Movie Reviews: An American Carol, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Flash of Genius


ALLAH MADE ME FUNNY For the three Muslim-American standup comics showcased in Andrea Kalin’s concert film Allah Made Me Funny, terror is something more than stage fright. Mohammed “Mo” Amer and Azhar Usman make fun of themselves — their wife and mother jokes are universal; much of their ethnic shtick could be Jewish or Italian — and their situation. Amer bounds onstage expressing incredulity: “This is a lot of room for a Palestinian!” The heavily bearded Usman starts immediately with bin Laden jokes. Usman is less cautious than Amer — a good vaudevillian, he rags on Jews and Catholics, as well as South Asians — but he still stops well short of any irreverence. And Allah Made Me Funny is a relative concept: It’s obvious that Amer and Usman labor under the burden of making humor at once insider-cool and outsider-friendly. And it’s hard to finesse “offensive” from a defensive crouch. The most skilled comic of the three is the nation of Islam convert Bryant “Preacher” Moss, who not only evokes Saddam Hussein but goes on to imagine him as a black man in court, arguing with the judge. “The U.S. is scared by two things,” Moss riffs. “I got the best of both worlds.” He’s completely self-referential. Perhaps self-satirizing his faith will be next.(Sunset 5) (J. Hoberman)

AN AMERICAN CAROL In this astonishingly inept alleged satire from director and co-writer David Zucker — an even more virulent, us-against-them jeremiad than Bill Maher’s Religulous — a bumbling trio of Islamic terrorists set off for America in search of a Hollywood director to help them make a recruitment video for suicide bombers. They find their white knight in slovenly Michigan-born documentary maker Michael Malone (get it?), whose credits include Die, You American Pigs and No Country for Anyone and who, in turn, finds his latent patriotic impulses stirred by visits from the ghosts of JFK, George S. Patton, and George Washington (played, I kid you not, by Jon Voight). The jokes, such as they are, come at the expense of people named “Mohammed” or “Hussein,” vegans, homosexuals and pretty much anyone who dares to question authority. In the most grotesque musical number this side of From Justin to Kelly, a chorus line of leering, pot-smoking academics conflates higher learning with liberal brainwashing, but it’s Zucker who is the real revisionist historian here: equating peace negotiations with Appeasement; likening Moore/Malone (Kevin Farley) to Leni Riefenstahl; invoking the Civil War as an argument against pacifism. There’s been one razor-sharp cultural lampoon at the movies this year — Adam Sandler’s Don’t Mess With the Zohan — although Zucker’s achievement may in fact be more remarkable. His movie’s level of political discourse makes Couric/Palin look like Frost/Nixon.  (Selected theaters) (Scott Foundas)

GO  BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA Undersized lapdogs make me grumpy even when they don’t talk, wear pink booties and shop Rodeo Drive. So I came to Beverly Hills Chihuahua with poison pen at the ready — only to be won over by the exuberant charms of Raja Gosnell’s comedy about a snobby, privileged Chihuahua named Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) and her similarly spoiled-rotten 90210 dog ­sitter (Piper Perabo). The twosome grow some backbone when they get lost in the bowels of Baja, where the pooch must be rescued from the clutches of Mexican dogfight wranglers. If the studios are finally going to make their mark on Latino audiences, they could do a lot worse than this wicked satire on Beverly Hills pet excess, with its sharp script, a fun performance by Jamie Lee Curtis as Chloe’s overindulgent owner, and a mostly Spanish-speaking cast that includes Andy Garcia as a clapped-out police dog, Cheech Marin as a cunning rat who’s after Chloe’s Harry Winston collar, and George Lopez as a Chihuahua from the wrong side of the tracks who loves Chloe. This being Disney, wholesome character-building messages abound, but for once they’re freshly spun as cautions against stereotyping both ethnic and canine. And if, having seen Beverly Hills Chihuahua, your children grow up without the desire to turn their pets into idiot fashion accessories or extensions of their own shopaholic fantasies, so much the better. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)


