AMERICAN VIOLET A docudrama with a good heart but a heavy hand, American Violet isn’t shrinking. Changing the real names of the people and town involved, the third film by Tim Disney (Walt’s grand-nephew) recounts the true story of Dee (Nicole Beharie), a young African-American single mother of four living in a Texas housing project, who is erroneously swept up in a drug raid. Her mom (Alfre Woodard) begs her to plead guilty to avoid prison, but Dee is convinced by a Yankee ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) and a local attorney (Will Patton, wearing the worst toupee ever) to sue the bigoted D.A. (Michael O’Keefe). Mostly solid performances (the great Anthony Mackie shows up, uncredited, as a mentally ill informant), and admirable attention to detail about legal proceedings forcefully convey Disney and writer/producer Bill Haney’s outrage over this nation’s virulently racist “war” on drugs, though perhaps “The truth shall set you free” need not have been said so frequently. And while it’s unclear whether a subplot involving one of Dee’s exes (Xzibit) and his child-molester girlfriend is also fact-based or lifted from the Tyler Perry School of Melodrama, there’s no arguing that the truth is always stranger — if not more shamefully appalling — than fiction. (The Bridge; AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5; Pacific Beach Cities All Stadium 16) (Melissa Anderson)
GO BALLERINA Manuel Legris, a French dancer interviewed in Ballerina, Bertrand Norman’s involving study of the Russian ballet, insists that a Russian ballerina is easy to spot in a crush of tutus and fluttering hands. Beyond the severity of their posture and discipline, there, even in the youngest dancers, a maturity that takes those of other nationalities years to develop. The women profiled here — ranging from a star student at St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Ballet Academy to several members of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) at various stages of their careers — support that claim and its mysterious implications. In one of the strangest sequences, Norman gains access to the auditions that will either set a young girl on the course to a life in leg warmers or send her back to the drawing board: A roomful of topless 10-year-old girls leap and pointe for their lives, then each one is flexed and patted down, like a thoroughbred colt, before an affectless panel. It’s almost impossible to tell their identical thin, cold limbs and tiny heads apart. Yet watching these women perform is a striking lesson in ballet’s rigorous aesthetic alchemy — and the extreme, exquisite individualism that prevails. (Music Hall) (Michelle Orange)
THE BUTTERFLY TATTOO On their first date, sensitive Chris (Duncan Stuart) and spitfire Jenny (Jessica Blake) display such obvious chemistry that you hope these Oxford teens have a bright future together. Based on fantasy author Philip Pullman’s young-adult novel, director Phil Hawkins’ drama starts off promisingly as a chronicling of their courtship — Stuart and Blake give sweetly unaffected performances, and writer Stephen Potts’ screenplay nicely captures the lust and sweaty-palm anxiety of young love. But as The Butterfly Tattoo’s references to Romeo and Juliet make clear, star-crossed tragedy awaits the characters. Disappointingly, this well-observed coming-of-age romance soon morphs into an unconvincing crime flick, which convolutedly conspires to keep Chris and Jenny away from each other long enough for the plot’s Bard-inspired misunderstandings and missed connections to lead to the predetermined unhappy ending. The compounded coincidences and twists prove increasingly irritating, although it is extraordinary to see all the different excuses the filmmakers concoct to prevent the lovers from simply using their cell phones to call each other and avert disaster. Romeo and Juliet may have dealt with the cruelty of fate, but The Butterfly Tattoo presents its own brand of tragedy — emotional manipulation grasping at Shakespearean grandeur. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)
CHASING THE GREEN Arriving in the midst of a global economic meltdown, this “based on a true story” tale of rags-to-riches wealth, personal and professional collapse, and corporations using the government as a tool of unfair competition should be a lot more satisfying than it is. But director Russ Emanuel, working from a surface-deep script by Craig Frankel, has crafted a film that’s too trite to spark thought or catharsis. Deeply sensitive Adam (Jeremy London) and his boorish brother Ross (Ryan Hurst) launch a cell-phone business in the early ’90s, then seek greater wealth by being among the first entrepreneurs to market electronic terminals for credit-card transactions. All goes swimmingly until the brothers ignore letters of inquiry from Uncle Sam (acting at the behest of the competition) about their business practices. Nothing really works here: The lead actors are too old for their parts (former TV heartthrob London is visibly uncomfortable), while the movie’s tone teeters uneasily between comedic and dramatic. The script is a psychologically shallow rendering of polar-opposite siblings working through daddy issues, while the workplace dynamics seem drawn more from other films than actual workplaces — including a cringe-inducing, generic rock–scored montage of inept women applying for sales jobs. Your average newscast these days far outstrips Chasing the Green for high-stakes drama and corporate intrigue. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ernest Hardy)
CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE was not screened in advance of our publication deadline, but a review will appear here next week. (Citywide)
