GO BAB'AZIZ: THE PRINCE WHO CONTEMPLATED HIS SOUL Even though one of the earliest appeals of cinema was the window it opened onto other cultures and continents, films that engage that interest now routinely get dismissed as "ethnographic" or as prurient exoticism. It's a charge that the Tunisia-born, Paris-educated poet-sculptor-filmmaker Nacer Khemir has faced before — and will probably face again with this mystical, meandering, marvelously photographed ode to his Sufi faith and the power of storytelling, intended in part as a corrective to the West's impression of fanatical Islam. Embarking toward a legendary gathering of dervishes (humble Sufi wanderers who devote their lives to love and beauty) that happens every 30 years, the blind, aging Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) entices his young granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) to join him by spinning the tale of a prince who lost his kingdom but found his soul in the depths of a reflecting pool. As they walk, Khemir (in collaboration with longtime Antonioni screenwriter Tonino Guerra) meshes their stories with those of other travelers. But despite the unhurried pace, the stories unfold without compelling details, and the interweaving is more pedestrian than artful. Instead, the pleasure of Khemir's picaresque lies in the music, dance and locations found along the journey — and to brush these wonders off as exotic collector's bait would be more than a little patronizing. (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)
BE KIND REWIND The pleasures of Michel Gondry's latest film as writer and director do not extend far beyond the promise of its premise: Jack Black, magnetized and manic (yawn), erases every single videotape in the rental store where he hangs out and has to reshoot the movies with pal Mos Def. Theirs becomes a ramshackle filmography of redos made for pennies on the multimillions: Ghostbusters, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rush Hour 2, The Lion King, Robocop and, most amusingly, the Ali-Foreman doc When We Were Kings. Too bad the makeovers occupy only a few minutes of screen time — the film doesn't even seem terribly interested in its own conceit, instead dawdling around the margins till lurching toward the let's-put-on-a-show climax around which the film appears to have been built (rather shakily). Be Kind Rewind isn't amiably ambling, not affably shaggy, just a mess that gets messier till, at times, the whole thing looks improvised by amateurs more concerned with being clever than something resembling affectionate. For the first time in the former music-video director's scattershot career, which includes a heartbreaking, mind-bending masterpiece (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) bookended by dazzling disappointments (Human Nature and The Science of Sleep), Gondry seems completely lost. The greatest mystery is how a movie peddling the bliss of moviemaking is absent any hint of joy. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
COVER This wackily uneven drama from director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) opens with Atlanta photographer and housewife Valerie Maas (Aunjanue Ellis) sitting in a police interrogation room trying to explain to a doubting detective (Lou Gossett Jr.) why she's not guilty of murder. Flashbacks reveal that Valerie and her psychiatrist husband, Dutch (Razaaq Adoti), recently moved to town and instantly became entangled in the sordid lives of Dutch's new boss (Roger Guenveur Smith), his unhappy wife (Paula Jai Parker), and a creepily amorous rap star (Leon) who has his sights on Valerie. These folks are knee-deep in sin, the nitty-gritty details of which it wouldn't be fair to reveal, since screenwriter Aaron Rahsaan Thomas means for it all to be shocking and surprising. This is a weirdly schizophrenic movie, one that's light on murder-mystery thrills and heavy on social-issue sermonizing, particularly when Valerie's church-basement women's group — which seems to meet hourly — starts wailing about the devilish temptations that are luring African-American men from God and family. Duke appears to be aiming for a Tyler Perry-style mix of the taboo and the saintly, but his touch is so leaden that one ends up giggling, not weeping. (AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15) (Chuck Wilson)
HOW TO ROB A BANK The standoff starts in medias res, with bystander Jinx (Nick Stahl) locked in a bank vault with Jessica (Erika Christensen, in Meg White wig), herself forced into a life of crime by the lack of career opportunities for gorgeous young thoroughbreds. The rest of the stickup team is cornered in the lobby; the SWAT team's guarding the street beyond. Despite an 81-minute running time, the plot has to stretch to go the distance, mostly by reiterating its theme (the danger of ATM surcharges) compulsively. So we get an endless chain of cell-phone negotiations, spritzes of "kinetic" stylization that not even a homeschooled adolescent seeing his first movie would find cool, and a sepulchral whiff of the mid-'90s in the form of Roger Avary mannerisms and that guy from Bush (Gavin Rossdale), now an actor. Even the mighty Terry Crews, who made White Chicks sporadically watchable, is herein defeated. So objectively awful it ceases even to be a reflection of writer-director Andrews Jenkins' nontalent, How to Rob a Bank calls into question the distribution filtration process that should protect delicate consumer eyes from things like this. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
