AMERICAN ZOMBIE Recent films like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later presented zombies as the embodiment of suburban complacency and human hostility, while genre patriarch George Romero offered the zombie-as-mindless-consumer in his landmark Dawn of the Dead. Now, with American Zombie, director Grace Lee gives us the zombie-as-oppressed-and-invisible-minority. Lee plays an exaggerated version of herself in this mockumentary, which follows a pair of filmmakers as they shadow four zombies in an effort to infiltrate Los Angeles’ undead community. Lee’s high-functioning protagonists hold down menial jobs at offices and stores, and besides being plagued by tissue decay, they struggle with the same headaches we do: dead-end relationships, irritating roommates, creative dissatisfaction. Computers don’t exist in their lives (a convenience-store slacker publishes a Xeroxed zine, not a blog); Live Dead, the zombies’ annual desert festival, is meant to be a Burning Man stand-in, but its dirty dreadlocked attendees and Ani DiFranco–esque balladeers are more reminiscent of Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair. Even American Zombie’s social criticism seems drawn from an obsolete episode of MTV’s The Real World. Homelessness, AIDS and wage slavery are addressed, yet the Iraq war, the oil crisis and global warming don’t appear on Lee’s radar. The best zombie movies shock us into a realization about ourselves and the world in which we live, but how much can zombies teach us when their world so closely resembles 1995? (Sunset 5) (Sam Sweet)
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Argento flashes her come-hither stare.
GO BOARDING GATE There’s basically one reason to see Olivier Assayas’ self-consciously meta-sleazy English-French-Chinese-language globo-thriller Boarding Gate, and her name is Asia Argento. Argento’s Sandra — a Paris-based ex-hooker, erstwhile industrial spy, freelance drug dealer, and eventual hit lady — is introduced with her back to the camera and hair piled up, the better to display the “23” tattooed on the nape of her neck: She’s hot stuff. Sandra’s former lover, the capitalist swine Miles (beefy Michael Madsen), wants out of his import-export racket, and he wants Sandra back in his life. The pair embarks on a long conversation on who got off on what, during the course of which Sandra, being Argento, pokes the finger of one hand into her mouth while idly exploring her crotch with the other. There hasn’t been so insolent a bad girl since the late-’70s punk queen Lydia Lunch, or so bizarre a femme fatale since the pre-humanitarian Angelina Jolie. Boarding Gate returns to the jagged yet posh faux-vérité style that Assayas introduced in his last international thriller, 2002’s Demonlover; the film is a mélange of suave jump cuts, confusing close-ups and light-smearing action pans. But, unlike Demonlover, Boarding Gate has little new to offer, and Assayas’ attempt to hijack and import a strobe-lit, glass-shattering, Hong Kong–style chase-cum-shootout, complete with drugged drinks and interpolated karaoke, is disappointingly mediocre. (Sunset 5) (J. Hoberman)
FLAWLESS The CV of director Michael Radford is nothing if not a lesson in cultural diversity: Born in India to a British father and an Austrian mother, he studied at Oxford and has directed films in England, Italy (that Oscar-nominated trifle of tourist porn, Il Postino), Africa and the U.S., most of which would scarcely be missed were the world’s celluloid stockpiles suddenly requisitioned for an emergency guitar-pick shortage. Radford’s latest — a jewel-heist caper set in London and filmed in Luxembourg — is no exception. In an abortive comeback role, Demi Moore stars as the sole female executive at the fictional London Diamond Corporation, who, upon learning she’s about to get the boot, teams with a crafty cockney night janitor (Michael Caine) to empty the corporate vault of its 100-million-pound inventory. Rife with the lipstick traces of Inside Man, The League of Gentlemen (which it explicitly references) and countless other superior heist pictures, Flawless is the sort of movie that tends to get called “enjoyably old-fashioned,” except that there’s nothing enjoyable about it. The pacing is torpid, the plotting slack, and the performances utterly joyless — chiefly Moore, who seems so intent on being taken seriously that she walks through every scene with her face stretched into an expressionless mask, her lips pressed into a permanent pout. All of which is preferable to the movie’s nauseatingly P.C. save-the-world coda, so heavy-handed you expect Sally Struthers to greet you with a donation cup as you exit the theater. (The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Scott Foundas)
