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Movie Reviews: Bee Movie, Darfur Now, Primo Levi's Journey

AMERICAN GANGSTER See film feature.

BEE MOVIE After making a mint off a series about nothing, Jerry Seinfeld apparently decided his first feature film ought to be about something — in the case of Bee Movie , the enslavement and torture of bees for the pleasure and profit of humans, which is, like, hilarious. Alas, there’s only so much you can do with talking bugs that hasn’t already been covered in A Bug’s Life , Antz and The Ant Bully . For all the muscle and money behind Bee Movie , it still feels unfocused and unfinished. The funniest moments in Bee Movie are the Seinfeld -esque throwaway lines — the bit about women and toe rings (“It’s like putting a hat on your knee”), the gag about TiVo (“You mean you can just freeze live TV? That’s insane .”). And then there’s Chris Rock as a mosquito. Rock has but two scenes in the film, but he needs a hundred more. Give the man his own movie, please, if only because it’d bee far better than this one. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD See film feature.

DARFUR NOW Can-do pep is the resonant key in Ted Braun’s profile of six individuals, spread across three continents, working to provide relief in western Sudan. Featured are a sheik displaced by internecine warfare, International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a young L.A.-based activist and . . . Don Cheadle. The film tarries briefly on outright atrocity, moving through an abridged history of Darfur, then lets its subjects explain what regenerating the region means to them, and why it should matter to humanity as a whole. But where the right images could be profound, incontrovertible and traumatic, testimony is only worth so much (and the film will severely test the average viewer’s threshold of forbearance for self-righteous Californians). If you evaluate Darfur Now against the goals it sets for itself — as a stirring call to action — it must be considered lacking. The filmmaking is undistinguished, and the images taken from the conflict, though tragic — dust-blanched refugee camps, an AK-47 in every other pair of hands — will be difficult for the theoretical average, uncommitted viewer to distinguish from the familiar picture of endangered sub-Saharan Africa. The argument can be made that the subject’s urgency excuses the need for artfulness; the opposite, of course, is true. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)

GO FAT GIRLS Not many fat girls appear in Fat Girls , but that’s not a problem: In this movie, nearly anyone can be a fat girl — it’s a mental state, one that Rodney (writer-director-star Ash Christian) tends to assign to the stranger members of his entourage, and that we may recognize in the entire oddball cast. Rodney is a gay high-school senior and a spiritual fat girl; his best friend, Sabrina (Ashley Fink), is a literal one. They mope in and out of classrooms wearing expressions of gaping, undisguised horror that alone justify the existence of this film. Rodney’s characteristic awkwardness is so severe as to inhibit most normal conversation, and it sometimes escalates from amusing to tragic, as when he rejects comfort after his father’s death. He engages more successfully with the imaginary worlds of porn and plays, and dreams of starring on Broadway. Don’t worry: He isn’t talented. This film goes to some lengths not to be another high-school movie, which means prom stinks and no one can sing. Given Fat Girls ’ honesty, and its delicately drawn examples of social hopelessness, the sudden, sugary, puzzling finale feels out of character. It’s as though the film forgot how to talk to us. (Regent Showcase) (Abigail Deutsch)

THE GENIUS CLUB Tom Sizemore is no Tobin Bell, but he’s certainly believably psychotic as a mad genius who wants to play a deadly game with the president of the United States (Jack Scalia as a kind of conservative idealization of Dubya) and a group of the world’s smartest people. Communicating via some kind of untraceable video uplink, he asks them questions about how to solve all the world’s problems — famine, war, racism, cancer, even the lack of electric cars. If they fail to get the “correct” answers, he’ll set off a nuclear bomb. And since Stephen Baldwin is apparently the world’s smartest man, well, we’re probably all doomed. Though it’s hard to tell how much stock The Genius Club writer-director Tim Chey expects us to put in Sizemore’s rants, most of the movie is surprisingly effective at feeding the audience a liberal critique of capitalism, cleverly disguised as a thriller. Which makes the geniuses’ final conclusion all the more incongruous — we don’t have to tell you what it is if you’re familiar with Stephen Baldwin’s recent extracurricular activities or know that Chey previously directed a documentary called Impact: The Passion of the Christ , which posited that a lack of faith in Jesus was the cause of the Columbine massacre. Still, Chey’s got chops, and if he can widen his taste in music beyond the pap that passes for “contemporary Christian,” he might even have a future in secular Hollywood. (Grande 4-Plex) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 

THE GOOD NIGHT Director Jake Paltrow’s feature debut has all the hallmarks of an earnest young man’s feature debut, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, I can only imagine that it fit Sundance like a fingerless glove when it premiered there earlier this year. Paltrow, a veteran TV and film scriptwriter, has chosen the quirky relationship drama as his milieu and cast older sister Gwyneth as deathly drab Dora, the female half of the film’s rapidly staling couple. Martin Freeman, working the last five minutes out of that butter-knife pixie cut and its attendant charms, plays Gary, a failed musician and emotionally absent boyfriend slumming in the jingle racket to make ends meet. When a kohl-eyed, white-tuxedoed beauty played by Penelope Cruz begins visiting Gary in his dreams, bearing soothing tidings of well-being and the occasional morning hard-on, Gary retreats from the truly awful Dora into his good night. It’s unclear why either half of this interminable couple ever liked the other, and though Paltrow works up a vivid, sensual zetz for the dream sequences, the murky palette of Gary’s waking life gets oppressive in its intentional contrast. Not even the nice twist of a fantasy made unexpectedly, then expectation-crushingly, real can uncork the hermetically sealed — if largely inoffensive — fate of this boy-meets-compromise tale. (Beverly Center) (Michelle Orange)

