Movie Reviews: Berkeley, The Heartbreak Kid, Lust, Caution

BERKELEY Because the story is set in the late ’60s, the grandeur of the title Berkeley leads us to anticipate something epic. What we have instead is a likable, well-acted slice of lyric nostalgia. Nineteen-year-old Ben Sweet (Nick Roth) is at UC Berkeley while it quakes with the ferment of Vietnam-era protest and potentially violent revolution, circa 1968 to 1970. At 87 minutes in length, shot on HD video, the film is essentially unpretentious. Writer-director Bobby Roth (The Boss’s Son, Circle of Power, Heartbreakers) has long specialized in films that are honest, realistic, and which (despite this critic’s initial resistance to Heartbreakers) abide solidly in the memory. He also has one reliable vice: He tends to smack his thematic and expositional points hard in the dialogue. “Ben,” a friend pleads with the hero, “it’s 1968. It’s Berkeley.” (Gotta say, I was partisan to much kindred adventure in my college days, but nobody ever, ever said to me, “F.X., it’s 1972. It’s CalArts.”) The clunk of such tin cans in the repartee harms Berkeley throughout, but when it comes to action and atmosphere (especially some funny and sensual scenes set in a shared house off campus), Roth’s gift for unlocking the best in each of his actors does bring those long-ago times to life. There nevertheless do remain scenes that strain our sense of suspended disbelief, such as when Sadie (Laura Jordan), Ben’s sexy and complex classmate, uncovers her breasts and asks him, “Did you know there are 543,000 troops stationed in Southeast Asia?” A friend of mine found this ridiculous — I found it just preposterous enough to have happened. (Sunset 5; One Colorado) (F.X. Feeney)

PICK COLMA: THE MUSICAL A year after premiering at Outfest, director Richard Wong and screenwriter/composer H.P. Mendoza’s exuberant, shot-on-DV micro-musical returns for a short engagement and, if anything, seems that much better in the wake of this summer’s listless Hairspray . The story is simple enough: Three recent high school graduates — aspiring actor Billy (Jake Moreno), gay-but-not-out-to-his-parents Rodel (Mendoza) and lovelorn party girl Maribel (L.A. Renigen) — contemplate their exit strategies from the titular San Francisco bedroom community while pining for somebody to love and, periodically, breaking into songs about everything from small-town anomie to crashing collegiate parties. When a movie is praised for having a vivid sense of place, that place is usually something exotic — the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia or the period Los Angeles of Chinatown . But no less notable, in its way, is Colma: The Musical ’s acute immersion into a fog-encrusted suburbia marked by more funeral plots than living residents, where In-N-Out Burger is what passes as fine dining: Is it any wonder Billy, Rodel, et al. can’t wait to escape? What the movie lacks in visual finesse it more than makes up for in joyous performances by a cast of unknowns and in Mendoza’s infectiously poppy song score, which puts most recent Broadway behemoths to shame in the simplicity of its arrangements and the cleverness of its lyrics. Among the standouts: the rousing sea shanty in which a barroom full of lonely singles bid adieu to past flames; and the musical-within-a-musical Friend Joseph , a sharp parody of the moribund musical-theater mainstays that Colma: The Musical  never risks becoming. (Sunset 5)  (Scott Foundas)

THE CIVILIZATION OF MAXWELL BRIGHT Given to misogynistic outbursts that border on the psychotic, Maxwell Bright (Patrick Warburton) is as unlikable as movie heroes come, yet director David Beaird insists there is Zen within this modern Neanderthal. In the kind of East-teaches-West plot scheme that Hollywood finds irresistible, Bright’s “civilization” comes in the form of Mai Ling (Marie Matiko), a Chinese mail-order bride who introduces Bardo to the beast. As late-stage cancer engulfs Bright’s body, Mai Ling deflects his tantrums by selflessly showering him with spiritual and sexual healing in what she considers an act of devotion to Buddha. Beaird wants to show the redemptive power Buddhism holds for even the most unredeemable people, yet one can’t help but read his film as an affirmation of the quick-fix spirituality Americans love: Remember, no matter how reprehensible your life’s work, you can always reach for dharma on your deathbed. (Obtaining a stunning geisha willing to wash your balls, on the other hand, is a stroke of luck that exists only in the film’s masochistic fantasy world.) Maxwell Bright’s truest moment comes not at its tritely tranquil finish, but when we catch our hero napping in the cheap casket he’s ordered in anticipation of his own death. “Buddha advised us to think on death and imagine our coffin,” encourages a serene Mai Ling as Bright pulls on a cigarette and stares dumbly into infinity. Despite all his efforts to refuse it, the savage stumbles on Zen in a blaze of pure boorishness. (Grande 4-Plex) (Sam Sweet)


