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Movie Reviews: Ben X, Four Christmases, Special, Transporter 3

Film Movement

THE BEAUTIFUL TRUTH Writer-director Steve Kroschel’s documentary preaches (and preaches and preaches) the gospel of Dr. Max Gerson, who, in the 1920s, developed a dietary regimen that advocated organic juices, vegetarian meals and coffee enemas as a way to boost the body’s immune system. Despite evidence that the treatment helped to cure cancer by ridding patients of the chemicals contained in processed foods, the Gerson Therapy continues to be dismissed by pharmaceutical companies and vilified by the American Cancer Society. With that in mind, you might expect The Beautiful Truth to be a David-versus-Goliath exposé on how corporations stand in the way of individual health, as they pursue the almighty dollar, but that’s merely scratching the surface of this condescending, manipulative film. Kroschel organizes his argument around Garrett, a home-schooled 15-year-old whose studies about the Gerson Therapy provoke him to investigate its validity. Actually, it’s Kroschel who seems to be provoking the investigation, using Garrett as a passive prop to push the writer’s agenda — the nearly mute kid spends most of the film getting talked at by cancer survivors and scientists, who tell him how evil the mainstream medical community is. Kroschel positions The Beautiful Truth as a sort of instructional video for young people on the merits of eating healthy, but its creepy messianic vibe is far more toxic than all the pollutants in all the processed food you could ever consume. (Music Hall) (Tim Grierson)

GO  BEN X The best movie I’ve seen about teen angst since Donnie Darko comes from Belgium? It’s also the best film about a bullied teen with Asperger’s syndrome that I’ve seen from any country, and its blurred life-into-vid-game fantasy sequences make it seem doubly topical. Ben (Greg Timmermans) spends waaay too much time logged onto a multiuser fantasy role-playing game, but what other consolation does he have in life? His peers torment him; girls won’t look his way; and his divorced parents seem powerless to help. Onscreen, however, his pimple-faced avatar smites rival warriors and wins a comely princess (whose braces make her resemble a certain girl from his high school class). Timmermans looks too old for his character, whose past-tense voice-overs portend a certain ominous, Columbine-style denouement, but director Nic Balthazar — adapting his own novel — has carefully constructed Ben X so that its twist ending isn’t borrowed or cheap. And the barrage of screen graphics, text messages and cell phone videos speaks to modern teens’ isolation-in-connectivity. “2 late 2 heal,” Ben texts his vid-game paramour. You don’t have to be Belgian to know that feeling. (Nuart) (Brian Miller)

FIX You wouldn’t guess this by reading the film histories of the period, but, back in the day, most of us who were young and sentient scornfully dismissed the bogus counterculture costume dramas (like Easy Rider) that supposedly gave voice to our frustration. One can only hope that a few of today’s yutes will roll their eyes just as dismissively at Tao Ruspoli’s Fix, a shakey-cam odyssey across Los Angeles, from Beverly Hills to Watts, with a carload of drug dealers of convenience, in which almost nothing rings true. Ruspoli, who was the film’s director, co-writer and first-person cameraman, plays a documentary filmmaker doggedly recording every moment of his attempt to deliver his self-destructive ex-con brother (Shawn Andrews, in an entertaining, showboat performance) to a court-ordered stint in rehab. The lead-weight irony is that they may have to score and re-sell some pot to earn the cash needed to buy into the program. Ruspoli, it must be said, is an impressive rough-hewn stylist: Every grainy, bleached-out image is as artfully tousled as a $500 haircut. The slathered-on visual textures aren’t quite enough, however, to distract us from the glib, leftie posturing, the lazy writing (which confuses Tourettic obscenity with low-life authenticity) and the drug-deep existential platitudes (“Fear may be the only thing stronger than grief”). The director’s real-life wife, the alert and intelligent actress Olivia Wilde (House), comes along for the ride, and man, does he owe her one, because the movie would be a lot less watchable without her. (Downtown Independent) (David Chute)

