BIG MAN JAPAN Hitoshi Matsumoto, one-half of a legendary Japanese comic duo, debuts as big-screen director/star with this goof on the rubber monster movie line, a special debt owed to Ultraman. Dai Sato (Matsumoto) is heir to a family of Big Men, homeland protectors who, under high-voltage electroshock, grow to apartment-block size and wrangle on television whatever rampaging cheapo CGI is threatening the peace. In Sato’s era — underpaid, ratings in the basement, geishas gone — this means dog-catching low-comic grotesques: a Cyclops with an eye dangling from its crotch, or publicly copulating behemoths. Life at normal size only adds to the indignity. Sato’s a distracted burnout with time-warp sartorial sense, intent only on stroking his hair out of his eyes. His wife has left him, taking his daughter and any prospect of a successor. His transformation ceremony takes place in a storeroom. His agent sells ad space on his torso. Sans secret identity, he takes the PR hits (and obscene graffiti) when Big Man slips up — the best bit involves mishandling an infant monster and resulting mawkish vigils. Between such shots of inspiration, Matsumoto’s mock-doc framework seems a lazy stock device, interviews playing more dead than deadpan and failing to exceed an over-familiar comic-pathetic attitude toward the lives of functionaries. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)
GO THE BROTHERS BLOOM Writer-director Rian Johnson’s movies are clever and soulful confabulations. The filmmaker, whose screenplays read like novels, serves up movies that could play like parodies: 2005’s Brick was his gumshoe-in-tennis-shoes noir about a slang-spouting baby Bogart on the hunt for his lady friend’s killer. Now comes The Brothers Bloom, a love story — two, actually — that flirts with the con-man movie clichés with which Johnson ultimately can’t be bothered. Which is just as well. The genre’s big game is played out, after all: In a confidence film, everyone is exactly who they say they are, even when they insist they’re not who you think they are, or something — aha! Johnson dispenses with that phony device up front; he doesn’t have an endgame gotcha up his sleeve and isn’t interested in making a puzzle to be solved. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are, from first scene to last shot, precisely who we think they are: lonely little fabulists who tell stories to find the joy that eludes them in “the real world.” When they’re boys, Stephen spins his profitable fictions to find his brother the perfect girl; in adulthood, he does it to land Bloom the love of his life, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), the Jersey heiress so wealthy and bored that she collects hobbies. Clearly, Penelope’s in need of an adventure, which Johnson provides, in a movie where affectation gives way to affection till it steals, well, only your heart. (ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark) (Robert Wilonsky)
MANAGEMENT Each new superfluous Jennifer Aniston rom-com is already met with low expectations, but add some overcooked, middlebrow Indiewood quirk (skydiving into a pool while being shot by a BB gun?) and you’ve got cinema’s purest shade of beige. Aniston doesn’t have to stretch a muscle as Sue, a traveling corporate-art salesperson staying in an Arizona motel, where she’s courted late at night by the owners’ man-child son, Mike (Steve Zahn). Awkwardly bringing her champagne and complimenting her ass, he nearly blows a fuse when she actually allows him to cop a feel. The next morning, en route to the airport, she inexplicably circles back and bangs Mike, and since they still have nothing in common, he follows her all over the country like some retarded puppy. Tape playwright-turned-director Stephen Belber’s debut is reminiscent of the gimmicky Audrey Tautou vehicle He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not— at least the first half, when the Amelie star pined romantically for a man who, as shown from his point of view later, thinks she’s a mentally ill stalker. Sure, this is a comedy, but even beyond Woody Harrelson’s broad turn as an ex-punk yogurt mogul, there’s something about Belber’s script that demands the romance be taken seriously. If that were possible, it would be more disturbing than sweet. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
NEXT DAY AIR Benny Boom built his reputation directing music videos and commercials, and his first feature, Next Day Air, falls somewhere between the blunt-force visuals of the former and the focus-grouped formulas of the latter. What’s being sold in this skeletally plotted story of a drug shipment gone awry is not a hip-hop star (though a couple of them appear) nor an energy drink, nor any debut directorial vision. Instead, Boom sells the viewer back to him/herself: “This is what you like,” the film’s mash of confidently broad laugh-lines, “lovably” repugnant characters, and abrupt plunges into violence suggest. The ensemble cast includes Donald Faison as a pothead deliveryman who mistakenly delivers a massive cocaine drop to two ineffectual thugs (Mike Epps and Wood Harris). When the Puerto Ricans next door start taking heat from their Mexican drug lord for the missing package, a sort of Keystone Cops sequence of events is set into motion. Except there are no cops, not much farcical energy, and none of the satiric edge it would take to pull off the film’s grim denouement. Next Day Air is a straight shot up the middle. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)
