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Movie Reviews: Badland, Divine Intervention, Forfeit, He Was a Quiet Man

AWAKE A medical thriller with a noggin full of novocaine, this shocker about botched heart surgery evidently suffered brain surgery to match. Think of writer-director Joby Harold’s autopsy-turvy tale as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu with a high-concept lobotomy: instead of some wheezy old Romanian dude descending the lower-depths of health-care hell, we get doe-eyed Hayden Christensen as the world’s most naïve billionaire and unlikely heart-transplant candidate, whose troubles begin when “anesthesia awareness” leaves him conscious but paralyzed and unable to scream as doc Terrence Howard revs up the ol’ bonesaw. That would be contrivance enough for most thrillers, but factor in blushing bride Jessica Alba, suspicious mom Lena Olin, and sinister cardio czar Arliss Howard — not to mention astral projection, supernatural visits, repressed memories, and not one but two pivotal heart transplants — and you’ve got a movie that sucks more than it inhales. Harold’s glum overplotting squashes the sick humor and the innate fear of hospitals that gives the premise what kick it has; not even Craig McKay’s clever editing can defibrillate the preposterous ending. Even at 78 minutes, though, this definitely communicates a sense of anesthesia awareness — at least to your ass. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

BADLAND Barely a ripple in this year’s wave of Iraq war–veteran dramas, writer-director Francesco Lucente’s overconfident, emotionally forced 160-minute opus offers trite antiwar platitudes — at best — in chronicling the anguished existence of a soldier who can’t shake the horrors he experienced in Fallujah. After being framed for theft at work, and then discovering that his trailer-trash wife has been stealing from him, disgraced Marine reservist Jerry (Jamie Draven) snaps, shooting the spouse and his two young sons before stopping just shy of killing his daughter and himself. Now experiencing her own PTSD, precious little Celina (Grace Fulton) has put all her stock in God to bring back Mommy as the two go on the lam and settle in a fresh town. Incessantly scored with the most lachrymose flourishes, and shot almost entirely during magic hour, Badland practically begs “For Your Consideration.” Big Statements come in bursts — from a TV news reporter offering an out-of-left-field lesson on the My Lai massacre, to a drunken monologue by Joe Morton’s traumatized veteran turned sheriff. What sticks in the memory, though, is the ending: a cheap shot as shameful as Redacted’s, and, if you can believe it, even less nuanced. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

DIVINE INTERVENTION Cocky young Reverend Robert Gibbs (Wesley Jonathan) has just been tapped to fill in as pastor for a black South Los Angeles Baptist church while Reverend Matthews (James Avery), the church’s longtime patriarch, recovers from a stroke. With his affinity for hip-hop culture and penchant for welcoming homosexuals and gang members into the congregation, Gibbs runs afoul of the church’s conservative board of deacons, then raises even more eyebrows when he starts wooing lovely Divine (Jazsmin Lewis), the minister’s daughter. Structurally, writer-director Van Elder’s spiritual romantic comedy resembles one of those inspirational-teacher dramas where the preternaturally confident outsider eventually wins over the naysayers with his unconventional methods. Though meagerly plotted and devoid of narrative surprise, the micro-budgeted Divine Intervention cuts slightly deeper than your typical Hollywood rom-com because of its willingness to address real problems confronting the African-American community: drugs and gangs; the battle between spiritual and secular urges; the struggle over the future of the fundamentalist Baptist movement. But Elder and his weightless cast merely brush up against these thoughtful topics, simplifying the issues so they can be cheerily resolved with unconvincing “trust in Jesus” banalities. As for the family-friendly love story between Gibbs and Divine, like so much of Divine Intervention, its aggressively vanilla tone unintentionally makes a strong argument for the hedonistic lifestyle. (Grande 4-Plex) (Tim Grierson)

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY See film feature

FORFEIT Despite his good looks, actor Billy Burke carries in his eyes the look of a perpetually guilty man. Onscreen, he specializes in playing men who’ve done somebody wrong but who feel guilty about it. This sense of unceasing inner turmoil brought a much-needed rough edge to the recent Feast of Love, and also buoys the smaller-scale Forfeit. Here, Burke plays Frank O’Neal, a guard at one of movie history’s least-convincing armored-car companies, a place owned and operated by thieves and near-bums, all of whom seem blind to the fact that Frank’s planning a heist. The heist isn’t merely a heist, but part of a revenge scheme meant to land Frank’s high-school sweetheart (Sherry Stringfield) in jail for murder — a scenario screenwriter John Rafter Lee, who appears to have read more Flannery O’Connor than Elmore Leonard, complicates even further by having Frank become obsessed with a ranting TV preacher (Gregory Itzin). Director Andrew Brendan Shea can’t seem to decide if he’s making a thriller, a boozy blue-collar melodrama or a religious parable. Forfeit ends up as a muddled mix of all three, but we keep watching, if only because Burke manages to make his character’s confusion weirdly resonant. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)

 