 CROSSING THE LINE This isn’t the first time that British director Daniel Gordon has turned his documentary camera on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. His 2002 debut feature, The Game of Their Lives, told the story of the 1966 North Korean World Cup soccer team, while his subsequent A State of Mind chronicled the buildup to the annual, Kim Jong Il–exalting Mass Games. What sets Gordon’s new film apart, however, is its subject — a certain Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok, who, along with three other U.S. soldiers, walked across a heavily mined section of the DMZ and defected to North Korea in the early 1960s. Today, Comrade Joe has lived twice as long in Pyongyang as he did in America, is married with children (who speak Korean as their first language) and claims, as he smiles into Gordon’s lens with a mouth full of gold-capped teeth, to have no regrets about his fateful decision. Featuring equally remarkable interviews with some of the Korean People’s Army vets who arrested Dresnok upon his arrival in the DPRK and with the friends who knew Joe before he went AWOL, Gordon’s film reconstructs the story of a small-town Virginia youth, abandoned by his parents and bounced between abusive foster homes, who went looking for a father figure and found one — first in the U.S. military and then in the Honorable Leader Kim Il Sung. While it neither condones nor condemns Dresnok’s decision, Crossing the Line is surprisingly candid about how a man of Dresnok’s limited means may in fact have enjoyed a better life under communism than he would have in the land of the capitalist dream. Yet for all of Gordon’s intimate access, there are many things Dresnok is unwilling or unable to discuss, including his first North Korean marriage (to a European woman believed to have been kidnapped). So Crossing the Line, like its subject, remains a fascinating and frustrating enigma — a declassified government report still marred by redacted passages. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE Nine years after proffering her origin story, director Shekhar Kapur revisits Queen Elizabeth I, once more played by Cate Blanchett beneath towering wigs and a deathly pale visage, some 30 years after her ascendancy to the throne. Only now, England is on the brink of war with Spain’s King Philip II (Jordi Molla), who wants England reclaimed as a Catholic stronghold under the rule of Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). As though any of that matters: The audience should have a very hard time taking too seriously a film in which Clive Owen, as Sir Walter Raleigh dressed in baggy pantaloons, dangles like a romance-novel cover boy from a ship’s mast while the ocean laps him like a faithful hound. Halloween’s come early, and the kids who can’t get their hands on a Jack Sparrow costume might do well to see whether Target’s carrying a Sir Walter Raleigh outfit this year. Kapur’s original Elizabeth was no less a fanciful soap opera — Dynasty in Renaissance Fair drag, Dallas with a much fancier Southfork Ranch. But the sequel is considerably more garish and voluble. If Elizabeth was BBC stuff writ large, a history lesson made enchanting for soap fans, its successor is more like an Indian import — how is it these people don’t break into song or skip into a dance routine every five minutes, honestly? (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)

FEEL THE NOISE The “noise” referred to in the title of this inane uplift tale for teens, which was co-produced by singer-actor Jennifer Lopez, is the sexy, melodic sound of reggaeton, a fusion of reggae, hip-hop, electronica and salsa born in Jamaica in the 1990s. Its rhythms soothe Rob (Omarion Grandberry), a troubled Harlem teen and would-be rapper who’s sent to Puerto Rico to live with the father (Giancarlo Esposito) he’s never met. Rob snubs Dad but hits it off with his stepbrother Javi (Victor Rasuk), an amateur DJ with a killer track in need of a vocal. First-time screenwriter Albert Leon appears to have turned for music-industry insight not to his famous producer (who has no excuses) but to other music-themed movies (Mariah Carey’s Glitter, perhaps?). That would explain an unbearably trite third act in which the brothers, as well as Rob’s sexy girlfriend (Zulay Henao), are whisked off to Manhattan by a record exec who smells a hit in the boy’s one-song demo. Making his English-language debut, Argentine director Alejandro Chomski can’t do a thing with the American sequences, but he does find momentary grace in the dance clubs of San Juan, where the young know to close their eyes and let the music speak for them. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