GO JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UN­WRITTEN Julien Temple’s engrossing portrait of the late Clash front man uses snippets of everything from Raging Bull to an animated Animal Farm — along with archival scraps, performance clips and a mosaic of witness testimony — to show how Joe Strummer kept punk’s precepts alive. From Los Angeles to New York to Ireland, friends, family and fans assemble around campfires to remember Joe as the glow fades into dawn. It’s Strummer’s own voice — a radio-show track filled with warmth and optimism — that threads together the separate locales, along with snatches of favorite songs. Temple’s punk-bred refusal to identify (and thus privilege) any of his interview subjects onscreen can be maddening. (Scorsese, Bono and John Cusack I recognize; those two dozen middle-aged British guys, not so much.) But in the final shots of these makeshift gatherings silhouetted against the lightening sky, the individuals combine into a joyous, vibrant community larger than any one component. As a definition of punk, that probably would have worked for Joe Strummer. (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)

MARTIAN CHILD Martian Child certainly isn’t much fun, unless you were desperately awaiting K-PAX with a kid instead of Kevin Spacey. Not that there’s ever any question whether Dennis (Bobby Coleman) is actually a Martian, but the conceit’s more or less the same: The kid sports sunglasses, lest the sunlight melt his eyeballs; builds elaborate contraptions meant to connect him with his home planet; and spends his time conducting field research (which is to say, taking Polaroids) before the aliens return to spirit him back to Mars. And, like K-PAX , Martian Child equates mental instability and emotional detachment with the awwww-some cuteness of extraterrestrial life. This kid’s not troubled — naw, he just wants to be E.T. All he needs is a home to phone. And that’s provided by a man who knows nothing about being a father, John Cusack’s David Gordon, a sci-fi writer who adopts Dennis and believes his own experiences as a boyhood outsider will allow him to heal the wounded child. But Cusack and Coleman feel like they’re in two separate movies — Cusack in the one about the single dad trying to get his shit together, Coleman in the one about the strange boy who steals things and hangs upside down. Theirs is less a connection than a forced living arrangement brokered by agents and studio bosses. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

MEETING RESISTANCE Billed as an “intimate” portrait of Iraq’s insurgency, Meeting Resistance — the debut documentary from photojournalists-turned-filmmakers Steve Connors and Molly Bingham — does a remarkable job of being the opposite. Instead of individualizing the jihadists, the film shows a series of characters who are blurred, faceless, nameless and generalized nonpersonas, with monikers like “The Teacher,” “The Warrior” and “The Imam.” So much for “know thine enemy.” With the identities of their subjects obscured, the filmmakers rely on indiscriminate shots of Iraqi daily life to illustrate the resistance: Men talking in a café are implicated as conspirators planning an attack; it’s like using customers in an Italian restaurant to represent Mafia hit men. Still, the film manages to capture the palpable frustration on the ground — we hear one story of an Iraqi man who was so pissed off at being roughed up by a U.S. soldier that he bought an RPG — and everyone condemns the American “occupiers.” Ultimately, Meeting Resistance is just one more doc about the monumental screwup that is the U.S. campaign in Iraq. For every additional day the Americans stay, the film suggests, they are only breeding more hatred and digging themselves into a deeper hellhole. (Fairfax) (Anthony Kaufman)

 

GO PARK The place is a desolate patch of tumbleweed and picnic tables overlooking L.A.’s Baldwin Hills (oil derricks, routes to the airport). The time is lunch hour. A desperate depressive (Dagney Kerr) has come here to kill herself, though she’s so mechanically challenged (wrong bullets for the gun, no hose for the muffler) that she has to borrow things from the equally brokenhearted driver (David Fenner) of a pet-shampoo truck parked a short distance away. The woman he adores, his pretty Polish co-worker (Izabella Miko), has donned a maid’s costume and is using her lunch hour to fuck the lights out of a wealthy suitor (William Baldwin) in the ritzy SUV bouncing on its shocks a few paces down the incline. That two characters who think they’re in love actually hate each other, and vice versa, is the sort of classical reversal writer-director Kurt Voelker serves up with fresh energy in this masterfully conceived and executed modern farce, whose performers earn belly laughs by grace of their honesty. Ricki Lake and Cheri Oteri, as aggrieved pals seeking to avenge themselves on both Baldwin and his SUV, ground their slapstick in such sharply etched feelings for each other that their over-the-top actions serve as a gateway to real poignancy. That is a consistent virtue of Park — making the most of thrifty means to highly entertaining effect. (Music Hall) (F.X. Feeney)

