant Brit-com stretched over 100 minutes, a collection of anecdotes and incidents. The final scene, played beneath the closing credits, suggests that what seems like a monumental, world-altering decision to most is merely tedious paper-pushing to these pricks. All done during the course of business hours. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7) (Robert Wilonsky)
GO YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG
Did you know that goy god Steve McQueen got an early walk-on on a Jewish television sitcom? That’s just one of the tasty tidbits in Aviva Kempner’s celebratory but clear-eyed portrait of Gertrude Berg, the creator, writer and star of The Goldbergs, which, against the odds, grew into a huge hit on radio and television, from the stock market crash through the 1950s. Berg was a complicated, labile woman, whose own mother never recovered from the early death of Berg’s brother. Onscreen, she radiated a bosomy maternal warmth that brought to this unmistakably Jewish show — about the everyday joys and sorrows of a modernizing family — a universal-immigrant appeal and badly needed optimism during the Depression. Kempner, who also made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, blends footage from the show and Jewish New York with commentary from early fans, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Norman Lear, to show Berg as a canny, driven creature of her time. She knew how to adapt, but she also possessed grace under anti-Communist pressure. When the HUAC pushed the network to remove Berg’s co-star Philip Loeb, she resisted until resistance became futile. Which didn’t prevent Loeb from killing himself but saved the series until suburbanization killed off working-class comedy, and Lucille Ball — another kind of mother altogether — stepped into the breach. (Sunset 5; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)