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GO JODHAA AKBAR An imperial epic of 16th-century India, realized on a suitably gargantuan scale by writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker, who made the glorious, Oscar-nominated Lagaan (2001), Jodhaa Akbar is clear and solid and absorbing, but not quite exhilarating. We watch with unflagging interest and respect, but when you consider all the heavy lifting and painstaking detail work that have to go into something of this magnitude, mere respect is a bit of an anticlimax. On the level of one-to-one human conflicts, however, Gowariker is a master storyteller. The strategic alliance that develops here between the humane Muslim Emperor Akbar (Hrithek Roshan) and his strong-willed Hindu bride, Jodhaa (Ashwariya Rai Bachchan) — an arranged marriage that becomes a legendary love marriage — lends dramatic conviction to the expensive splendors: the screen-filling battle sequences, with their legions of extras and squadrons of armored elephants, and the almost ceremonial gravity of conversational interludes that always seem to take place in echoing gilded chambers crowded with extras wafting fans made of peacock feathers. Gowariker may have too much common sense to revel wholeheartedly in spectacle for its own sake, but he clearly has reasons of his own for memorializing this ruler, the first of his line of Muslim conquerors to be born on Indian soil and a pioneer in matters of religious and ethnic tolerance. It would be hard to imagine a timelier icon of national unity than the emperor who was nicknamed "The Great." (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)
MEN IN THE NUDE Early on in Hungarian director Karoly Esztergalyos' Men in the Nude, middle-aged novelist Tibor (Laslzo Galffi) reveals that his favorite novel is Death in Venice. That he does so in the company of the young male hustler (David Szabo) with whom he has impulsively hooked up suggests that his feelings for the book transcend simple appreciation for Thomas Mann's style. That he subsequently reads aloud from the text while being fellated suggests that Esztergalyos' film means to cut deeper than the typical gay, May-December romance. It doesn't, though not for lack of effort: Men in the Nude makes busy, meticulous use of its allusions. Esztergalyos' homage to Mann's treatise on unrequited passion is a shade too clever, however — it's self-conscious in a way that distances us from the purportedly roiling emotions of the characters. There's also a problem of tone: it's badly uneven, and despite hints that the discordance is purposeful (the easy-listening score is almost comically tacky), it's not a successful strategy. When the increasingly unmoored writer scornfully chides his wife (Eva Kerekes) about the banality of their situation, the meta-joke lands with a thud. A climactic detour into the surreal, though well-executed in a single, space-collapsing take, doesn't inspire awe so much as eye rolling. It's a naked play for seriousness that exposes nothing more than one director's considerable pretensions. (Grande 4-Plex) (Adam Nayman)
GO THE SIGNAL "Do you have the crazy?" a wild-eyed zombie fighter demands of his duct-taped captive. The Signal has the crazy all right, bless its cold and sick little heart. A roundelay/tag-team triptych by three directors, filmed in the hitherto-untapped zombie haven of Atlanta, this uneven but impressive shot-on-digital shocker earns a marker in the ever-expanding mausoleum of apocalyptic horror. In three cleverly interlocked segments by writer-directors David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush, a mysterious electronic signal brings out varying degrees of blood lust in anyone who encounters it. Soon the streets are littered with bodies, and the stories chart the progress of three people — a cheating wife (Anessa Ramsey), her determined lover (Justin Welborn) and her murderous husband (AJ Bowen) — through this harsh new realm from different perspectives. The splattery, satiric black comedy of the second segment is the highlight, but the others make the most of their modest production values with well-chosen locations, anxious hand-held camera and judicious gore effects. In the end, the movie's feeble (and thankfully few) attempts at blast-in-the-face scares are less effective than its low-budget, ground-level evocation of a world tilted off its axis. (Burbank Town Center 8; Broadway 4; Mann Plant 16; South Bay Galleria 16; Winnetka All Stadium 21) (Jim Ridley)
WITLESS PROTECTION One knows, or ought to know, what to expect in a movie featuring Dan Whitney’s “Larry the Cable Guy” character: much bodily-function humor, including several scenes in which a nearly naked Whitney revels in his own physical grotesqueness; mild jokes at the expense of foreigners and liberals; and copious country-music references. Unfortunately, what you can’t count on is the enthusiasm of his stand-up act — Whitney exerts more energy in his segment of Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie, than in Health Inspector, Delta Farce, and Witless Protection combined. Barely written and directed by TV helmer Charles Robert Carner, Witless Protection is a riff on Midnight Run... so much so that Yaphet Kotto actually reprises his role from that film as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, who this time is a villain on the take, which is why Larry kidnaps rich-bitch Madeleine (Ivana Milicevic) away from the feds who are supposedly her witness protection. Whitney remains affable throughout, but there are few belly laughs. Still, it’s hard to despise the movie, especially when Peter Stormare shows up over-enunciating the most brilliantly awful English accent of all time. It should be noted, though, that at no point does Larry ever say his catchphrase, “Git-r-done!” It’s one thing if Whitney wants to expand his range as an actor, but if you’re gonna be in Skynyrd, you gots to play “Free Bird.” KnowhutImean, Vern? (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)