GO PRIMO LEVI’S JOURNEY Sixty years after the Italian writer and Holocaust chronicler Primo Levi left Auschwitz and hitched a long, digressive ride home with a Russian convoy, filmmaker Davide Ferrario follows in his footsteps with a camera, a vivid imagination and intellectual ambition to burn. Tracking the journey that Levi described in his book The Truce (retitled The Awakening for American publication), this remarkable documentary takes us from the Polish concentration camp through Eastern and Central Europe, to Germany, and on back to Levi’s beautiful home town of Turin, where Ferrario also lives. What emerges is one visual essay on the rise and fall of communism after World War II (with guidance from Polish filmmaker Andrei Wajda and heroic Soviet propaganda footage), and another on the decline of the West that includes creeping corporate outsourcing and the resurgence of extreme nationalism. Part of the movie’s charm is Ferrario’s openness to happenstance: His arrest by overzealous KGB apparatchiki in Belarus, and their subsequent “help,” makes its way into the movie, as does the day the filmmakers wandered into a meeting of neo-Nazis in Germany, where a woman who has had it up to here with apologizing for the Holocaust all but spits into the camera. Ferrario’s richly idiosyncratic portrait of 21st-century Europe drains attention away from Levi’s subjective experience (narrated from the book by actor Chris Cooper) and draws what may be an overly straight line from Auschwitz to 9/11. But that’s a tiny price to pay for this fascinating film, which does Levi (who appears in footage of his own return to Auschwiz) the supreme honor of refusing to guess at the reasons for his suicide in 1987. (Music Hall) (Ella Taylor)

GO QUANTUM HOOPS: THE CALTECH STORY The documentary Quantum Hoops is firmly rooted in a premise that Americans love and hold dear as a reflection of our collective mythological character: the story of the feisty underdog battling seemingly insurmountable odds. The underdogs in this film, however, are some of the most intellectually gifted people in the country, and the battle they’re waging is less a matter of life and death than one of simple pride. Director Rick Greenwald follows the 2006 Caltech basketball team as they try to break the school’s 21-year losing streak — that’s over 240 consecutive conference losses. The Caltech Beavers are a surprisingly charming group of overachievers who prove to have as much heart on the court as they do brains in the classroom (almost all team members had perfect math scores on the SAT), which helps in the moments when the film’s energy flags. That happens mostly toward the beginning, as Greenwald spends what feels like too much time on the history of the school, its many noble prizewinners and the decline of its once-glorious athletic past. All that context pays off beautifully, though, in a final game that’s filled with so many nail-biting twists and turns that, were this a Hollywood film, the audience would scoff at being so cynically manipulated. (One Colorado) (Ernest Hardy)

 

SAW IV In keeping with the series’ preference for the literal over the mythic, Saw IV offers no miraculous, Michael Myers–style resurrection for torture artiste John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell), who went out with a bang at the end of Saw III and makes his first appearance here as the toe-tagged specimen in an autopsy scene so gruesomely detailed it could be used as a med-school primer. But if Jigsaw is gone, he’s hardly forgotten: Soon, someone is up to Kramer’s old tricks, which this time means subjecting SWAT team commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent, a series regular since Saw II , which may make him the longest-surviving black character in horror-movie history) to the obligatory gauntlet of damned-if-you-do/don’t puzzle boxes and Old Testament moralizing. But like the movie’s mysterious Jigsaw doppelgänger, Saw IV is itself a poor substitute for the original (or even the first two sequels), from the ho-hum deathtraps that seem designed by Rube Goldberg’s less prodigal younger brother to the “twist” ending surprising only in its Agatha Christie obviousness. Much more gripping are the handful of flashback scenes that bring Kramer (and, in turn, the excellent Bell) back from the grave and offer new insight into the making of the movies’ most insidiously appealing quasi madman since Hannibal Lecter. May I propose a full-tilt prequel: Jigsaw Rising ? (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)

SHARKWATER As cinema progresses past some of the awareness-raising limitations of conventional journalism, we’re watching more docs on genocide, abortion, global warming, that whole pig-fuck of a war — and just when you thought it was safe to take what’s in the water for granted, illegal finning operations are wiping out the shark population. Toronto-based wildlife photographer and first-time filmmaker Rob Stewart spent five years on this ode to his lifelong aquatic obsession, which became a platform after Stewart fell in with Greenpeace co-founder Paul Watson and his merry crew of boat-ramming eco-pirates. Rather than paint a disembodied, March of the Penguins –style nature portrait, or what might have been fantastic in an unbiased director’s hands — a film about Watson’s fanatical crusade — Stewart is his own star, a would-be Speedo model and whoa-dude narrator whose droning reflections get in the way of his stunning cinematography. No matter how much Jaws -hugging zeal he brings to the deck, Stewart has made a vain polemic that never addresses the finning industry’s deep-seated cultural significance in Asia (where, rightly or wrongly, shark soup is a symbol of economic prestige), or elaborates on how the disrupted ecosystem affects us humans. (Beverly Center; Nu Wilshire) (Aaron Hillis)


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