GO  BLINDNESS The most recent example of bleak chic, Fernando Meirelles’ mostly harrowing adaptation of José Saramago’s international bestseller, Blindness, is unflinch­ing at best and treacly at worst. Set in a gray and metallic modern metropolis (actually São Paolo, mixed in with Montevideo and Toronto), the film, like the novel, opens with a man (Yusuke Iseya) in a car stopped at a traffic light who suddenly loses his vision. Another man (actor-screenwriter Don McKellar), who drives him home and later steals his car, also falls prey to the mysterious “white blindness,” as does the first victim’s doctor (Mark Ruffalo). Soon, the entire human population finds itself engulfed in a milky sightlessness save, inexplicably, one: the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore). Meirelles, working with his Brazilian cinematographer, César Charlone, establishes the plague’s outbreak with visual flair, evoking the experience of the ivory blindness through blurry and brightly overexposed frames. Like Saramago, Meirelles doesn’t much care about the medical or psychological specifics of blindness, nor is he interested in the fate of any one human but rather humanity as a whole. (There’s obviously a grand metaphor here — people are “blind” — but it’s pretty simplistic.) Panned in Cannes, Blindness has since lost a reportedly ponderous voice-over spoken by Danny Glover, who appears as a sagely old man with a none-too-subtle eye-patch — undoubtedly a wise move. The movie is strongest when it’s not trying to say anything but instead conveying the sheer desperation of its characters. Blindness pulls the viewer into its nightmarish vision and dares us to watch how humankind — at the level of both governments and individuals — fails to cope in times of chaos. And considering the current headlines, maybe that’s insightful enough. (Citywide) (Anthony Kaufman)



GO  BOOGIE MAN: THE LEE ATWATER STORY Just about everyone interviewed for Stefan Forbes’ fascinating documentary about Lee Atwater — whether Democrat or Republican pols, African-American bluesmen or hardened reporters — ends anecdotes about the Republican strategist’s dirty tricks with a titter that’s either nervous or ambivalently appreciative. Politically speaking, it may be enough to know that Atwater, who shamelessly drove race into the 1988 presidential campaign to destroy Michael Dukakis and win the election for George Bush Sr., was a disciple of Strom Thurmond, got along like a house on fire with Bush Jr., and taught Karl Rove most of what he knows about exploiting media. But Forbes adroitly fills out his picture of this “marsupial” little man with “the eyes of a killer” through the testimony of those who admired and/or loathed Atwater. Less persuasive is Forbes’ perfunctory, psychologically thin rummage through Atwater’s childhood for a traumatic event that would explain his utter ruthlessness. He finds one, but it’s much less interesting than the question of whether the blues-playing Southerner was a racist or merely a cynic, or the film’s revelations about the ambiguities of Atwater’s highly publicized remorse, with hand on Bible, as he lay dying (and largely ignored by the dynasty he had served so assiduously) of brain cancer. (Sunset 5) (Ella Taylor)

FIREPROOF When Capt. Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron) decides to divorce his Sarah Palin–type wife, his bros at the firehouse come to his rescue with words of wisdom swiped from the annals of Hallmark: “You never leave your partner, especially during a fire.” With advice like this, it’s no wonder Caleb turns to Jesus. Naturally, director Alex Kendrick’s style suggests a pharmaceutical commercial — especially during scenes of Caleb and his father plodding through the woods toward a creepily and strategically placed cross — because what is Fireproof selling if not a drug? But before it even mentions God, the film works sweetly as a chronicle of a man trying to extend the courage he shows on the job to his marriage by following a 40-day experiment called “The Love Dare,” which necessitates being kind to Catherine (Erin Bethea) and, ultimately, unkind to himself — by giving up his dream of owning a boat and beating the shit out of his computer for teasing him with a pornographic pop-up ad. Then the film gets all religulous, suggesting that Caleb’s devotion to healing means nothing without Jesus, and so Fireproof stops becoming relatable to us all and only to the already, or easily, indoctrinated. (Selected theaters) (Ed Gonzalez)

FLASH OF GENIUS The big-screen version of inventor Robert Kearns’ legal battles with Ford and Chrysler — both of whom nicked his intermittent windshield wiper without giving him credit, much less paying a cent — is about as exciting as Kearns’ Wikipedia entry. Greg Kinnear, usually kinetic, is unusually (and unbearably) dull in producer turned director Marc Abraham’s telling of Kearns’ years-long fight to regain his good name, even as Ford finally offers millions to get him to scram. Is Kearns mad or just angry? Hard to say, as the filmmaker and actor can’t get a handle on a man obsessed with windshield wipers and the attendant credit that’s rightfully his. The movie’s so even-keeled that the cast — including Lauren Graham as the tolerant wife who suddenly snaps and then just vanishes altogether — seems to be getting sleepy, sleepy, sleepy as it winds its way toward a courtroom showdown that’s more slowdown. You know how it’ll all end — Hollywood doesn’t make movies in which Goliath trounces David, especially when he’s Greg Kinnear — so all you’re left with are windshield wipers, going back and forth ... and back and forth ... and back and forth. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