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NOT FORGOTTEN A thriller that wants to be taken seriously probably shouldn’t feature Borat’s hairy, rotund comic Ken Davitian in the role of a somber Catholic priest, but that’s just one of the problems affecting director Dror Soref’s off-kilter Not Forgotten. Mild-mannered banker Jack (Simon Baker) lives in a Texas border town with his new wife Amaya (Paz Vega) and his daughter Toby (Chloe Moretz), who clings possessively to the memory of her dead mother. When Toby goes missing during soccer practice, Jack suspects she’s been abducted, possibly as part of an elaborate payback for something he did in his mysterious past. Not Forgotten overcooks just about every ingredient in its narrative chile con queso, from the occasional flash-cut editing to that most desperate of dramatic devices: juxtaposing a quietly intense dialogue scene with the sound of a shrieking kettle boiling on the stove. But if the film’s first two-thirds are dreary and preposterous, give Soref credit for a truly — what’s the proper cinematic terminology? — batshit-crazy finale involving demented religious sects, ridiculously bloody face-offs and a gaggle of cross-dressing Mexican prostitutes. As with everything else in Not Forgotten, it’s impossible to call the closing stretches accomplished, but at least their feverish urgency elevates the material into the realm of the truly whacked-out, which is always preferable to dull incompetence. (Mann Chinese 6) (Tim Grierson)
THE SKEPTIC A TV-grade suspenser from the director of Dorian Blues, The Skeptic channels the spirit of Murder, She Wrote and 3-2-1 Contact’s Bloodhound Gang, following the star of Wings andPrivate Practice into an ostensibly haunted Victorian manse in order to watch him go through the obligatory motions of shedding his doubting-Thomas skin. Seeing is believing, but the aptly named Bryan Becket (Tim Daly) remains unconvinced even after a sexy-kooky psychic (Zoë Saldana) pinpoints the identity and beef of the ghost spooking his new house, probably because the woman’s incantatory methods ludicrously suggest the influence of Meg Ryan’s orgasm-faking spitfire. A mechanical compendium of antiskepticism clichés, right down to the obligatory post-realization upchuck, Tennyson Bardwell’s crazily overwritten script makes Becket a lawyer, so as to further emphasize the character’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt practicality, and unsubtly conflates the man’s supernatural disbelief with his lack of faith in his marriage. Though a few scary skeletons (and one doll) rattle in and out of the film’s closet, Bardwell is a slave to television lexicon, allowing Becket and his lawyer buddy (Tom Arnold) to brave the banter of shrill detective comedies, and framing his images with all the brio of your average Scarecrow and Mrs. King episode. (Music Hall) (Ed Gonzalez)
BROTHERS AT WAR “I always wanted to go to war,” novice documentarian Jake Rademacher announces at the start of Brothers at War. It’s presumably that kind of old-school thinking that’s led the conservative blogosphere to champion his film as the first worthwhile Iraq doc. Puzzled by the increasing distance between his brothers, both soldiers, and himself, Jake embeds in their units, tagging along for surveillance, house raids, crossfire, and sniper missions. Certainly, it’s a good thing that someone documented a group of decent, righteous soldiers with strong moral convictions doing the best they can, and I can’t fault Rademacher’s sincerity or intentions. I’ll go so far as to say that this is “fair and balanced,” insofar as the same soldiers praise the adrenaline rush of shooting someone in the head or kicking down a door (though Rademacher seems to think this is a good thing). I can, however, object to the bathetic, misty score and the endless close-ups of American babies to remind us “what we’re fighting for”—and to the filmmaker’s belief that support for our troops and support for their mission are one in the same. Just because Rademacher believes his film to be “non-partisan” does not make it so. (AMC Broadway Cinemas in Santa Monica) (Vadim Rizov)
THE NEW TWENTY In his sleek and accomplished debut film, writer-director Chris Mason Johnson tracks the lives and loves of a cadre of 29-year-old Manhattan college friends who betray themselves and each other by abusing the Big Three—sex, money, and drugs. At the center is Andrew (Ryan Locke), a lean, blond alpha-dog investment banker whose beautiful Asian fiancée (Nicole Bilderback) may be his match in the world of business. Among those circling this golden couple are Ben (Colin Fickes), who’s gay, overweight, and addicted to online sex sites (there’s a great moment when a trick comes over to Ben’s apartment and the two men reject each other on sight), as well as the drug-addicted Felix (Thomas Sadoski) and commitment-phobic Tony (Andrew Wei Lin). We have been here many times before (see 1966’s The Group), but Johnson and co-writer Ishmael Chawla have a light touch that keeps things from turning overly melodramatic. (No vases get thrown.) Supported by veteran New York actors such as Terry Serpico and Bill Sage, the strong ensemble of young actors create fully defined personas, thanks in large part to their director’s willingness to linger after a dramatic peak and observe the characters in private, take-a-breath moments. He’s got something, this guy, and although I’m surely overpraising The New Twenty, I’d hate to see a movie this ethnically and sexually diverse fade away on today’s dead-end gay release circuit. After all, for better or worse, every generation deserves its own St. Elmo’s Fire. (Laemmle Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)