THE FINAL SEASON Formulaic but not cynical, The Final Season has some sweet, thoughtful passages in what is otherwise just one more well-meaning inspirational sports movie. Based on true events, the film eulogizes the Norway Tigers, Iowa’s greatest high school baseball team and the pride of a town of less than 600 people. In the early ’90s, Norway’s school board opted to merge with a larger nearby city, dismiss the Tigers’ revered manager, Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), and essentially erase the team’s legacy of 19 state championships. In the school’s final year of existence, Van Scoyoc’s assistant coach, Kent Stock (Sean Astin), took the reins in the hope of leading the disheartened boys to one last hurrah. Directed by David Mickey Evans (The Sandlot), The Final Season will exasperate those who automatically roll their eyes at the mention of Field of Dreams or Hoosiers, and certainly the film relies on Midwestern small-town minutiae, underdog heroics and baseball worship. Evans does convincingly articulate how sports form the spiritual center of America’s neglected non–media centers, and baseball purists will appreciate the movie’s careful attention to the game’s rituals — particularly the simple pleasures of infield practice. But while Astin and Boothe lead a commendably understated cast, it’s ultimately The Final Season’s unflinching modesty that keeps the movie from transcending its own conventionality. Though a nice change of pace from the usual sports flick’s incessant rah-rah sentimentality, Evans and his film forget that you can’t win too many games if you don’t occasionally swing for the fences. (Citywide) (Tim Grierson)


FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO Though it opens with the cathartic spectacle of Anita Bryant getting a cream pie in the kisser and closes with an act of civil disobedience against Jim Dobson’s reprogramming outfit, Focus on the Family, Daniel Karslake’s documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So, is more human interest than agitprop. Four gay Americans — including Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson and former House leader Dick Gephardt’s daughter, Chrissy — are profiled in the context of their accepting, religious families. One, who was repudiated by her mother and consequently committed suicide, is memorialized. An embedded educational cartoon amusingly explicates current scientific notions of homosexuality. Two Harvard theologians are on hand to parse Scripture. And some scholars deconstruct biblical text: To call something an abomination is to call it a transgression of ritual law (that is, unkosher) rather than a mortal sin. Others point out that fundamentalists are highly selective, taking the Bible literally only when it suits them. But mainly the movie stresses the importance of unconditional parental love (itself a reproach to the notion of a cruel fundamentalist God). For this reason, For the Bible Tells Me So will find its real audience on DVD — it’s a movie to give to one’s folks. (Nuart) (J. Hoberman)

THE HEARTBREAK KID More of a remix than a remake of the Elaine May–directed 1972 original, Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s The Heartbreak Kid seeks to rekindle There’s Something About Mary’s critical and box-office magic by casting Ben Stiller as a newlywed sporting-goods salesman and newcomer Malin Akerman (a blond Diaz ringer with long, loping legs and a wide-open smile) as his errant bride. Leaving the Jew/shiksa conundrum of the original behind, here Stiller’s Eddie Cantor marries the marquee goddess after a brief courtship, only to find she’s a bit of a mess in the fine print. On their disastrous Mexican honeymoon, he meets salt-of-the-earth Southerner Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), clearly a superior option because — like Diaz in Mary — she likes sports, cracks jokes and presumably lacks his wife’s unseemly sex drive. Misunderstandings, misbehaviors, and the gloriously hit-and-miss upchuck humor of the Farrellys ensue. Some of the gags seem so desperate to shock that they’re just desperate, and the film ends about four times before it actually ends. The Heartbreak Kid is funniest when it leaves the body humor behind for something truly subversive: A sequence of Eddie’s repeated attempts to cross the Mexico-U.S. border with a bunch of illegals and get back home is wicked, ticklish and inspired — all of the things the Farrellys should get home to themselves. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

LAKE OF FIRE See film review and interview with director Tony Kaye.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL How painful to watch Ryan Gosling, one of the most elastic actors of his generation, smirk and gawp and grimace his way through Craig Gillespie’s smarmy little number about a pudgy Midwestern office drudge so terrified of human contact that the only, um, person he can bond with is a mail-order Brazilian sex doll. Lurking within the high concept is a Triggering Trauma so wasting (and banal) that it takes not only loving relatives (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) but a whole village of empathic Scandinavian stoics to sort him out, steered by a therapist played by Patricia Clarkson, giving her dry best shot to hoary old bromides like “It’s not a mental illness, it’s a form of communication.” In fact, as Six Feet Under writer Nancy Oliver ought to know, barking mad might have made a movie. Instead, Lars and the Real Girl wobbles in a slow, toneless no man’s land between mawkish and schmaltzy, while trafficking shamelessly in Heartland stereotypy, as strapping older ladies trudge through glumly shot wintry slush to knit around the fireplace while Lars plods obediently through the stages of grief. Gillespie has been roundly panned for Mr. Woodcock, but the positive buzz coagulating around this pandering rubbish may yet launch him on a glittering career of studio-indie pap. (AMC Loews Broadway; The Landmark) (Ella Taylor)