GO DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION It serves you best to not know a damn thing about Akira Toriyama’s much-beloved Dragonball manga (or the TV series and video games it spawned); better to enjoy director James Wong’s loony live-action adaptation for the exquisite-corpse exercise that it is — its rules reinvented and subplots obfuscated with each new set piece. Under the wing of producer Stephen Chow — good-natured king of CGI-laden, martial-arts comedy — Evolution is far more entertaining than it deserves to be, unless you’re a 10-year-old boy, in which case it’s only the greatest movie ever made. Two thousand years after nearly destroying Earth, green-skinned demon Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) escapes captivity to hunt down seven of the titular orbs, except he never counted on facing high school hero Goku (Justin Chatwin), a bedheaded, wire-fu trainee who geekily pines for ass-kicking classmate Chi Chi (Jamie Chung). Arbitrarily aided by fellow dragonball seekers, including his grandfather’s mentor (Chow Yun-Fat, the only actor dedicated enough to play his role as if still animated), Goku defeats school bullies without touching them, learns to toss blue fireballs, shows up at a fighting tournament, makes stepping stones over lava out of dead goo monsters, becomes a werewolf, resurrects a friend and finds true love. As a cartoonish coming-of-ager, this one goes, well, balls out. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
ENLIGHTEN UP! A number of tensions are at play in Kate Churchill’s Enlighten Up!, a documentary about the proliferation of yoga as both spiritual path and commercial workout culture, and the vigor with which the believers try to convert the skeptics. What’s frustrating about this otherwise friendly, lightweight look at the diverse world of yoga practitioners — which welcomes the earnest and the fatuous, the hippie and the hypocrite, with equally open, rippling arms — is that its director winds up focusing on the least interesting/most predictable tension of them all, that which arises between herself and her handpicked, inflexible star. Churchill, a lithe, centered believer, recruits Nick Rosen, a bland, atheistic young journalist, to help her prove the dubious but documentary-ready premise that yoga can “transform” anyone. Churchill creates a yoga tasting menu for Nick, guiding him through various schools and varying degrees of kook-dom, and touching (too lightly) on one of the phenomenon’s ironies: enlightenment for sale. The duo travels to India and, after several months, in a further American, results-oriented irony, Churchill grows impatient for her subject’s big breakthrough. When a modest version of that breakthrough arrives, you have the feeling the director wants to tell her Godless charge not to choke on it. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Michelle Orange)
GO EVERY LITTLE STEP In 1974, 18 years before MTV first assembled a group of comically mismatched 20-somethings and videotaped them being real, choreographer Michael Bennett gathered 22 Broadway dancers late one night, set a tape recorder running, and asked them to talk about their lives. They did, sharing moving tales of their career struggles, troubled childhoods and sexual awakenings. Those stories, shaped by Bennett and his collaborators, became A Chorus Line, which opened at the Public Theater the next year, was soon transferred to Broadway, and ran there for a then-unprecedented 15 years. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s documentary Every Little Step juxtaposes the casting process for the 2006 revival, with the affecting story of A Chorus Line’s creation. Following several performers as they audition for the revival, the doc’s approach is designed, one presumes, to attract — in the era of reality entertainment — a wider audience. But while that goal meshes nicely with the arc of the musical itself — about dancers going through a grueling interview process to earn a spot on the line — we never learn enough about the individual subjects to care about their stories. For Chorus Line fans, though, the documentary — executive-produced, it’s worth noting, by theatrical superlawyer John Breglio, who also produced the revival and controls Bennett’s estate — is a singular sensation, filled with behind-the-scenes backstory and archival clips of Bennett himself dancing, gorgeously. Then there are those original interview tapes, kept under lock and key for 35 years, with the dancers speaking the words that, up until now, you’ve only known as lyrics. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Jesse Oxfeld)
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IS ANYBODY THERE? Director John Crowley’s lighter follow-up to the anguished Boy A features a standard teaming of reluctant oldster and troubled youngster — both residents of a down-at-heels family-run rest home. Besides the blokeish star playing retired magician Clarence (Michael Caine, who could twinkly-tearily confide with bobbing accent in his sleep), one charming difference is that the ornery kid (Bill Milner) gets as tetchy and self-pitying as his curmudgeonly pal. Milner was the Calvin-and-Hobbesian fantasist in Son of Rambow, and he again displays a headlong sense of enterprise as the mouthy junior-ghost-hunter son of the home’s overworked owners (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey). (The requisite gallery of eccentric pensioners, played by British TV and stage vets, are like furniture to him.) TV writer Peter Harness’ script finds a good, macabre turning point for “The Amazing” Clarence’s precipitous decline into senility, but even Crowley, who seems to have a knack for overloaded material, can’t quite bring the thing in for a safe landing in all the slush. Action is set in the ’80s, allowing for an insta-fade palette — and also apparently so that the young hero can still be bored. (ArcLight Hollywood; AMC Century City) (Nicolas Rapold)