FOUR CHRISTMASES To brand, then dismiss, this seasonal allergen as a disappointment would be giving it too much credit — never, for a second, did this New Line Cinema castoff scream or even whisper decent in the run-up to its opening. The story of couple Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) — not married, might as well be — who, fogged in on December 25, put their planned Fiji frolic on hold to visit their four divorced parents in the course of a single day, Four Christmases doesn’t offer a single surprise within its scant 82 minutes, which feel like at least twice that. There’s happiness and cheer and more than the occasional tear dropped between shouting matches and withering stares, all pre-assembled and gift-wrapped by the ho-ho-hos at The Studio. There was every reason to hope for more. Four Christmases was directed by Seth Gordon, whose 2007 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was a bittersweet, hilarious documentary in which a cocky mullet squares off against a sweet doofus over a Donkey Kong machine. And Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon seemed as sure a thing as pancakes and bacon on Christmas morning. But even there, the pairing’s off: He’s too much, she’s too little. The movie’s pace is lethargic; it desperately needs a laugh track. Only, the joke’s terrible to begin with. Still, not as bad as Vaughn’s last movie: Fred Claus, last year’s holiday lump of coal. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

 

LAKE CITY Troy Garity has a rangy, lonesome-stranger body and pouchy eyes. He can boot a cigarette butt to the curb like a champ and fill a frame with the handsome, so-what lure of damaged goods; in a better world, and a better movie, he’d have the ladies sighing, the gentlemen nodding and all parties clamoring for more. Instead, Garity brings little more than moves to Billy, the troubled baby-daddy and narc-anon member he plays in Lake City; added to the general torpidity and twangy tropes of this Southern family drama is the discomfort of watching a natural actor force it. As Billy’s mother, Maggie, Sissy Spacek fares a little better, if only because she’s had more experience bravely telegraphing through even the roughest terrain. After a nasty run-in with a drug dealer (Dave Matthews), Billy seeks haven at his family’s Virginia homestead, with Clayton (Colin Ford), a surly young boy of uncertain provenance, in tow. Mother and son have an uneasy bond that should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie in which a child’s room has been preserved and locked tight. That bond is examined, tested and finally renewed following a violent denouement that bleeds any lingering patience you might have for this film right through your eyeballs. (Sunset 5) (Michelle Orange)

THE MATADOR David Fandila is bland and uni-browed — classic nerd material. But once he steps into the ring, this Spanish Clark Kent transforms into El Fandi, a preening, balls-out bullfighter determined to become one of the few matadors in history to complete 100 corridas in a single year. With a restless camera and quickly paced edits enhanced by a lush, flamenco-infused score, director Stephen Higgins and co-director Nina Gilden Seavey’s documentary tracks El Fandi’s quest for greatness over three years, chronicling setbacks (a twisted ankle that knocks him out of the 2003 season), as well as bloody triumphs (laying out six bulls in a single day, with a halftime break for surgery to repair a deep gore to his abdomen), which bring him to 97 dead toros for 2004. The filmmakers’ keen journalistic eye picks out the details that matter, those that speak of the love shared by the Fandila family and of how heavily their expectations weigh on the matador’s young shoulders. The Matador reserves judgment while raising the core issue concerning this traditional ritual: deep, poetic cultural expression or glorified animal cruelty? Then there’s the complex relationship between man and bull, at least from the human’s anthropomorphizing point of view, which casts the beast as a complicit, sometimes even noble opponent. (Music Hall) (Elena Oumano)

OTTO; OR, UP WITH DEAD PEOPLE Headier in synopsis than in its vain execution, the latest transgressive art-porno from Canadian queercore auteur Bruce LaBruce (The Raspberry Reich) is a gay zombie movie, an explicit blend of blood and blowjobs that might’ve seemed more acidic two decades ago, at the start of his no-budget career — or maybe Nick Zedd’s. Young, hoodie-clad Otto (Jey Crisfar) rises from the grave and skulks through a near-future Berlin — to a killer soundtrack — unable to remember his life before he turned undead. Was this consumer of (man-)flesh formerly a vegetarian or even gay, as he is now? Discovered by manifesto-preaching lesbian filmmaker Medea Yarn (Katharina Klewinghaus) and her underground consortium of showbiz queers (including a silent-screen siren, always seen in dusty, scratched black-and-white), Otto becomes the star of her political zombie skin-flick and the subject of a doc. Yet, it’s unclear if LaBruce is mocking Medea’s Eurotrash pomposity, or actually believes in her banal talking points on consumerist overabundance. (If it’s the latter, then it’s safe to say that Wall-E’s take on the same subject is more perversely confrontational.) LaBruce mixes metaphors as sloppily as the ingredients in a KFC Famous Bowl, his living dead alternately standing in for repression, persecution, sexual confusion, societal decay or even a so-called “gay plague” of mindless fuck-bots. Campy but not comical, reactionary but not very clever, LaBruce’s film is best saved for those tickled by the sight of homo-zombie orgies or the hardcore penetration of an open wound. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