LUST, CAUTION Based on a 54-page short story by Eileen Chang, Ang Lee’s latest foray into forbidden love is as monotonous and disaffecting as Brokeback Mountain was gripping and immediate. It will be best known as the film for which Lee received the NC-17 rating, but its sex scenes are no more provocative or enlightening than those on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me. (In both cases, it’s amazing how something so cold is expected to generate so much heat.) Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the 1940s, Lust, Caution is a beautifully shot and painfully prolonged soap opera in which a Chinese actress with a patriotic theater troupe (Wang Chia-Chih, played by Tang Wei) enlists to kill the head of the secret police (Mr. Yee, played by Tony Leung), who is collaborating with the Japanese. Several years after the plot initially goes awry, Wang ingratiates herself into the Yee household, where she begins a torrid, often violent affair with Mr. Yee, for whom there’s a fine line between romance and rape. What Chang wrote about eloquently and succinctly — how love can corrupt the noblest intentions — Lee and his writers lose in translation. They’re so enamored of the details that they often lose sight of their leads, whose relationship is all but buried till 105 minutes into a movie better boiled down to half its running time. (Selected theaters) (Robert Wilonsky)

MANUFACTURING DISSENT Albert Maysles doesn’t trust Michael Moore’s documentary method. Errol Morris thinks Moore preaches to the choir. Christopher Hitchens thinks he’s an intellectual featherweight. Film critic David Gilmour thinks Canadian Bacon stinks. Rock critic Dave Marsh got gypped by him. Ralph Nader feels abandoned by Moore, who defected to John Kerry, not that it helped. The naysayers neigh on, but no one disapproves of America’s, er, most expansive populist than Canadian filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, who tailed Moore through several of his tours, subjecting him to the same treatment he gave General Motors honcho Roger Smith in Roger & Me while projecting their own sweet reasonability. Melnyk and Caine never scored the interview either, and there’s little to disagree with in the thumbnail portrait of Moore that emerges from this entertaining doc as a manipulative “holy roller” of the left with a ritzy lifestyle, a paper-thin skin, and a careless approach to the boundaries between fact and invention. Fair enough as far as it goes, but Moore has many supporters, only a sparse handful of whom bob up among the many resentful talking heads. Which makes indie-film guru John Pierson — who restores the baby to the bath water by pointing out that, asshole or not, Moore has been so right about so much — look like a very lonely, if appreciative, fellow. (Grande 4-Plex) (Ella Taylor)

THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING This slight, sloppy fantasy tale aimed at the Harry Potter fan club is based, ever so loosely, on a five-book series Susan Cooper started in the 1960s — specifically on the second volume, about an innocent sent on a quest for magical objects, for which Cooper won the Newbery Award in 1974. There will be no prizes this go-round: Director David L. Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge have crafted from Cooper’s complex mythology a bland and stupefyingly simple story absent the care of its creator. Fourteen-year-old Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig), an American living with his family in England, is enlisted by The Old Ones (among them Ian McShane and Frances Conroy) to find six trinkets that will fend off the impending Darkness, brought about by The Rider (Christopher Eccleston). The trinkets can only be found during Will’s travels through time, which look more like a couple of minutes spent on a studio back lot, as the filmmakers apparently didn’t have enough time, interest or dough to send the kid on a proper trip. From its less-than-special effects to its rushed ending, this whole endeavor is a lazy, wasted emasculation of a beloved series deserving of more thoughtful treatment. Guess they have four more books left to get it right. Oh, joy. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)


SLEUTH See film feature.