IRINA PALM Nobody can reduce tawdry material to doddering quaintness like the British, but this staggeringly inane joint effort of U.K., Belgian, French, German and Luxembourgian film financing represents a true coalition of the witless. With her dying grandson unable to afford life-saving treatment in Australia — so much for Michael Moore’s miracles of socialized medicine — a matronly middle-aged widow (Marianne Faithfull!) timidly answers a London sex club’s job posting. Dutifully divested of diva-hood, Faithfull is stationed at a glory hole with enough lotion to capsize Eliot Spitzer, instructed to polish every knob that pokes through. Voilà! She finds mad money, likely romance and newfound self-esteem, as so often happens with aging sex workers in the anonymous coin-op jerk-off trade. The whole ridiculous thing could serve as one of Lars von Trier’s lurid melodramas of female abasement, if director Sam Garbarski’s tone didn’t fluctuate between kitchen-sink miserabilism and the smirky archness of a Very Special Are You Being Served? — and if it weren’t such a pack of cozily sanitized lies. Except, of course, for the movie’s urgent warning about the hazards of “penis elbow.” (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)
JUST ADD WATER There’s really only one reason to check out Just Add Water, and it’s Dylan Walsh’s wistful, smiling-through-the-melancholy performance as Ray, a man so defeated by life that he can no longer muster any resistance to the daily humiliations he suffers at home and at his blue-collar job. After discovering duplicity in his own home, Ray shakes off the doldrums, goes after the woman of his dreams and finally stands up to the Neanderthal teen bullies in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, bracketing Walsh’s thoughtful performance is a depiction of small-town, working-class life that swims in both formulaic indie-flick irony and Hollywood condescension. Jonah (Superbad) Hill’s pause-laden, deadpan turn as Walsh’s virginal/depressed teen son — a minor variation on Hill’s patented performing style — is the embodiment of writer-director Hart Bochner’s perspective on his subject matter. Cheap, familiar shots at the diet, wardrobe and whiled-away days of the movie’s largely poor, white characters are balanced by thick slabs of sentimentality, especially in the subplot featuring the black ho with the ebonic name. Walsh nearly redeems the whole thing: His eyes flicker with an intelligence that isn’t in the script, and he graces his character with layers of inner life in a film that coasts on surfaces. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)
GO PARTITION British Columbia stands in for the Punjab, northern India, in all but a few sequences of Partition, a surprisingly effective Canadian production about a star-crossed romance between a staunch Sikh farmer (Jimi Mistry, from The Mystic Masseur) and a terrified, but surprisingly resilient, Muslim refugee (Smallville’s Kristen Kreuk) in the period of horror that followed Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The movie’s Romeo and Juliet approach is hardly novel: Recent Bollywood treatments include Yash Chopra’s earnest Veer-Zara (2004) and the brawny Punjabi action pulp of the Sonny Deol vehicle Gaddar: A Love Story (2001). Partition doesn’t add many new ideas to the mix, but the deep colors and complex textures supplied by Indian-born cinematographer-turned-director Vic Sarin seem to embody the intensity of his boyhood memories, and the movie avoids both sentimentality and cynicism. In a small supporting role as a ferocious anti-Muslim Sikh whose hatred begins to fall away, Irfan Khan (The Namesake) gives the sort of effortlessly authentic performance that can make the entire world of a movie feel more plausible. (Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)
PRAYING WITH LIOR This doc is a hardcore tearjerker; its subject is a boy with Down syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah. Lior Liebling enjoys leading others in prayer so much that he is known as “The Little Rebbe.” His mother died of breast cancer when he was 6, and director Ilana Trachtman milks the boy’s honest, simple sorrow for all it’s worth. Trachtman’s movie is not technically accomplished, but it’s redeemed by the deliciously complex, practically Balzac-ian family at its center. Lior’s father is a prominent rabbi who demands a great deal from Lior even as he adores him. Stepmother Lynne is devoted to Lior, but her place among the Lieblings seems precarious and hard-won. Lior’s siblings are thoughtful and frank about the challenges of living with their brother and longing for their mother. Everyone still reels from the loss of Devorah, whose fierce love for both her children and her religion dominates the film, almost against the family’s will. I would have liked to see Trachtman focus more on these dynamics and less on Lior’s sunny, prayerful disposition. He is undoubtedly a charmer, but Trachtman’s prodding, leading questions make the endeavor distinctly uncomfortable. At times, the film dances perilously close to painting him as a holy fool, rather than a boy who loves to pray and lives to please. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Julia Wallace)