 

SPECIAL That superhero triumphalism continues to dominate Hollywood is a peculiar trend in our pop cultural history, but it makes the trickle down into character-driven, low-budget Sundance indies almost inevitable. In Special, a meek meter reader with fan-boy proclivities (Michael Rappaport) enrolls in a clinical trial for an experimental antidepressant, after which he develops powers, like levitation, ESP and the ability to pass through walls. With his newfound self-confidence, he dons a homemade costume and preemptively tackles evildoers while they’re still scheming in their heads, but could this cat simply be missing a couple marbles? In the first act alone, writer-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore give up their “Is he or isn’t he?” game by showing us a sane observer’s point of view — yes, this pathetic nut is swimming on the floor, not hovering inches above. All that’s left then is a miserablist analogue to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a sad portrait of paranoid delusion with wipeout stunts played for the comic wincing of Jackass. Rappaport’s befuddled sincerity has never registered so poignantly, but given its singular premise, for the film to waste an easy opportunity to satirize vigilante do-goodery and pharmaceutical dependence is, well, villainous. (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)

TRANSPORTER 3 Luc Besson, a French term meaning “Joel Silver,” has latterly become xXx and The Fast and the Furious producer Neal H. Moritz’s lone rival as reigning king of action cinema du fromage, and the gleefully preposterous Transporter franchise is his ripest creation: a hurtling block-sized brick of Gouda that crushes anything in its path. Once again, good taste and common sense cower in the back seat, as Jason Statham — super-ripped, bullet-headed and expression-adjusted to Perma-Scowl — reprises his role as the world’s studliest deliveryman. The package, this time, is a Ukrainian diplomat’s kidnapped daughter (Natalya Rudakova), a bargaining chip played by thuggish corporateers to thwart environmental reforms; the gimmick is a liquid-bomb bracelet set to go boom if Statham strays more than 75 feet from his car. Fat chance of that: Statham’s single-minded gear head only has eyes for his Audi A8, allowing himself to be seduced only so he can get back his keys (while baring his human-vibrator physique). Directed by Olivier Megaton (no shit) and scripted by longtime collaborators Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, the movie has more lags in action than either of the previous episodes, and somehow the dialogue is even more daft: When easygoing detective buddy François Berléand isn’t sidetracking the action with musings on Dostoyevsky, the leads pass the time between martial-arts throwdowns, 200-mph chases and extinction-level explosions with not one but four separate discussions of cooking technique. But here’s all fans need to know: Yes, Statham strips to the waist multiple times; yes, two dozen hopelessly outnumbered kung fu goons take on our lone hero one by one; and yes, he manages to outpace his Audi by bicycling through a congested sweatshop, freestyling over tables and down hallways, and Evel Knieveling through an upstairs window. In the Besson universe, God bless it, this is called “realism.” (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

YUVVRAAJ This latest offering from director, sometime screenwriter and full-time blowhard producer Subhash Ghai is a lumbering musical melodrama about the bitter struggle among the estranged brothers of the Yuvvraaj clan to grab a controlling interest in the humungous family fortune, after the death of their father. You don’t have to be a close student of Bollywood narrative conventions to guess that this will end, a couple-or-three hours later, with hugs and sniffles all around. But does the slog to the finish really have to feel this pro forma? Whether Ghai is craning around picturesque Prague or hang-gliding in the Austrian Alps — or cavorting with CG butterflies — his literal-mindedness weighs everything down. The superlative film composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) contributed both the achingly-romantic songs and the lush background score, lending the entire musical fabric an interwoven symphonic coherence — and thankfully at least one actor rises to the occasion. Anil Kapoor, who can be seen as Slumdog's autocratic quizmaster, and who has been wearing his heart on his sleeve in Hindi movies for almost 30 years, gives a beautifully simple, unmannered performance as the designated Yuvvraaj heir: the mentally disabled older brother Gyanesh, an autistic-savant musical prodigy and hapless innocent who everyone else is trying to swindle. When Gyanesh vocalizes ecstatically, in an improvised light-classical style that sounds like scat singing, the sense of his creative rapture is piercingly strong, perhaps because this wonderful actor is tapping into his own joy in performing. Top-billed leading man Salman Khan is effectively cast here as the middle brother, the callow Tom Cruise equivalent in this Rain Man variation, and toward the end he digs deep and comes up with an anguished spasm of regret that feels authentic. Maybe the acting bug is contagious. (Culver Plaza; Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)


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