THE HOUSE OF ADAM Suspecting that he’s being robbed, the owner of a small-town diner asks his married son, Anthony (John Shaw), to return from college to spy on his only employee, Adam (Jared Cadwell). Within three minutes of screen time, Anthony cuts himself in the kitchen, Adam grinningly sticks the bloody finger in his mouth, the two walk along babbling creeks together, and Adam reveals — as he has to nobody else — that he’s gay. Soon after, Anthony cops to both the embezzlement and bi-curiosity, his dying father entrusts his cabin to Adam, and — one year and a divorce later — Anthony is Adam’s lover and a police detective. Then Adam is beaten to death with a Bible by beefcake religious fanatics, enabling Anthony to move into the house — now owned by another couple — and find his beloved’s remains. Jorge Ameer’s laughably unskilled drama (acting that’s the opposite of natural, confused music cues, colors that don’t match between each hideously framed shot, production values rivaling late-night Cinemax softcore cheapies, mildly supernatural events) is so poorly written and directed that it could be a fake movie within a John Waters camp classic. How else to explain such a waste of time escaping the LBGT-festival circuit? (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE Based on Toby Young’s tome about his spectacular fuck-ups and flame-out at Vanity Fair, Robert Weide’s big-screen version is sitcom-drab. Simon Pegg plays Young, reducing the writer — in the book version, a narcissistic twat who aspired to be Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, sans the looks or talent — to nothing more than a barely functioning idiot, a cretin clad in a “Young, Dumb and Full of Come” T-shirt whose loutishness is outmatched only by his inability to function as a human being. Worse, the story’s been turned into a romantic comedy, in which Simon woos his considerably smarter though no less self-absorbed superior, Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), who’s fucking an editor (Danny Huston) who seems to be speaking in four different accents at once, none of them quite of the English variety. It plays like a made-for-CBS redo of The Devil Wears Prada, which was likewise set at a Manhattan glossy but also happened to contain some genuinely insightful observations about the perils of workplace success. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

MENTOR As aging novelist and graduate professor Sanford Pollard, Rutger Hauer shares a vocation, a shaggy gray haircut and a pair of tortoiseshell frames with the Michael Douglas character from Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys. Like Douglas’ Grady Tripp, Pollard juggles relationships with his students, carrying on a romantic liaison with the class assistant (Dagmara Dominczyk) while becoming guru to a talented young writer (Matt Davis). But whereas Douglas’s defining characteristic in Wonder Boys was his midlife fatigue, Pollard is notable for his abusive mind games and penchants for cocaine and predatory sex. You didn’t think they hired Rutger Hauer to play Mr. Chips, did you? With Hauer as cruel ringmaster, an erotic triangle develops, and eventually it feels as if director David Carl Lang has welded the plot of Indecent Proposal onto Wonder Boys’ world of bourgeois academia. All the bedroom action apparently transforms Pollard’s young protégé into a great novelist, although Davis appears no less boyish and clueless at the end of the film than he does in the beginning. Lang tells us that hanging around someone like Pollard will turn you into a great writer, but it’s hard to accept Hauer as anything other than a despicable prick. Mentor might have rung truer had it allowed Pollard to stay a monster, rather than redeeming him in a predictably heartwarming climax. (Grande 4-Plex) (Sam Sweet)

NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST Peter Sollett’s 2002 film, Raising Victor Vargas, remains among the most pointed, poignant and joyful films about teen love ever made. Everything about it felt special, from its depictions of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to its cast, then-newcomers who seemed to radiate from within as they groped and coped beneath watchful eyes. Now, Sollett can only retrace those footsteps in this far lesser movie about little more than a boy (Michael Cera, once more in the Michael Cera role), a girl (Kat Dennings) and their friends cruising the streets of NYC in search of the latest, greatest, hippest band in all the land (a band we never see or hear, incidentally, which shorts the audience of at least one promised reward for making it to the movie’s end). From its indier-than-thou soundtrack — larded with the likes of Vampire Weekend, Bishop Allen and Band of Horses — to its split-second hipster cameos (Devendra Banhart, Seth Meyers, John Cho, Kevin Corrigan), this after-hours romantic comedy plays like the exact opposite of Victor Vargas: Where that movie was organic, with every scene hitting just the right note and feeling so magically accidental, Nick & Norah is like something crafted in a lab by 54-year-old hucksters trying to sell shit to the kids under the cheerless guise of “alternative.” The only thing it’s an alternative to? Good. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)