SUMMER ’04 As much a survey of contemporary German attitudes toward youth, aging, sex and class as a classic psychological thriller set against a deceptively serene summer idyll, Summer ’04 walks a fine line between compelling and camp. André (Peter Davor) and Miriam (Martina Gedeck) are a couple easing into middle age with their dignity and waistlines intact. Their seaside summer home is a family refuge even surly teenage son Nils (Lucas Kotaranin) can’t resist. This particular summer, however, Nils has invited his precocious girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde) to join them. When Livia begins spending time alone with Bill (Robert Seeliger), the swish young German-American shacked up nearby, Miriam and André dither over what, if anything, is to be done. Oddly loath to judge a 12-year-old, citing her right to privacy and the sovereignty of her decisions, the couple is mortified at the prospect of being thought “square,” though Miriam finally moves to pluck her nubile charge from what seems to be a pervy lion’s den. The ensuing scene, a deliciously loaded pas de deux between Bill and Miriam, marks a turning point in the film, as the methodically threaded high wires of tension slowly tighten, one by one. (Music Hall; One Colorado) (Michelle Orange)

TERROR’S ADVOCATE Anyone wishing to ponder the origins and fate of the European New Left, as well as the development of political terrorism, should rent The Battle of Algiers, catch Godard’s La Chinoise, and then go see Barbet Schroeder’s engrossing new documentary, Terror’s Advocate. Thirty-plus years after his docu-shocker Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder portrays another manifestation of political evil — rogue lawyer Jacques Vergès. A sometime communist most notorious for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, a.k.a. the Butcher of Lyons, Vergès claims to identify with the France of Montaigne and Diderot, but though he is the suave embodiment of Third World rage, there is a particular awful logic to his career. The son of a French father and an Indo-Chinese mother, Vergès was an anti-colonial activist whose student comrades included the future butcher of Cambodia, Pol Pot. As a young lawyer, Vergès was immersed in the struggle for Algerian independence — most prominently as the defense attorney for Djamila Bouhired, the real-life prototype for the female bombers in Battle of Algiers. Not altogether unromantic, Vergès married Algeria’s revolutionary heroine, then disappeared into the underground, only to re-emerge in the violent aftermath of the ’60s as an attorney for the West German zealots of the Red Army Faction and the world’s most wanted man, Carlos the Jackal. Terror’s Advocate is largely a mix of talking heads and archival footage, but as Vergès’ connections to Swiss neo-Nazis and Congo secessionists are explored, the movie becomes a fantastic international thriller. (Sunset 5) (J. Hoberman)

TYLER PERRY’S WHY DID I GET MARRIED? Tyler Perry makes movies for a hundred reasons, and a love of cinema doesn’t even make the top 99. He uses a camera pretty much as a recording device, as if afraid some of that fancy mise-en-scene might taint his message or screw up the stage material he’s road-tested so thoroughly. But at his best — when his vaudevillian shamelessness as performer and promoter collides with his messianic bent for melodrama — the artlessness of his movies serves an emotional directness as hard to laugh off as the glare of your minister. Either you buy the premise here — essentially The Big Chillin’, with four couples airing out their marriages over a snowy weekend in the Rockies — or you sit your ass in that chair and listen up anyway while Mr. Perry teaches you something. As the group’s sharp-tongued truth teller (basically the Madea role), Tasha Smith gets the harshest lines and the biggest laughs, while R&B diva Jill Scott (cast as a self-deprecating doormat) earns the whoops and hollers her Cinderella makeover incites. No, there’s not a microbe of subtlety, except in Malik Yoba’s performance as a quietly grieving parent, but the writer-director-producer-star would rather save your soul and your marriage than engage your aesthetics. That’s probably why every other line was greeted at my screening with a chorus of stern “Mm-hmms” and “Exactlys!” (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

WE OWN THE NIGHT Of a generation of filmmakers who all wanted to be the next Scorsese, James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards) was different: He wanted to be the next Scorsese, Christopher Marlowe and Georges de la Tour. That ambition seems little diminished in this, his third film in 13 years, set in his chosen milieu of outer-borough lowlife. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), the sybaritic manager of a Brooklyn nightclub, shuns his family’s NYPD legacy, and his father and brother on the force (Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg) resent his independence. The ’80s drug wars raging at full heat, both dealers and cops vie for Bobby’s cooperation; circumstance aligns him with the “good guys,” and an ironic tragedy of falling into grace sets into motion as his new sense of duty damns him to the solemn moral wilderness of law and order. Helpless with comedy, heavily reliant on melodramatic coincidence and out of step with all current cinematic vogue — the film received a divisive Cannes reception — We Own the Night finally resonates as a beautiful, dolorous nocturne. The closest thing Gray’s done to a commercial actioner, it also applies his genius for tone, aided by superlative sound work, to set pieces that throb with trauma: a tinnitus-soundtracked shootout and a rain-slick car chase set to the tempo of windshield wipers. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

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