PRICELESS Priceless begins as standard, unconvincing, assembly-line French farce and ends as a cop-out, feel-good rom-com. In between, it develops into something considerably more interesting. Audrey Tautou slinks off Amélie’s ghost as the unrepentant gold digger Irene — waif-thin and tits out — pissed that her partner/benefactor Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff) has fallen asleep drunk on her birthday. In the bar, she meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh) — splayed out on the couch, he seizes the opportunity to seem like a rich layabout rather than a bartender. A series of unconvincing events later, Jacques discovers Irene’s tryst with Jean, and then Irene discovers Jean’s own poverty. Jean ditches his job to follow Irene to Nice, allowing her to bleed him dry — for love on his part, revenge on hers — before he unexpectedly becomes a gigolo for Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam), a widow no less mercenary and exploitative than Irene’s series of men. Now colleagues in sexual survivalism, Tautou and Elmaleh give the lengthy middle passage a rancid fascination: Unlike American formula romances, which simply assume that glamour and riches come with the territory, co-writer/director Pierre Salvadori makes explicit how gold digging undermines both parties. Then everyone lives happily ever after regardless, which is even more cynical. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Vadim Rizov)
RUN FAT BOY RUN Actor-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s follow-up to the surprise hits Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz isn’t as quirky or distinctive as those earlier films, but it confirms that he’s one of the few comic actors working today who’s as adept at banana-peel pratfalls as he is at delivering brainy verbal wit. Pegg’s Dennis has never lived down the day, five years earlier, when he made a feverish 500-yard dash away from the altar — and his pregnant bride, played by the exquisite, if overqualified, Thandie Newton. The weight of that decision bears literally on him: He’s now a paunchy watchman at a posh lingerie shop. When his still-smarting ex takes up with an overachieving fitness nut (Hank Azaria, oozing self-satisfied smarm), Dennis wakes from his ever-say-die funk to declare he’ll run the same upcoming marathon as Mr. Right — in three weeks’ time. What flab Run Fat Boy Run has comes from the adipose prefab elements it’s lifted from inspirational-sports sagas and romantic-comedy clichés: As director, actor David Schwimmer doesn’t supply the sixth-sense timing or jittery visual panache that Pegg gets from his usual collaborator, Edgar Wright, which stifles the sight gags. But Pegg has staked out a peculiar slant on genre material that ventures beyond irony toward rehabilitation. And nobody plays blithe humiliation with more style. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)
GO SHELTER Zach (Trevor Wright) is a promising artist who turned down CalArts to stay in San Pedro and help his irresponsible older sister (played by the amazingly gifted L.A. actress Tina Holmes) care for her little boy. At the beach, Zach, who surfs as often as possible, reconnects with his best friend’s gay-novelist older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). The two start hanging out and eventually begin an affair, Zach’s first with a man. Like much of this impressive first film from writer-director Jonah Markowitz, Zach and Shaun’s relationship feels authentic and true; you can imagine them being together for a long time to come. Those seeking high drama may be frustrated with the low-key Shelter, but Markowitz has put his faith in small moments, like the little grin that suddenly plays across Zach’s face as he drives home from his first night with Shaun. Wright is a find, while Rowe may surprise those who dismissed him as a Brad Pitt look-alike when he first came to attention in Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. Here, Rowe displays new authority and confidence, as if lately he’s been looking in the mirror and seeing himself, rather than that other, more famous blond. (Sunset 5) (Chuck Wilson)
SHUTTER Toshio, that malicious, pale little boy from The Grudge, will follow you home with his pissed-off mother in tow and maybe rip your jaw off. Ringu’s watery witch Sadako will reach out from your TV set and paralyze you with her stare of doom. Megumi (Megumi Okina), the roving angry spirit at the center of Shutter, will shoot you icy looks from afar and ruin your wedding photos. Oh, and give you a shoulder cramp. Scared yet? Jane Shaw (Rachael Taylor, the blond-bombshell hacker from Transformers) sure is — so terrified that she occasionally forgets she’s supposed to have an American accent. And yet, if the ghost never actually hurts her, why should we care? A newlywed in Japan alongside jet-setting photographer hubby Ben (Joshua Jackson), Jane first encounters Megumi on a lonely country road, and in several visions and blurred photos thereafter ... but nothing really happens until about an hour into the movie, by which point it isn’t long before the inevitable series of fake-out endings and obvious “twists” kick in. Ostensibly a remake of a Thai film — by a Japanese director with a Hollywood cast — Shutter plays more like a video copy of The Ring that’s become so degraded that all the good bits are no longer visible. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
STOP-LOSS Click here for the full-length review by Scott Foundas. (Citywide)