GIGANTIC I don’t remember ever wanting to just haul out and punch a movie before Gigantic. Interrupting every scene with a proud little fart of idiosyncrasy, Matt Aselton’s auteur debut provides another limpsy indie comedy for the heap. The screenplay’s per-page quota of “unexpected” tweaks leaves little room for much else. There Will Be Blood’s overgrown Child of the Corn, Paul Dano, plays Brian: 28 years old, timid, single, a mattress salesman, on the waiting list to adopt a Chinese baby — an apparently unexamined boyhood dream. Feeb Brian meets another homeschool-eccentric rich kid, one “Happy,” played by pellucid-eyed hipster desktop-pinup and chanteuse of naptime adult contemporary, Zooey Deschanel. Happy looks good in a shortie kimono and heels, and initiates intimacy with an abrupt “Do you have any interest in having sex with me?” — behavior probably learned from John Goodman’s voluminously inappropriate patriarch. Context clues suggest that the viewer is supposed to care if these nutty kids stay together. In my mind’s eye’s re-edit, the movie ends with a circa-1973 Joe Don Baker unexpectedly rolling into town and stomping the entire dramatis personae into jelly, but in actual fact, it wraps up with some blogrock and the “Hey, maybe there’s no such thing as ‘normal,’ and we’re all just screwed up and searching, y’know?” revelation. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)
LYMELIFE There’s nothing new under the suburban sun (save for infectious ticks) in Derick Martini’s Lymelife, whose weighty allegorical title and fastidious 1970s accoutrements aim to do for beer-and-pretzels Long Island what Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm did for tony, key-party Connecticut. Dad (Alec Baldwin) is schtupping the secretary (Cynthia Nixon); mom (Jill Hennessy) pretends not to notice; eldest son Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) is about to ship out to the Falklands War (the movie’s handy Vietnam/Iraq surrogate); and 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin) feels his first pangs of lustful desire in the direction of the neighbor girl (Emma Roberts), whose father (Timothy Hutton) is suffering from the debilitating effects of Lyme disease. Adding insult to irony, Baldwin is a real estate developer, peddling picture-postcard views of the American dream while watching his own slowly implode, just as Hennessy discovers that all the bug spray and duct-taped pant legs in the world can’t ward off the bite of disillusionment and self-deception. Hutton, meanwhile — a bedraggled figure in pajamas and ever-present hunting rifle (at one point, he communes with a deer, à la Helen Mirren in The Queen) — seems to be transformed by illness into a truth-telling seer. Given how steeped it is in symbolic portent, Lymelife proves surprisingly watchable from moment to moment, thanks to the uniformly fine playing (particularly of the Culkin frères), evocative production design (by Kelly McGehee) and handsome widescreen photography (by Frank Godwin). If only its substantial craft and atmosphere were matched by an equally compelling reason for being. (The Landmark; Sunset 5; ArcLight Sherman Oaks; Playhouse 7; Fallbrook 7) (Scott Foundas)
SLEEP DEALER Science fiction easily lends itself to allegory, but while the dystopian near-future of co-writer/director Alex Rivera’s feature debut focuses, admirably, on how globalization affects the Third World, his ideas are as subtle as a light saber to the face. From a tiny Oaxacan village whose water supply is owned by a greedy multinational corp, amateur hacker Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) leaves his peasant family to make a better living in Tijuana, now a thriving metropolis. How? Well, since the U.S. has sealed itself off entirely from Mexico, south-of-the-border sweatshop workers with surgically implanted nodes jack into El Matrix and remotely control robots in America. Side plot: Unbeknownst to Memo, his new hottie journo friend (Leonor Varela) is preselling her downloadable memories to content buyers online, which, if you remove the eXistenZ bio-port nonsense, may be the single most prescient concept herein. Considering a Spanish-language film of this kind would never get a studio budget, its resourceful special effects actually aid the narrative. But from the imperialist villains and their humanitarian abuses to the laborers dying on their feet, what’s so clever about tricking out this worn-out tale of woe into a genre flick? (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7; AMC Burbank Town Center 8; Mann Plant 16; Pacific Glendale 18) (Aaron Hillis)mate in Japanese terms; “Merde,” the first Carax film of the 21st century, is a more confrontational riff on the most celebrated of Japanese monsters. Dubbed the “Creature From the Sewer” by deadpan newsreaders who link him to al-Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and Siberian witchcraft, this chaotic eruption is shown to embody Japan’s historical repressed as well as Europe’s guilty conscience. As much a form of performance art as a movie, “Merde” offers the funniest urban rampage since Bong’s The Host. A love story (possibly involving a robot), it’s the anthology’s least flashy filmmaking, but the truest to its location—lugubrious, a bit sentimental, and hopeful that Japan will again emerge from its shell. (J.H.)