HE WAS A QUIET MAN Imagine Marty if Marty had turned out to be the Unabomber and you’ll have the gist of writer-director Frank Cappello’s oddly compelling, pitch-black comedy, which takes its title from the news media’s de rigueur description for every unassuming clock-puncher who one day decides to mow down a few co-workers in a hail of bullets. Here, that “quiet man” appears to be one Bob Maconel (Christian Slater), a mid-level drone at a nondescript L.A. tech company who spends his days as a punching bag for the office’s golf-playing alpha males, his lunch breaks fantasizing about blowing the place to smithereens, and his lonely evenings engaging in philosophical chitchat with his pet goldfish (who, via some clever CGI animation, answers back). But when Bob uses the loaded gun in his desk to stop another deranged colleague in the midst of his own killing spree, everything changes. Soon, he’s moving on up to the executive suite, attracting the come-hither stares of women who’d never so much as look in his direction before, and entering into a hesitant courtship with the quadriplegic near-victim (Elisha Cuthbert) whose life he saved only to have her ask him to finish her off. Cappello, whose strange and varied résumé includes screenwriting credits on the early-’90s Hulk Hogan comedy Suburban Commando and the recent Keanu Reeves blockbuster Constantine, traffics in some of the same themes of emasculation and rage against the corporate machine already well-traversed by Falling Down, Fight Club, Office Space, et al. But He Was a Quiet Man casts its own perversely funny spell thanks in large part to Slater, whose wonderfully shifty, beaten-down performance is easily his best in the 17 years since he played Pump Up the Volume’s adolescent shock-jock. Indeed, he digs so far under Bob Maconel’s acne-prone skin that you leave the ­theater wondering if he can ever come back. (Fairfax) (Scott Foundas)

THE SASQUATCH GANG The feature directorial debut of Tim Skousen, Napoleon Dynamite’s first A.D., is full of, shall we say, homages to its roots, from the handful of nerdy characters who say “Gosh!” and “Crap!” too frequently to the familiar-sounding John Swihart score. Yet Skousen makes the material somewhat his own, with an overabundance of thoroughly un-Mormon shit jokes to a nonlinear, perception-based narrative structure that aspires to Rashomon levels at times. It’s unfortunate that he can’t pick a protagonist, wavering back and forth between uninteresting fantasy role-player Gavin (former Peter Pan Jeremy Sumpter, who tries but isn’t given much) and the awesomely dumb mullet-headed juvenile delinquent Zerk (Justin Long), who creates a Bigfoot hoax in order to pay off an overdue credit-card debt. Gavin’s story is typical teen-faces-bullies-and-gets-girl hokum, while Zerk is like a Mike Judge cartoon character come to life, with a revelatory slapstick performance from the often straight-laced Long. Oh, and Carl Weathers shows up doing a fake English accent. I’d say it must be seen to be believed, but really you ought to wait for TiVo on this one, so you can just skip to the good parts. (Fairfax) (Luke Y. Thompson)

THE SAVAGES See film feature

SEX AND BREAKFAST Writer-director Miles Brandman surely pitched this portrait of the sexual hang-ups of two 20-something couples with adjectives like “honest,” “unflinching” and “frank.” The camera eavesdrops on the bedroom skirmishes and awkward banter of Ellis and Renee (Kuno Becker and Eliza Dushku) and James and Heather (Macaulay Culkin and Eliza Dziena), relishing in the behavioral minutiae of four people whom Brandman finds far more fascinating and charming than they actually are. While the film puts a premium on the realism of its relationships, the characters’ lives are drawn from fantasy. Without mention of what — if anything — they do for a living, these Angelenos reside in spacious downtown lofts, take their meals at Silver Lake eateries and, perhaps most implausibly, travel by taxi to appointments with a high-profile therapist. Suffering from what could be called Garden State syndrome, Sex and Breakfast demands that we empathize with the anguish of straight, white, financially privileged young people and their significantly hot significant others. Through the endless, grating conversations, one becomes eager for the movie to make good on its implicit promise of softcore action — a plot twist that screams Skinemax, in which the couples allow their forward-thinking mutual shrink (Joanna Miles) to arrange a catalytic group-sex session. Unexpectedly, the film becomes bold at the exact place it should bottom out: Without relying on dialogue or frontal nudity, the eerily silent sex scene’s blend of burning excitement and paralyzing trepidation momentarily captures a truth about intimacy around which the rest of the movie only dances. (Sunset 5) (Sam Sweet)

 

 YIDDISH THEATER: A LOVE STORY It took seven years for Israeli filmmaker Dan Katzir to raise funds for a documentary about one week in the death of New York City’s last surviving regular Yiddish theater. Focused on the iconic Folksbiene troupe as it performs the legendary play Green Fields to great notices and next to no audience, Yiddish Theater: A Love Story offers a tribute to the perseverance of 84-year-old Zypora Spaisman, a Polish Holocaust survivor and all-around great dame who did more than most to keep the theater’s flame burning. Behind her story is a sadder tale of Jewish cultural decline and the limits of the vaunted Yiddish revival, as Spaisman and producer David Romeo strive quixotically to raise enough money to open a new theater on Broadway. Lively talking heads lay out the reasons for the decay of Yiddish culture — just as the Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism killed off seminal Yiddish writers, creeping secularism and Israeli ambivalence about cultural heritage replaced Yiddish with modern Hebrew. What’s missing from this gentle homage — perhaps for budgetary reasons — is a sense of the joyful heyday of Yiddish theater, and the richness it brought to the artistic life of Manhattan. A bissel Molly Picon couldn’t hurt, could it? (Grande 4-Plex; Fallbrook 7) (Ella Taylor)


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