SUPERHERO MOVIE Director Craig Mazin has delivered a groundbreaking, whip-smart comic-book spoof that deftly deconstructs the genre without relying on surface-level parody: It’s called The Specials, and it came out nearly eight years ago. Superhero Movie, which is only Mazin’s second directorial effort, is everything his first film wasn’t: predictable, flat, full of name-dropping, tragically unhip, and likely to make a decent amount of cash. Drake & Josh’s Drake Bell stars as Rick Riker, a hapless Tobey Maguire wannabe who gets bitten by a genetically enhanced insect and becomes the Dragonfly; what ensues is a silly Spider-Man spoof that’s ironically less witty than Sam Raimi’s source material. Note to the screenwriters: It’s clear you think that jokes ending in the words “MySpace,” “YouTube,” and “Wikipedia” are automatically funny, but it just ain’t so. The best that can be said for Mazin is that he’s still a step up from the demonic duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie), and Superhero Movie does deliver a small handful of laughs, mostly thanks to the presence of Jeffrey Tambor as a whacked-out doctor. But our standards for parody should be higher than this. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)
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GO TOWARDS DARKNESS Towards Darkness purports to expose the scourge of kidnapping in Colombia by reveling in the tropes of the jittery, time-leaping, turbocharged action thriller — call it The Bourne Opprobrium. The debut feature of writer-director Antonio Negret tells us something of the practical, psychological and economic dynamics of this demoralizing South American growth industry; also that he can stage one hell of a car chase. The film (shot on video) starts with a bang — handsome José (Roberto Urbina) smashed upside the head, blindfolded and dragged through the jungle — and it keeps on banging, crosscutting in flashback among a dizzying network of subplots (rogue ex–FBI agents, shady banking schemes) and stylistics (montage! montage! montage!). Bang goes the climax too, before resolving in the bleakest of whimpers. Admirably tough-minded if overstuffed, Towards Darkness delivers on its foreboding title. And Negret, I suspect, will deliver on this promising debut. (Music Hall) (Nathan Lee)
21 Click here for the full-length review by Robert Wilonsky. (Citywide)
GO TYLER PERRY’S MEET THE BROWNS Prolific filmmaker-mogul Tyler Perry’s fifth feature since 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman (his sixth is already scheduled for a September release) is surprisingly half-decent — surprising because Perry’s not about to switch up his hardly revelatory but consistently bankable box-office signature: African-American familial drama, complete with soapy romance, broadly farcical supporting roles, and motivational Christian principles. Finding a positive, progressive tone in what would ordinarily be played as woe-is-me melodrama, Meet the Browns is the story of single mother-of-three Brenda (Angela Bassett, the film’s soul and highlight), an inner-city Chicago woman of tireless integrity, who remains strong even after being laid off: “One thing a black woman know how to do is make it.” Keeping her head up when she and the kids travel to Georgia to attend her long-estranged father’s funeral, Brenda makes earnest efforts to refuse handouts from the eccentric extended family she’s just gained — as well as romantic advances from the amateur b-ball scout (Rick Fox) who may or may not want to cash in on her talented son. Unlike Diary, the drama here is buoyant enough to handle the contrast of its too-silly slapstick; Perry’s pot-smoking granny Madea only turns up in cameo, fortunately, but David Mann’s leisure-suited buffoon Leroy may be too shrill for those Perry has yet to convert. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
GO WETLANDS PRESERVED About halfway through Wetlands Preserved, an appropriately mellow chronicle of a Tribeca nightclub’s life span, music writer Richard Gehr declares that there is no good nostalgia. While I don’t agree, director Dean Budnick’s lope down memory lane occasionally errs on the side of bad nostalgia. That is to say, it’s a boutique documentary whose ideal audience is so tightly knit that they probably already know all about, say, the time the Spin Doctors broke the Blues Travelers’ drinking record. But the Wetlands Preserve, which nursed those acts in their early days, also offers a classic New York Story. Founded by a Deadhead dreamer named Larry Bloch in 1989, Wetlands was part music scene, part “social-justice activist center.” From the VW bus parked inside to the recycled matchbooks, Bloch mingled his hippie ethos with a love of improvised music and community. That love was challenged when the neighborhood changed into one that didn’t dig endless solos and pee-stained streets. Cue Giuliani’s martial law enforcement, the sale of the club to a sympathetic postgrad whippersnapper, and the ruthless condo revolution. Wetlands closed in 2001, and while late-lamenteds like CBGB and the Cedar Tavern may have a more storied lineage, the fate of Bloch’s club is a wistful reminder of how rare a come-one, come-all scene is in an increasingly exclusive Manhattan. (Grande 4-Plex) (Michelle Orange)