GO  OBSCENE Barney Rosset is a tragic hero. He says so himself at the end of Obscene, stating — by way of a colleague’s parting shot — what the previous 90 minutes of Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor’s very fine documentary make unstintingly and yet wistfully clear. Beginning with Rosset’s 1989 appearance on a delightfully vulgar cable-access show and a question about how he managed to lose his publishing imprint, Grove Press, in an unexpectedly hostile buyout, Obscene then reels back some 50 years, tracing the Chicago origins of a kid who grew up to fight perhaps the preeminent publishing battle of the 20th century: censorship. Much of the film and photographic material is culled from Rosset’s stunningly replete archives, and an assortment of artists, publishers and literati appears to champion and chide the man who first brought Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch to the starving bosoms of the American public. Having sold off every acre of his prime Hamptons real estate in an attempt to keep Grove afloat through the ’60s, instead of jillionaire-hood and publishing-board eminency, the 86-year-old today settles for the modest life of a cult figure with some kick left; his lit-and-naked-ladies journal, The Evergreen Review, now exists online. (Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)

SMOTHER Noah (Dax Shepard) just got fired, faces pressure from his wife (Liv Tyler) to have a baby, and must contend with her socially inept cousin (Mike White), who wants to stay with them for a few days while he finishes his screenplay. That’s when Marilyn (Diane Keaton), Noah’s high-maintenance mother, announces she’s moving in, turning Noah’s bad day into a presumably hilarious and awful one. Directed and co-written by Vince Di Meglio, Smother aspires to an edgy style of non-sequitur humor where the situations aren’t particularly funny or original but do allow enough room for throwaway jokes and bizarre running gags. The problem with this flimsy narrative approach is that the film’s laugh quotient depends entirely on whatever the cast can bring to the tired setup. In that regard, Smother is fortunate — Shepard is dependably low-key, White goes a long way with his creepy-smile stare, and Keaton demonstrates boundless charm when she isn’t restrained by the clichés of her nagging, needy character. Still, with its mixture of high-profile talent and low-watt comic inspiration, Smother feels like the sort of misbegotten curiosity Comedy Central uses to fill its Sunday afternoon programming. And considering how quietly Smother’s distributor dumped it into theaters, expect to see it there soon. (AMC Burbank; One Colorado; Fallbrook 7) (Tim Grierson)


GO  STILL LIFE More than two years after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, one year after a single local screening during UCLA’s annual showcase of new Chinese cinema, and nine months after opening commercially in New York, director Jia Zhangke’s Still Life finally receives a full week’s run at one Los Angeles cinema. Set and shot in Fengjie, a real Chinese town that was being dismantled and demolished as Jia was filming in 2006 to make way for the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric-dam project, Still Life is the story of two people in transit — a rural coal miner (Han Sanming) in search of the ex-wife and teenage daughter he hasn’t seen in a decade, and a woman (played by Jia’s frequent muse, the luminous Zhao Tao) looking for her estranged engineer husband. The two story lines parallel one another without ever intersecting, each of them affording Jia and his ace cinematographer, Yu Lik Wai (shooting once again in crisp, high-definition video), to commemorate the disappearing Fengjie landscape — and with it, a few thousand years of Chinese history — in all its decrepit, gutted-out majesty. Everywhere Jia looks, he sees the clash between China’s past and its rapidly accelerating present: Men in hazard uniforms with spray cans make their zombielike way through the ruins. A demolition team unearths artifacts dating from the Han dynasty. A gutted building literally blasts off into the stratosphere, like a rocket ship to the moon. I’ve said before in these pages that Jia (whose previous films include The World, Unknown Pleasures and Platform) is the greatest Chinese filmmaker of his generation. In Still Life, his great subject — that of a nation making “progress” faster than its own people can keep up with it — reaches its fullest and most painfully beautiful expression yet. Simply one of the best films of last year, this year, or any year likely to come. (Music Hall) (SF)

THE VIOLENT KIND In its attempt to convey the psychological unraveling of a soldier returning home from Iraq, The Violent Kind forgoes narrative structure in favor of hallucinatory malaise. The action revolves around a cabin in Montana, where Iraq veteran Terry Malloy (Kirk Harris) reunites with his Vietnam vet father (Jon Savage, of The Deer Hunter) and attractive young wife (Irina Bjorkland). The nondescript wilder­ness symbolizes the netherworld in which both father and son find themselves trapped, but over the course of the film the pattern of surreal and grotesque images — a carcass floating in gray stew; a musical performance by robed, white-faced phantoms — feels less like a haunting and more like mumbo jumbo. Director Geoffrey Pepos wants to show that posttraumatic stress causes combat veterans to destroy themselves and the people they love, but he has little interest in unpacking his characters’ war experiences beyond clichés. Terry Malloy (the allusion to On the Waterfront is both cheap and irrelevant) talks in voice-over about his experiences with “his boys” back in the platoon (“You gotta believe in the guy next to you ...”), while Dad brandishes guns at imaginary “gooks.” Both men exist only as war-movie figments, set adrift in a picture that confuses a chaotic psyche with what is simply chaotic filmmaking. (Grande 4-Plex) (Sam Sweet)


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